The other day I had lunch with the Devil to start design on a new GPS inventory system for our household items. With it, a misplaced passport or a sweater that’s been packed away can be located in a snap. By typing in the missing item’s ID, such as k-e-y-s, the location coordinates will pop up on an LED display. It’s going to be terrific. I’m going to tie it up with a blue ribbon and give it to Steve on his birthday.
Steve is the love of my life. He’s oh-so-very handsome. He has a clever mind, a sharp wit; and, he’s got skills too, lots of them - but, he has a problem. Stephen suffers from a weird neuromotor condition that obstructs his ability to locate objects spatially. In other words, Steve can never seem to find his stuff.
When he loses something Steve storms around the house like a rhino on crack.
The cats scatter. The dog cowers.
“Where’s that flash drive I brought home last week?” he’ll ask, to whom I haven’t the faintest idea. The pets never answer. Neither do I.
“Have you seen it?” He’ll repeat after tracking me down. “The flash drive…it was sitting on the banister.”
I haven’t seen it. I also haven’t seen his socks, his wallet, his phone or his keys.
“I know I set it at the bottom of the stairs,” he’ll tell me, fully expecting me to walk back with him to that spot so we can stare at the empty space together.
I would like to believe that this deranged routine is an attempt to prompt his enfeebled brain; but the tone of his voice sounds more like an indictment. The thing is, Steve is not only convinced of where he puts a thing; he’s also more than a little suspicious that I’ve come along and moved it.
Chances are the flash drive has fallen on the floor of his car or he’s left it on his desk back at work but this will never cross his mind. The crux of his disorder appears to be complete mystification. He has absolutely no idea where he sets his stuff and he hasn’t a clue about where he picked it up from to begin with. So, there is nothing I can say to make him believe I didn’t move it. Even if we find the thing, he’ll still blame me.
“Well, you’re always cleaning up…” he’ll grumble as if this were a crime in a full fifteen states.
Steve’s not being thickheaded, I remind myself. It’s the disease.
“Everything has a place,” I explain to Satan. He nods from across the table. I take in a deep breath and puff it out in an exasperated sigh. “You know, towels go in the linen closet, silverware in the cutlery drawer…” my hands fall open on the table, “pretty basic stuff.”
The Devil lowers his head and sorts through the breadbasket. His eyebrows knit together.
“Yeah, I’ve seen your house,” he agrees, selecting a piece of focaccia, “you do have a place for everything. Every - Single - Thing!” he stabs the air with his bread after each of these last three word.
“Well, thank you,” I beam. “Things are pretty well organized. Even little things have a spot. Steve just needs to pay better attention. Easy as that.”
“Easy peasy,” Satan says, chewing the focaccia. He picks up the menu and studies the entrées. I stare out the window. A little green bird flits past and then circles back to peck a discarded orange peel.
The devil glances up. I meet his gaze.
“You should tell him to look in his office,” he says flatly.
We lock eyes. Neither of us moves for a beat – then we crack up.
I cross myself twice and spit.
Stepping into Steve’s office is like finding yourself in one of those ornamental maze gardens in Europe – only with hedges that have been cut by a sleep-deprived stroke victim. A hundred random cables and computer parts are strewn around the room, enough to build an army of robots with spare parts left over. Stacks of software and documentation, magazines and old mail litter the shelves, desk and floor. The clutter is ankle deep like Enron once the shredding got started. His office imposes on you like it might suck you into it forever. I’m reminded of a trip we took to Viet Nam. We visited Halong Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin where there are a thousand small islands dotting the waters, cavernous formations that change shape in the mist and light so you seem endlessly lost from the moment you arrive. Steve’s office is like that.
“Maybe his mind is organized the same way,” I shudder.
Satan makes a grave face. “Perish the thought.”
“Really – I worry. Just this morning Steve started in. ‘Have you seen my belt?’ he asked, but it wasn’t really a question. He just stared at me with this expression like ‘I know you’ve put it somewhere’.”
“Detective Stephen Clouseau - on the job,” the devil cackles.
“Right! He pointed to the closest and then just glared at me – like the empty hook proved that I had put it somewhere.”
The devil shakes his head sympathetically.
“Of course eventually he found the belt – still looped in the pants he wore yesterday.”
“Seriously?” the devil asks. “Ha!”
“The thing is, he won’t remember it the next time he can’t find his belt.”
“He’s obviously deranged,” the devil concludes, brushing a small crumb from his lapel. He returns his attention to the menu. “Do you want to share an appetizer?”
“He’s like a colorblind man who stares directly at a bright red ball and thinks it’s green; only with Steve, he’ll look at an object a hundred times in the same location and never actually see’s where it’s sitting.”
“He sounds like a moron,” the devil says.
“I don’t want to judge.”
“Well, he obviously has a mental impairment.”
“Obviously,” I agree. “Mind you, I’m not complaining,” I wave my hand back and forth like a windshield wiper on a car.
“Oh no,” the devil says, “not you!”
“I just want to help, you know?”
“Really kid, you are too kind, ” Satan smiles. “Oh look, they have foir gras.”
The devil catches our waiter’s eye at the far side of the restaurant and waves him over, then leans across the table. “It all sounds excruciating,” he commiserates.
“Well that’s love, right?” I say, forcing a brave smile.
Outside another bird, brown with white tail feathers, stops to sample the citrus rind.
“You know, I think it must be some kind of a sorting problem,” I say, watching the bird reject the peel and fly away. I lay my napkin across my lap and look back up at Satan. “Everything just goes in a heap. Like his clothes – he just drops them, dirty or clean, in a pile on the floor. The same with receipts, keys and loose change – everything just gets dumped wherever unloads his pockets.”
The devil pats my arm consolingly.
“And then you have to sort it all out, don’t you dear?”
“What are you going to do?” I shrug. The devil returns the shrug.
Our waiter arrives, bowing slightly, ready to take our order.
I look up and smile.
“I guess we should start with champagne,” I say half to the waiter, half to Satan.
“Well, it is a working lunch,” the devil agrees.
In unison we sing-song to the waiter, “Write-off!” The devil is such a fun lunch partner. He orders for both of us: foie gras to start and two butter-poached lobsters with caviar for our main fare.
The devil looks over to me with his eyes raised. I nod in agreement, my hands opening wide - whaddayagonnado.
The waiter brings our Cristal and pours. He leaves the bottle in a silver bucket by the side of the table. Satan leans in on his elbows.
“You know,” he says, raising one brow, “I’ve had a brainstorm. Perhaps we should install an alarm in this little apparatus – a really loud one - to help Steve out, of course?”
“Huh!” I consider. “Good one, D.”
We flesh out the idea a little more as we eat our lobster and decide on including a shrill pulsing siren as a little extra incentive. Say Steve has finished his coffee and leaves his mug on the edge of the tub – within 20 seconds a high-pitched reminder will sound on his cell phone, like a really loud car alarm, repeating every three seconds or so until the matter is resolved.
He is going to be so pleased with my thoughtful gift. I’m certain of it. I can’t wait.
Personally, I do like things to be ordered in particular ways. Just the other day I arranged the pantry so each item of food would sit behind its own colorful illustration. So say you want a bowl of cereal, now you can easily find it by the picture of a Cheerio’s box taped to the cabinet door. Our trail mix sits behind a snapshot of a squirrel holding a nut and the chicken soup is stacked behind a Warhol print. I had all the pictures laminated at Kinko’s.
I don’t think its obsessive. There are people whose entire careers are dedicated to organizing closets after all. I know I can get a little jumpy when things aren’t just so but to my nervous system clutter feels like lemon juice on a cut. I do not think that I lean to the anal side of RainMan as someone once suggested.
I know not everyone shares my aesthetic for order. Maybe they’re jealous. I can’t be sure, but I’ve personally witnessed some pretty harsh reactions. Once after a few cocktails Steve and my so-called friends decided to move things around before I got home. Later I found out they’d made bets on how long it would take me to change the displaced items back to their original spots. I for one don’t see the fun of watching someone slog around the house re-aligning candlesticks and replacing photos that have been changed out for porn but they thought it was hysterical. Cheap thrills at my expense, if you ask me.
So is it OCD on my part or does Steve have an apraxia of sorts? Difficult - but since only one of us has the credentials to make clinical diagnosis...
The world is a complex place. If we didn’t organize what was around us, we’d have to respond brand new to every object and event like it was novel each time. We’d never get out of the house in the mornings and even if we did, traffic would be god-awful.
By arranging order from chaos our world is less overwhelming, By chunking information life becomes more predictable. For example, we grouped animals into reptiles, fish and mammals. Mammals have then been divided to differentiate people from dogs from apes. The groups feel absolute but that’s just because we use them all the time. Classifications are kind of like logos from so long time ago they have imprinted our brains. We recognize a strong brand automatically and that gives it credibility. But, there’s a lot of room for subjectivity in our categories. After all, as humans we share close to 98% genomic identity with chimps.
One thing I’ve noticed is that in the midst of chaos and ambiguity you can usually find my friend, Lucifer B. nearby stirring that pot. I brought this observation up one night when we were out. The evening had started well enough. We’d been having some laughs at a place downtown we liked to go. But after a few drinks the devil’s mood took a turn. A discontent came over him like a shroud.
“People wouldn’t get on so well without me,” the devil sulked.
The devil becomes petulant now and again - but, whatever. His company suits me. Plus he gets us into all the cool clubs.
“It’s always the same,” Satan brooded. “God gets all the glory.”
He dropped his head low over his glass and stared into the amber liquid.
I must say, regardless of his funk the devil always manages to look great. When I’m down I resemble a B-movie zombie; but the devil can really pull off nihilism. He somehow affects a kind of disheveled elegance that lends an air of mystery and danger. I studied him for a moment trying to figure out how he does it.
The devil lifted his gaze to the back mirror. He exhaled and nudged his fedora slightly forward, shading his eyes.
“Why am I persecuted for God’s reckless ideas?” the devil asked. He gave me a half-cocked smile that was meant to be good-natured, but I know brutally when I see it. It raised the hairs on the back of my neck. His teeth had a sharp and slightly predatory look although in the lighting under the glass bar top they gleamed white as whole milk. His skin was so smooth it made me want to touch it, the way you want to touch Michelangelo’s ceiling because you can’t believe its real.
“It must be annoying,” I said, trying to see his side. “To be so misunderstood, I mean.”
“That’s an understatement,” the devil shot back. “God can be a vengeful asshole.”
He lifted his glass and drank deeply, setting it down on the bar with a crack.
“So the deal with your rep then,” I wondered aloud, “you think God’s actually behind it?”
“Well no, not completely,” Satan admitted, picking the cashews and Brazils out of a bowl of mixed nuts. “People do all kinds of stupid things without really thinking them through.” He shrugged coolly, popping nuts from his fist. “Then, they blame me for the way they turn out.”
“Huh,” I said. I took a final drink from my glass of Patron and licked the salt crystals that stuck to my lips from the rim. Lime juice from the wedge sluiced over my tongue. “I guess you are a pretty convenient alibi.”
“Precisely!” Satan pounded the bar with his fist. “I’m an easy out.” His ferocity made the bartender look over. The devil pointed to my empty glass. “Also, I get blamed for a lot of the nitty-gritty I have absolutely nothing to do with - disasters…sickness…droughts. God created all that crap. He even created evil, right. So me? I’m really just his fall guy.”
Satan tossed back the tequila left in his glass and picked up his lime slice. His eyes burned like hot pitch.
“Wow,” I said, “that sucks.” I felt bad for him. Being famous has advantages but D. says it can be vicious too, having people define you by their own expectations. I wanted to cheer him up.
“You do get great perks though. Eternal life. Tropical climates. And really, nobody hosts a better party than you D.” The devil really knows how to put on a show. “You always have amazing food, the finest wine and, the entertainment? Well, you know. It’s unrivaled.”
Satan smiled shyly.
“It’s true, D.,” I said, playfully jostling him with my shoulder. “You’re the shit.”
“Well, thanks,” he blushed, “you’re too kind. Really - I just give people what they want.”
We sat quietly as the bartender refilled our glasses.
Was it all our own projection, I wondered? That couldn’t be true. Certainly evil exists. It’s tangible – it’s a force.
“So D.,” I asked, kicking his stool with the toe of my boot, “what about things like prejudice? That’s your doing, right? Stereotypes and discrimination…”
The devil turned his body to me suddenly. He thrashed his open palm forward, up close up to my face, making a gesture for me to stop talking.
“See, that is exactly the kind of thing that gets my back up,” Satan hissed. He knocked my foot from his chair roughly. A trickle of fire leaked from the corner of his mouth. For a moment he gave the impression of a horrible beast.
The bartender brought us a free round of drinks.
Satan took in a deep breath and released it. He pushed back his hat and shook his head, laughing with the smugness you betray when you just can’t believe how stupid people can be. As he eased up, I realized I’d been holding my breath. I let it go too in a long, slow exhalation.
“People are responsible for bigotry, not me,” he finally said. He straightened his back and leaned over, placing a warm hand on my shoulder. He squared me with his steel blue eyes.
“Don’t you think I am busy enough with the big things?” he said. “You know - greed, envy, sloth…” he shook his head again and sat back, letting his hand fall gracefully in a spindly S motion. “There’s plenty to do keeping those things in circulation…what with the environmental movement – ‘Everything’s connected’ and all that.”
The devil pushed back his stool and let his legs hit the floor. He stretched his arms widely. A luscious amber musk permeated the air. Everyone in the room, men and women, inclined their heads slightly toward him.
“Really? Exploitation is our doing?” I asked. “That’s surprising. It just seems fundamental, and so - evil.”
“It’s like I said,” the Devil lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug drop. “I give people options. It you guys that come up with the granularity of the dreck.”
He lifted his chin up and sniffed the air like he’d caught the scent of something feral.
“Really, you guys are amazing. I couldn’t keep it all going without you.” Satan smiled with a genuine regard.
I nodded affably and returned the smile. I figure when a compliment is offered, it ought to be taken.
“A lot of times, people just don’t think,” he continued. There was a faint smell of sulpher at the edge of his musk. “It’s easier to chunk things into groups than to consider individual points of view.”
“So all those ‘-isms’ are what? Expedient?” I felt a little sick. I couldn’t tell if I’d had too many drinks or I needed another.
“Yeah, kind of tactical you might say. Of course, there’s also fear,” Satan appended. “And fear, I should tell you, well, that’s mine.”
He shimmered with pride.
“That’s a good one,” I winced.
“A toast,” Lucifer’s mood brightened. He wrapped his great hand around the glass of Patron and raised it high.
"As an old student of mine once said, ‘Our strategy is to destroy the enemy from within, to conquer him through himself’."
The devil upended his drink. His eyes twinkled with nostalgia.
I drank my tequila and blotted my mouth with a napkin, trying to absorb these new sentiments. The drink had steadied me but my head was still spinning.
“Sometimes it’s all such a cinch. You know, you guys spook pretty easily,” he said. “If you take fear and add a little charisma and propaganda, well that Point - Game – Match.”
“I guess we find security in what we know, if that’s what you mean,” I responded, perhaps a little defensively. “But, isn’t that just human nature - to be afraid of what we don’t understand?”
“Precisely,” he agreed. He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out calfskin dart wallet. He stood up and walked to a small VIP area across the room. I followed. Satan unclasped the braided rope and let it drop. Inside was like a very nice living room. Against one wall sat a deep leather sofa. Next to the couch was a mirrored table. A reserved sign sat on the top. Satan put his drink on the table, along with the dart case. He walked forward a few steps and closed one eye taking aim with his dart at a target on the wall.
“You guys lump people into the most convenient category,” he continued. “I simply work with what you give me.”
His dart split through the air and hit the bull’s eye with a thunk. Satan held his hand out with another dart from the case, motioning for me to take a turn if I’d like. I declined, shaking my head and settled back on the couch to finish my drink. I know better than to play darts with the devil. D. is my friend and a celebrity and all, but still, the devil cheats. Everybody knows that.
In graduate school I learned a special taxonomy for categorizing mental aberration. Arguably it provided us a common language for how moods and behaviors cluster; but we memorized those syndromes as if they were elements on the periodical chart. Like they were solid, real facts. What I learned from the devil that night is there is no actual system. We all get sad and strange from time to time. Groups may be normative but individuals are, well – individuals and we make up our own way of dealing with chaos.
It’s easy to believe is that my way doing things is the right way. It drives me crazy when Steve leaves his stuff around the house or doesn’t close the drawers and cabinets after making a sandwich in the kitchen. But I also notice that the little messes don’t get under Steve’s skin the way they do with me. He see’s a different picture. I’ll bet it’s a good one.
I used to complain - I wanted Steve to be meticulous like I am. I’d get angry and bicker. Then one Christmas Steve had to be away on business. It was lonely. But it was clean. Everything was in its place and all the cabinets were closed. It was so depressing.
I longed for the chaos and for more time to be tender.
Everyone has their own ways. Maybe the ways people have are not so much better or worse as they are just different. Having control can be empowering but it can get in the way. Perhaps the opposite of control is not always disorder. I think sometimes the opposite of control might be compassion.