The man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain in the congregation of the dead. — Proverbs 21:16
WATCHING AN ANCIENT DEMON RETURN to take control of someone you love, and begin to kill them slowly with euphoria is a hard witness to bear alone. Watching someone you love return to the addiction they left a decade before with all its insane compulsions and obsessions and destructiveness is confusing and disorienting. They’ll all say you have no power to stop it, but that cannot be true.
Surely somewhere in the mountainous library of studies written about the Demon there’s a magic spell, an incantation, a potion, a pill, a recipe for rescue. You find yourself, as you always have, turning to books where, most certainly you’ve told yourself, all answers lie. But this particular library is, you will find when you go there, vast, unmapped and illuminated in the manner of Milton’s Hell,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round,
As one great furnace, flamed; yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible,
and the card catalog has long since been ripped from the drawers and scattered madly about the floor by others seeking the same secret. Still, I stumbled about blind in this dark place which held no braille, nor could I have read it if it had.
I felt the fear that cavers feel when, in a tight space far below the surface, their helmet lights fade and die and the weight of absolute darkness presses hard all around their bodies. What I needed then was not The Book with The Secret — somewhere in those endless shelves it may well exist — but a guide to get me out. And for a reason I do not yet comprehend but hope to, a guide was sent to me.
He was one of the roughs, a hard-working man of America and he held a dark lantern — an ancient device in which the light within is either concealed or revealed by means of a sliding panel. He did not know me at all, but he did know himself as he walked out of the night in a small town up by the Canadian border. He didn’t know my story but he did know his story and that, at rock bottom, it was not that different at all from mine.
His dark lantern didn’t light up the place where I was lost in some shattering burst of illumination, but instead — by sliding the panel back and directing what little light he held towards the exit, we were in time to find ourselves outside the black library and sitting in that most common of American spaces, a small town coffee shop where I could, at last, see what he looked like.
The waitresses all knew him. It seems he’s been guiding people out of the dark for some time in this town, and the ladies understand what he’s doing when he shows up with yet another shattered pilgrim like myself. They put us in a booth at the back, refilled our mugs for free, then went away and let us talk far past closing time.
He was a carpenter by training and by trade. About my age but without any of the soft edges that I’ve either always had or more recently acquired. His hands were scarred and had the flattened nails and tips the fingers get from too many encounters with boards, hammers and the other daily hazards of the job.
You could see that his face, when angry, would have been sharp, vulpine and cold, but he no longer had any anger in him. That had been burned out long ago or stored in a vault over which he kept a careful, constant guard.
His hair and mustache had faded to gray and his skin and body had the look that decades of working outside in all weathers gives you. He was a man’s man and a good man. But, as he was about to tell me, that had not always been so.
First, he sat and listened long to my sad little pathetic story as he had I’m sure listened to hundreds of others. I won’t bother with the details of that story now, but save it for a time when it no longer seems so ordinary and boring to me as, at the end of this week of telling it over and over, it does now.
Instead, from the hours of talk that followed, I’ll try to give you a sense of his story and the path that led him to the small town coffee shop deep into that April night. Listening to him tell it was like watching him work his dark lantern. A panel would slide aside and the light would come out for a bit and then it would slide slightly back dimming the details. I only heard it once and I didn’t get it all. As a writer, I should have made notes, but I wasn’t a writer in that night, just someone grateful to have been guided out of a labyrinth. What I remember now is…
He’d always had a hardscrabble existence from a childhood that, if it wasn’t in the logging town we were in, was in some other place where logging was scattered all around and the railroad trains never stopped moving over the rails in the center of town. His family all had the Demon inside them because that was, in the end, what they had if they didn’t have God. Sometimes they had the Demon right alongside God in the primeval co-existence that’s furnished the human soul since the beginning. They lost no time in making sure, by hook or by crook, that he got his own personal Demon as a present from his town and his family along about the time he entered puberty.
Because everyone around him had and liked their Demon, there was no reason for him not to like it. Indeed, his Demon, it seemed at the time, was a lot of fun and the fun just got better as he got older.
True, he saw other members of his family and his friends in the small town go down under the Demon. Their lives went to the standard stops on the road — fist fights, knife fights, job loss, crime, rehab, jail, prison or, at any time and age you might care to imagine, death by natural or unnatural causes. Lots of friends and family members went down over the years, but he was, he told me, always a bit tougher, smarter, cagier, sharper, quicker, more charming, and more ruthless. He was “the special personal exception” and he rode the Demon. It was never going to be the other way around. Until, of course, it was.
It rode him long before he knew it. It always does. By the time he knew that it had reversed roles and taken the saddle, he’d become used to being ridden and so he galloped on ever deeper into the darkness.
By that time it had been 20 years of life with the Demon and all its assorted friends. One Demon is never, it seems, enough if others are around. When they were, it was no longer just the Demon and him, but a party in his body.
Other bodies came in and out of the party over the years. Some he used and some used him, but it was always a using. They used him for fights and for other things of even lower degree. He got so it was not a question of how low he would go, but if he could find a way to go lower.
He moved the slide aside on the dark lantern:
“I don’t remember everything because I either can’t or it was so horrible God has, with His grace, removed the memory from me. I do remember some things. I remember lying on a filthy bed somewhere in Mexico. I had a bottle of Cuervo empty on the table next to it and another one full and ready to go. I had my pistol on the floor. There were a lot of lines of coke still waiting to be snorted. There was an old whore working me on one side while my other arm cradled my infant daughter. I’d wedged a chair under the knob of the locked door so I wouldn’t be interrupted. I hated interruptions.”
He moved the slide back and closed the dark lantern.
He told me other things, the full catastrophe. About how he lost it all — house, job, money, business, health, love, freedom. About how his family either left or took on a Demon or two from him. He told me about some jail time. He indicated but did not tell me about worse things.
He told me about the women he’d been with, about the Demons they carried and the dark places they’d been ridden. Down, always down, under the relentless riding and the unremitting tug of the heavy gravity that the deep realms of degradation always emit. He told me how he’d learned to spot the ones that wanted to be used the most, and that he’d take them up on it, and be sure to take them deeper than they thought they could go. The slide on the dark lantern moved often as he talked.
“It’s easy to go to these dark places around here,” he said. “When winter sets in there’s nothing else to do. But I’ve also found it’s just as easy to go there in Chicago, so what do I know?”
He was a strong man and his Demon used every bit of it until to pull others into Its thrall, until at last it used him up. As It often does, the Demon took him at the end of the ride down towards an ugly death, the kind that happens in clapped-out broken trailers, or cheap hotel rooms with a bare light bulb. Not exactly where he found himself, but close enough. At which point, he was — for no good reason that he could ever think of — saved and slowly returned to life.
“Some one backed the Demon off me when I’d proved to everyone and myself that what I really needed to do was die,” he said. “I didn’t know then Who’d done it and it didn’t come quickly or easily and I turned back dozens of times. But one day, I guess when I prayed to God to just kill me, He didn’t. Instead, He led me back.
“I’m not going to tell you how because I’m not here to sell you a Bible. I’m just going to tell you that He did and as close as I can figure it, the reason for His Grace is so that I can, in this town, every so often come and talk to a man like you that has the Demon, or has someone he loves that has the Demon.
“Sometimes it seems to help and sometimes it doesn’t and sometimes I never know. What I do know is that while I’m far from free of It, when I come home from work sore and aching, I get in my hot tub with the Bible and some ice tea and I keep reading through it. It took me two years to get through the Old Testament and I’m glad and happy to be starting on the New. In between, I wait for the phone to ring and when it does, I go out and listen and talk to the person calling no matter how tired I am, no matter what time is it, no matter how long it takes.”
He seemed then to close the slide on his dark lantern and set it aside.
“My life’s still not really right. Not really right at all. Given what I’ve done it probably never will be right. The family is still fighting the Demon just like me. Trouble still comes when you expect it least.
“I’m still upside down with money. I was down so deep I’ll probably check out before getting it straight. I go to meetings when I go and I take my church seriously. But I still don’t know what purpose I have. So I just do this because it seems to be what is given me to do. I can’t do much in the way of spiritual work like the preacher can. I’m just a carpenter. But I can do this.”
We parted then and he walked out into the dark early morning. The waitress, who had waited long past closing, locked up with some relief. “I don’t mind staying at all when he comes in,” she said. “Sometimes people just have to talk to other people.”
I went upstairs and slept for a few hours, waking at dawn and walked through the tiny small town three blocks to the Catholic Church where I’d learned there was a meeting, not for me but for those that had the Demon. He was there, looking tired but ready to go to work for the day. Others, rough men and women all, were there too bringing with them what they had to bring, taking away what they chose to take, and leaving, if they could, some of the Demon behind.
When it was over he said, “Come to breakfast with us.”
And so it was I found myself riding along in a carpenter’s pick-up over the sand and snow scoured roads of the town to a local hash joint of ancient vintage by the side of the road. By the time that was over, I’d managed to meet many more good people in this town in one morning than I’ve met in the two years in Laguna Beach where I know hardly a soul.
On the way back to my hotel, we stopped off at a job a young man was doing for him. Tearing down an old ramshackle garage to put up a new for an elderly couple who needed it done. As far as I could tell it was being done for free because it could be. He spent a few minutes talking to the kid and advising, but not telling him, how to do it.
Then we drove back to my hotel and shook hands and said goodbye. He turned left at the corner and was gone.
I went back to my hotel room to pack for the drive to the airport. My phone rang. It was the person I had come to see calling to ostensibly thank me for the dinner and the talk from the night before, but also to be sure I was indeed leaving and would not be appearing suddenly at a function that night. It wouldn’t do for a part of their old life to suddenly appear in the middle of this “clean break,” this “fresh start” at living with the new-old Demon. As we talked I began to understand that I would now always be speaking with two whenever I spoke to this person and would be required to remember that as hard as it might be.
In truth, it was clever to ask. I had thought of doing just that the night before. Checking out of one hotel and checking in to another just to spring up and see what else was being hidden, concealed and kept secret from me as it had been for such a long time. Instead I began to accept that whatever I could imagine was either true or was going to be. I was tired of the game even though I knew I was not done with it, and there was — if I looked at it coldly — really nothing left to keep me where I didn’t want to go in the first place. So I just gave assurances that I had a long drive and had to be going. Things became warmer after that and we said goodbye. I drove out of town and, at last, towards my home.
I’m back home now and am, as is the sad state of our times, finding myself sitting in rooms filled with bromides, slogans, cliches, isms, and the other people broken by the people who let the Demon ride them. Just another one of the remaindered souls set out on the bargain shelves.
I’m already loathing my story and shocked and frightened by some stories I hear that are, so far, much worse than mine. I’ve never been a man who spoke the truth without first being asked, nor have I been one who could listen, but I’m trying to learn that when you don’t listen the only interesting story in the room is yours. And you’re sick of it first.
They say that all of life is a series of lessons that will be repeated until you learn them. At which point you will be given a new lesson. I don’t think I asked for this particular lesson, but I’ll take a shot at learning it since that’s the lesson that has arrived.
I’ve talked to the man with the dark lantern on the phone a couple of times since the night he took me out of the black library. He’s still wondering what his purpose can be and working on getting through the New Testament. I’m not a religious man and I’m no expert on the Bible, but I think I know an apostle when I meet one.
Me? I’ve no idea what I’m going to do and even less about what my purpose can possibly be. God knows I’ve chosen wrongly up until this point every time. So, for now, I’m just writing down what happens to me as clearly as I am given it. It’s my way, I imagine, of learning how to make my own dark lantern.
First Published 2006-02-05