"I once knew a man who swore he sold his soul to the devil. Can you believe that?"
Throaty laughter punctuates the rhetorical question. The old man sits in a wheelchair that is as old as me, a worn pillow between him and the fraying vinyl of the seat. He keeps chuckling as he unwraps his McDonalds cheeseburger, plain, no onions, his one eye tracking the movement of the yellow wrapper while his other hides beneath a blue-white cataract.
Wispy white hair, thin, unbrushed and unwashed, pokes its way out from beneath the sides of his black "Veteran" trucker cap. His denim jacket is faded with dirt and memories of better days. It looks like he's been wearing it since before Bon Jovi had a number one hit, complete with pinholes and patches that aren't intended to be decoration. Somehow, though, they still are; half a dozen military unit patches in different colors and from different branches litter his jacket.
He smiles a gap-toothed grin as he takes his first bite of the still-warm cheeseburger. This is our Wednesday routine; on my lunch break, I bring him a sackful of burgers and a Coca-cola. He doesn't care for fries, but the burgers he can actually stretch into a couple of meals, and he doesn't mind them cold. This week, I drop a twenty into his little three-gallon bucket he uses to panhandle. Some Wednesdays, it's the key to a room I'd get him at the Motel 6. Others, it's just a fiver. I don't want him to think I feel too sorry for him. Besides, we have a business arrangement. He tells stories, and I listen.
Every Wednesday, I feed him and we chat. He grabs his bucket and I wheel him over to a shady spot where I can sit on a low wall and listen to his stories. I'm sure some of them are probably even true.
I hope some of them aren't.
I believe he really is a veteran. Like knows like. His demeanor, word choice, and knowledge base are too good to be fake, but I'm no expert. It could all be a carefully constructed fairy tale to earn a few extra dollars from sympathetic strangers. I don't believe that's the case, but if so, I tip my hat to his committal to the role.
Overall though, the man is a mystery, and I am content to let him stay that way.
He doesn't blame his tours for where he is now. The lost leg he left behind in a motorcycle wreck near Miami in the summer of 79. The cancer, though, that he firmly believes is due to his relationship with a foreign agent. Codename: Orange. But he doesn't dwell on it.
I've offered to try to get him into treatment under indigent care. He just shakes his head and refuses to go when it's warm outside. "Talk to me again after the first snowfall," he says and laughs when I bring it up.
I know he has some mental health issues. I know he has some physical health issues, too. But I also know he's lived this way for almost as long as I've been alive, and some people don't want to be saved. So I do the next best thing; I listen.
"The devil, eh?" I ask, biting into my own McDonalds fare. This week, it's a quarter pounder. I don't skip the fries.
He nods. "Yep. Prince of Lies himself." He slurps his Coke, looking over at me. "Do you believe in God, Jack?"
I've told him my name a dozen times. It doesn't matter. To him, I'm Jack.
"Yeah, I do, Chief."
"Just Jon will do, Jack."
"Yes, I do believe in God, Jon."
I take a bite. Chew. Look over at him. His one good eye locks in on mine.
"Why not?" I finally ask in response.
He laughs. "That's cheatin', Jack. But I'll take it."
He reaches for his second burger, and we eat in silence for a few minutes.
"I believe in God because I know the devil is real."
His statement is delivered so matter-of-factly, so absolutely convincingly, that I am struck with a chill that travels down the nape of my neck into the red brick where I sit. That is quite a trick, to be chilled in August.
"How do you know that, Chief?" I slip right back into old habits; he is Chief Warrant Officer Jon Michael Sparks from Carey, Idaho, and once a CWO, always a CWO.
"Because I've seen him, Jack. I saw him with my own two eyes, and I saw the fella he was talking to. I couldn't hear nothin', but I can guess what was up. That same cat the devil was talkin' to, he eased over my way one evening after it was all said and done. Asked me what I seen. What I knew. What I heard."
I notice Jon's hand is shaking a little as he balls up his empty wrapper.
"So, let me get this straight. You saw a guy sell his soul, and you saw the devil, and then this guy came up to you?"
He shakes his head. "No, man. You got the timeline all wrong. See, you know I got a couple of purple hearts, right?" I nod, remembering when he had told me a little about one of them. "Anyway. That first one, I got when I was co-piloting. Bad LZ, bullets zipping, I'm the only bastard catches any. It wasn't bad, it burned, stung for a while, got me a few days back in the city with cold air conditioning and hot food. Nothing major. Anyway, while I was there, this young guy, he comes in, and he's all fucked up. Screaming at night, always sweaty, yelling about how pretty the Morning Star was and shit. Really weird. He had a wound, but I think he was mostly psyche."
At this, he pauses. It's his turn to have a visible shiver, but it's different than the fear response I had earlier. His shiver is memory-based, and then he regains his composure. "Mental stuff in a hospital, man. Scary shit. Anyway. So back then, especially in-country, the main hospital non-critically wounded were in, it was a big bay. More serious or higher ranks, they got private rooms and the good life. Hell, the big bay was plenty good, the AC was reasonably cool and the nurses were plenty cute. Nobody was shooting at us. Life was great for a little while. So everybody is asleep, 'cept for me and this guy. And then there was this . . . wind. Like, hot. Smelled like shit, kinda waved through the air like hot asphalt, yknow? It was weird. And then there he was."
"Yes, Jack. The Devil. Whispering to this long range recon guy, the one who was spazzing out."
"So what did he look like?"
Jon paused and stared off into fifty years ago.
"He was pretty."
"Yeah. Not handsome. Not gruesome. Not, like, Greta Garbo or Farrah Fawcett, but not like Clark Gable, either. He was pretty. Like some kind of . . . I don't know. I don't know. I aint gay or nothin, but he was just beautiful. And terrifying. Because I knew it was wrong, all that prettiness."
As I finished my last fry, my eyes didn't leave his face. "So what happened?"
"They just talked. And then the Devil, he kissed that guy on the forehead. It was strange. And sweet. And scary as fuck."
"You saw the Devil kiss a man on the forehead? Sweetly?" I sipped my drink.
He shifted his gaze to me. Cyclops, regarding Odysseus. At least he wasn't hungry anymore.
"Jack. Yes. And the next night, that soldier, he came up to me. Got real close-like. Started asking me what I'd seen, what I knew. I just shook my head. He told me he'd sold his soul, and that he was scared. He told me he knew I had seen them together."
"Did he threaten you, or anything?"
"No. He laughed. He told me the Devil saw me watching, and that he had a message for me."
"What is that? The message? What did he say?" I couldn't help it. I was fascinated.
"The Devil would be watching me, too."
"Oh? What the fuck you mean, 'oh'? Aint that some scary shit right there, Jack? Could I not just end this goddamned story right there and it be about enough to have you pee your pants?"
I had to admit, yes, it was, but still. I had questions.
"So did anything happen? After? To you?"
Jon just looks down at his wheelchair. Back up to me. Over to his panhandling bucket.
I feel pretty stupid.
Imagine how I felt later, when I actually googled CWO Jon Michael Sparks on a whim.
Chief was a Huey pilot, alright. Shot down in 1973 in an operation over the Ho Chi Min trail. His door gunner was the only one to make it back home.
To this day, Jon Sparks is officially listed as Missing in Action.
I still take him cheeseburgers on Wednesdays, but we don't talk about religion anymore.
Mostly because I'm pretty sure that the infantryman he told me about wasn't the only one to work a deal.
And / or, maybe Jon is still being watched.
Honestly, I'm afraid to discover how thick the border is between lies and truth.
Whatever side of that line I'm living on, I'm happy.
But I'm not afraid to admit that I've started going back to church.
Especially on Wednesday nights.