The Devil Who Wanted to Grow Potatoes

June 23, 2015

Once upon a time there was a very small and unimportant imp who lived in an obscure corner of hell. All he had ever known was being kicked around by all the larger and meaner devils who in turn were bullied by tougher and more important devils all the way up to Satan himself. Our particular devil led a miserable life. He started each day, although day is a mere figure of speech in hell, dreading every waking moment. He was not, would never be, a success. He was too small, too weak, and he lacked the necessary meanness. He was not very good at tormenting the prisoners in his charge, not because he was good or kind, but because he thought it pointless. The prisoners were already completely without hope. Small outbursts of spite were all that this little devil could manage and these were more often directed at his fellow devils, who made his life wretched, than at the prisoners.

One day he was summoned by his unit supervisor and sent on an errand to another part of hell. Even devils like an occasional change in their routines and these assignments were coveted. Usually our devil was not even considered for messenger duty, but on this particular occasion everyone was busy getting ready for a big inspection by the district chief and no one else could be spared.

So our little guy was given a message to be delivered to the next sector and a set of directions, which he committed to memory and repeated back to his unit supervisor until the latter was satisfied that he had learned the route cold. Then he started off. He did well at first. Left turn at the big fumarole, right turn at the crossroads, the path exactly matched his recollection of the directions he had been given. But after traveling a few hours he arrived at some hills and ravines that had not been mentioned at all in his directions and he quickly came to the conclusion that he was really and truly lost. That’s commonplace in hell. It’s designed that way, of course. It is a vast and convoluted place and very murky. Certainly there are no signs.

About ten hours after leaving his own duty base he found himself tramping down a little used track in very dim light. He had not seen any prisoners or another devil in hours. He was feeling more than usually downhearted and was beginning to wonder if he would ever see his own sector again. He did not feel the kind of longing for it that we feel for familiar places, but it was all he knew.

Then he saw something that would seem very ordinary to us, but which was absolutely extraordinary to our devil. He saw a small shed, a rickety fence, a gate, and someone digging with a spading fork in a muddy field beside the path. Now there are no buildings in hell and there are no tools. Skrax (that’s what our devil was called) knew that these things existed and he knew what they were. They belonged on earth, not in hell. He had never seen them before, except in pictures.

There is a Chinese proverb that says: Heaven and the Emperor are both a long way away. That is true of any large and complicated bureaucracy. Things go on at the local level of which the higher ups are completely unaware. Obviously no one was paying any attention to doings in this corner of hell.

Skrax was looking at things forbidden in hell–improvements, comforts, conveniences, tools, and work. He was too far down on the totem pole himself to feel outraged. He was simply enormously curious. The light was so bad and the creature digging in the field was so dirty that Skrax could not tell whether the wretched thing was a devil like himself or a prisoner. Skrax turned aside, walked through the gate, and went quietly up to the being with the shovel.

He expected the fellow to bolt. After all, what he was doing was not only completely illegal, it was unheard of, but, instead, the digger merely glanced at him and kept on shoveling with great energy, throwing up clods of dirt, possessed, as it were.

There was a quite wonderful smell in the air that was new to Skrax. It was the smell of, well, a muddy field. It was the smell of earth. When Skrax drew near to the farmer, for that is what he was, whether prisoner or devil, the fellow stuck out his hand, palm up. He was holding what looked to Skrax like to small dirty brown rocks.

“Potatoes!” he said to an amazed Skrax. “These are special ones, too. They are Yukon Gold potatoes.”

Skrax looked with great curiosity at the potatoes. It was the first plant life and the first earthly food that he had ever seen. It all seemed wonderful to him–the small crop, the pale leaves of the struggling potato vines, the muddy field. But it was the smells that particularly excited him. He had received all the standard indoctrination lectures on earthly matters but none of his devilish instructors had ever mentioned these overwhelming, intoxicating smells! He had spent eons as an unhappy downtrodden oppressed little imp but he had never been rebellious. Now, for the first time, an original and independent thought crossed his mind. “What else did they leave out? What else didn’t they tell me?” He had been taught that nothing from earth existed in hell except the souls of sinners that the devils called “the prisoners,” but here was a field and growing things, a tumbledown shed, a garden fork, and all these incredible smells that caused him to tremble with excitement and which aroused ecstatic visions in his mind. He did not know it but it was the smell of life in its bodily form. He stared, as if in a trance, at the two small potatoes.

“I know you won’t give me away.” said the farmer. “I see it in your face.”

Once the door of consciousness has been opened it cannot be closed again. Skrax had utterly forgotten his message and his errand. In one instant he had been completely transformed. He had thought the previously unthinkable. Now he found himself saying the unspeakable.

“How can I go there?”

“Go where?”

“Where the potatoes came from. Earth.”

“I can’t help you there, but I can direct you to someone who can tell you. Go straight on the way you were traveling and you will come to a bridge across a ravine filled with boiling tar. Go across. The road forks. Bear right and you will come to a cave in a rock cliff. That’s the local unit headquarters for this sector. Ask for Gronx.”

As if in a dream Skranx followed these new directions and in a few hours he found himself in the presence of a unit supervisor of the same rank as the one who had dispatched him on his original and now neglected errand.

“Messenger, eh?” said Gronx. “Very well. What’s the word?”

“Potatoes.” said Skrax.

There were two small devils hanging about eavesdropping. Gronx sent them away.

“Well, well.” said Gronx. “That’s very interesting.” He stared at Skrax and Skrax stared back. Gronx was a very ordinary devil in appearance except that he had four eyes, two forward and two behind. Eyes in the back of one’s head are very useful for a supervisor.

“I want to go to earth.” said Skrax, although he had no idea how he found the courage to say this and was astounded at hearing these words come out of his mouth. “Not to visit–to stay.” he added. It was the kind of speech that, when uttered in hell, got one suspended by the ankles over a hellfire crevice for a few million years.

Gronx did not appear startled, shocked, or alarmed. He continued to stare at Skrax thoughtfully, with no change of expression.

“There are ways and there are probably ways that I don’t know about.” said Gronx slowly. “I know one way. Indoctrination lectures for the bigwigs are different from the ones for you and me. Actual objects from earth are sometimes used. Aversion training, it’s called. Terrified of defectors, Satan is. That is how such things occasionally come here. After the lectures the demonstration objects are supposed to be destroyed by burning with earth fire and the ashes returned to earth. That’s my job.”

“That’s an important responsibility.” said Skrax in a very small voice.

“You must not imagine that it is a matter of trust.” said Gronx sarcastically. “No one trusts anyone here.” He said this although the very fact of the conversation he was having with Skrax contradicted him. Devils, like people, frequently say things that are flatly contradicted by plain as a pikestaff evidence right in front of their faces. It’s more self-deception than lying and more common. (I can’t speak about saints or the heavenly angels because I don’t know much about them.) Gronx continued, “But it so happens that earth fire requires oxygen and this sector is the only place in hell with an oxygen vent. Therefore it is the only place that supports earthly fire. Now, at the present moment, I have an object on hand to be destroyed. You may see it.” From a small rocky ledge he drew forth a Raggedy Andy doll. “I am required to burn objects as soon as I receive them. I will burn this today and the ashes, every crumb, will be returned to earth. I can include you in this burning and ash shipment, if you are willing, and no one will be the wiser. I will handle it myself and I can arrange matters that the ashes will be scattered on a potato field, if you like. You can go to earth, but not in your present form.”

“I’ll do it.” said Skrax promptly. “I have nothing to lose.” He astonished himself again by saying that, but once the words were out of his mouth he felt an enormous relief and even, yes, for the first time in his life, joy. He did not worry, as you and I would, about the pain of being burned because he knew, as all devils know, that he was originally angelic in nature and could not feel physical pain. Angelic beings do feel mental pain, but their psychology differs considerably from ours. They are not necessarily grieved by the same things that vex us. However, in any world, Skrax’s decision was highly unusual.

Skrax knew he was angelic in his origin and he knew about God and Satan’s rebellion, but only in a vague and far-off way, as a child might know some distant history such as Washington’s winter at Valley Forge, as a story, without ever connecting it to anything personal or to the conditions of life in hell.

Gronx and Skrax went quickly and quietly to the oxygen vent. Gronx carried the doll and a box of wooden matches which was the only earthly thing authorized in hell, besides the aversion training objects, and only for this specific purpose.

Being burned was very peculiar, but not painful. Skrax did not cry out, as we would, because he was being changed, but not hurt. Gronx thought he heard a small cry at the end, but it was clearly a sound of surprise, not pain.

That’s all of the story. I know this is not a satisfactory ending, but I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened to either of them after that or to the farmer, except for one thing. Skrax was gone from hell. Escaped. Flew the coop. Got clean away. He was no longer in the power of any devil.



The Green Satin Dress

June 11, 2015

After I retired I moved to the country. It was a dream come true, but I had a lot to learn about country living. In the big city strangers are strangers but in the country, at least in southern Arkansas, they are neighbors you have not yet met, but you will, and often that happens at the local Walmart. I quickly learned the art of striking up conversations in Walmart and I also adjusted to being asked, “Do you know Jesus?” by people I did not know at all.

I once helped a woman buy light bulbs and we both agreed that this was better done as a team effort and that nowadays it doesn’t hurt at all to have an engineering degree before attempting to buy light bulbs. There’s a solid wall of different kinds at Walmart. That’s a lot of labels to read.

I met any number of seriously pissed of women in the paper products aisle, infuriated by the constantly rising price of–toilet paper.

On one memorable day I was in the sewing section where I met a woman who abruptly asked, “Do you know where I can find a pattern for a dragon costume?” I said that there was a section on costumes in the pattern catalog and added that another possibility would be to find a dinosaur costume and make modifications. “That’s a good idea. My granddaughter wants a dragon costume for Halloween. She asked me to make it and she is convinced that her grandmother can do anything.”

“But grandmothers can do anything.” I said. “Everyone knows that.”

That encounter brought back a lot of memories. Believe me–a lot of memories.

When I was about ten years old my first cousin Shirley got married and I was invited to be in the wedding as a flower girl. That meant a trip for the family and a fancy floor length dress for me. My own Grandmother Alice said she would make the dress. And she did. It was iridescent blue taffeta that rustled delightfully. It had, in the style of that era, a scooped neckline, little puff sleeves, and a ruffle at the bottom. There was also a knot of taffeta flowers in contrasting colors that my grandmother constructed and sewed to the waistband.

That was not all. You won’t believe it to look at me now but at one time I had the most beautiful red hair you ever saw. It was naturally wavy, very thick, and it went almost to my waist. Ordinarily I wore it in two braids, but for the wedding I was allowed to wear it loose. For me that was a great treat. I felt very grown up and very glamorous.

So…..a great many years later my first cousin once removed, whose name is Teighlor Simon, was planning to be married in Shreveport, Louisiana. I thought that my granddaughter Emily would enjoy being in the wedding just as I had enjoyed being in my cousin’s wedding. I asked if she could participate.

Yes, Teighlor said, that would be lovely. Emily was very welcome to be in the wedding and could serve as a junior bridesmaid.

While my cousin Lucienne was busy planning a big wedding in Shreveport for her daughter a lot of things were also happening in my branch of the family. George retired and we decided to move from Fort Worth to Arkansas. I thought we were downsizing but George didn’t see it that way. He wanted to move every blessed thing we owned and that was way too much stuff. Trust me on that one. He is an only child and I am an only child and one consequence of this is that every single candlestick or piece of bric-a-brac that had ever belonged to his mother, my mother, or my aunt, had ended up in our house.

I gave up. I decided to pack everything rather than argue with George. The household was just about two-thirds packed when I received six yards of dark green satin from the mother of the bride with instructions that Emily’s dress was to be made out of this material. The dress could be in any suitable style but it had to have a handkerchief hem which was why she had sent so much fabric.

At about the same time I began to get some very worrying e-mails from my daughter who lived in Oregon with her husband and my two granddaughters. The entire country was going through hard times. Neither she nor her husband had a job. Next thing I knew she had been evicted from her apartment and was living in Portland, Oregon, in a tent behind a friend’s house with her husband Dan, my two granddaughters, and Kona the dog.

My daughter and I had an urgent telephone consultation. Did she want me to send the six yards of fabric? Would she be able to attend the wedding after all?

Yes, she said, send the fabric and she would get the dress made. Yes, she would be able to come for the wedding and bring the two kids because she had formerly had a very good corporate job that involved a lot of travel and she had a huge number of accumulated frequent flier miles. That covered the cost of the air fares.

I mailed the fabric to the address she provided. Now my daughter Dino does not sew at all, but my son-in-law, Dan is a very good seamstress. I’ve seen his work and I knew he was perfectly capable of making this dress.

The wedding was scheduled for a Saturday afternoon in October. We arranged that Dino, Emily, and little Miss Renee would fly from Portland to D-FW Airport the Thursday afternoon before the wedding. Then the five of us would travel by car from Fort Worth to Shreveport and arrive there on Friday in time for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner which were planned for Friday evening. There was also to be a big reception after the wedding and also a very gala party on Saturday night. Those Cajuns do know how to have a good time and my cousin Lucienne had been planning this affair for a year.

I went back to packing boxes.

Let me tell you a little bit about my granddaughter Emily, the girl who was to be in the wedding. From the get-go this was one very serious little kid. Before she started the first grade she told her father that she did not feel at all ready for school. He asked her why. She replied that she did not yet fully understand all of the causes of World War II. To put it mildly, she has more than her fair share of performance anxiety. She is now a student in the film program at the University of Texas and she is the most hard working, conscientious, and over prepared student you will ever meet.

Plus you must remember that her family was going through a very bad time. Neither of these girls had ever flown before. Emily was the quintessential white knuckled flier while her baby sister, Renee, was bouncing up and down in the seat going “Wheeeee-o.”

When the three of them disembarked at D-FW George and I were waiting for them. We had hugs all around and then I said, “What about the dress? Is it ready?” “Well, not exactly.” said Dino.

“Maybe we had better all sit down.” I said. “Come clean. I’d better know what is going on and what needs to be done.”

What I learned in the next quarter of an hour, from my very reluctant and embarrassed daughter, was that the dress was still six yards of dark green satin. I learned that Renee didn’t have anything suitable to wear to a wedding. I learned that neither of the two girls had any shoes other than play sandals and very well worn sneakers. Dino did bring a suit and heels for herself.

On the other hand, Dino did have a dress pattern in hand in Emily’s size. She had not been able to find a suitable pattern with the required “handkerchief hem,” but Dan had figured out how to insert godets–that’s a fancy word for skirt insertions to increase the circumference of the bottom of a skirt–and he had made the pattern for these insertions. These were a diamond shape and gave the illusion of a handkerchief hem.

Dino had never done any sewing but she did have considerable experience helping Dan with cutting and pinning, although he had always insisted upon doing the sewing himself.

“I think I can do this.” said Dino.

“Baby,” I said, “it’s commendable that you want to learn how to sew, but I don’t advise you to use satin for your first project. It’s slippery and it’s mean stuff to work with. For one thing, if you have to rip out a seam the needle marks will always show. Suppose you let me do the sewing and you do the support work that you have always done for Dan and that you already know how to do because we don’t have much time to get this done.”

Before we left the airport I told George to drive to the nearest shopping mall. There I pulled out a credit card and spent money I absolutely positively could not afford to spend. I bought dress shoes for Emily and for Renee. I let Renee pick out a dress to wear to the wedding and the other festivities. I knew that if she didn’t have a dress that she had chosen herself and just loved she was not going to have a good time.

Then we went home. Dino and the kids were exhausted. I fed them and sent them off to bed. After that, George turned to me and said, “What can I do to help?”

“Go to bed and get some sleep because you are going to have to drive to Shreveport tomorrow. I am going to sew all night and the only sleep I am going to get will be in the car tomorrow. Get some rest. I don’t want you fuzzy and trying to drive.”

He went to bed and I went to work. By the following morning I had the dress completely cut out and some seams sewn. I had also packed my own clothes. Next I packed all the sewing pieces, my sewing kit, and my sewing machine, which is a vintage Singer portable that my mother gave me–well, by now it’s fifty years ago. Those old Singers are indestructible–like Volkswagen bugs. George loaded the car. We set off. I went to sleep.

When we arrived in Shreveport we went to the hotel where we were to stay along with all the other out of town wedding guests. The room was not ready. I was very polite. I was very ladylike. In this instance that was a complete waste of time. Dino had worked in the corporate world and she knew exactly what to do. She threw a pie-eyed fit. That got us a room very fast.

We settled into the room. I set up the sewing machine. Dino and I went to work on the dress. Emily and Renee put on their swimsuits and headed to the pool. I sent George with them to sit by the pool and keep an eye on the kids.

I sewed until we had to stop and get ready for the wedding rehearsal and the dinner afterwards.

It was a lengthy evening. Afterwards we went back to our room and everyone went to bed and to sleep except for me. I sat up and sewed. When I just could not keep going any longer I woke Dino, gave her some sewing work to do while I slept for two hours. That was four in the morning on Saturday. I told Dino to get me up in two hours no matter what.

I got up when Dino woke me and immediately started sewing. I think George may have brought me a cup of coffee. It was six in the morning and the wedding was to take place at two. Emily woke up, looked at all the sewing activity, and asked if there would still be pins in the dress when she walked down the aisle.

I didn’t even look up. I said, “Honey, you will have a dress and there will not be one pin in it. It will be finished.”

George asked, “Are we going to tell Lucienne and Teighlor about all of this?”

“Absolutely, positively, no.” I said. Then I read all of them the Riot Act on the importance of keeping all mouths firmly shut about all of the last minute sewing.

“I don’t know Teighlor very well, but I do know my cousin Lucienne. If she knew that her daughter’s junior bridesmaid didn’t have a finished dress four hours before the wedding she would have to be carried screaming to the nearest madhouse and put into a strait jacket and a padded cell.”

Lucienne had told us to be dressed and at the church by one o’clock. At 12:15 I put the last stitch in the dress. Dino pressed it. By 12f:30 I had taken a shower, thrown on some clothes, slapped a hat on my head, and I was ready to go. I certainly did not take the time to fool with makeup.

At one o’clock we were at the church. George, who worked as a photographer before he retired, took some pictures.

It was a beautiful wedding and Emily looked very, very pretty. She did her part perfectly.

My Louisiana relatives really do know how to party. Altogether there was the wedding rehearsal, the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, the reception, and another grand party at a different location later that evening. Cousin Guy wanted us to come by his house for a visit. Cousin Jon wanted us to come to the RV park and admire his new travel trailer. After all that there was a very late night party at the hotel that went on and on into the wee small hours. That was Saturday night.

We did all of it. The excitement kept the kids going. Renee quickly learned how to hold up her wine glass and make a toast. No, she didn’t have wine; she had fruit punch. The food was plentiful and wonderful. Emily and Renee got a lot of attention. After a few hours of sleep between Saturday night and Sunday morning we went to Cousin Lucienne’s house for a buffet breakfast for all the guests still in town at that time. The kids played with her new puppy and climbed into the big magnolia tree in her front yard. Lucienne had a huge quantity of cheese left over. She gave it to George. He loves cheese and was perfectly delighted.

I drank quite a lot of wine and somehow I just kept going. I told George, “If I live through this and get back to Texas I am going to sleep for a week. I am much too old to pull two all-nighters back to back.”

Every story needs a hero and a bad guy. I’m the hero in this tale; I claim the bragging rights. But who was the bad guy? Obviously my daughter and my son-in-law should not have procrastinated getting this sewing project done. But there were mitigating circumstances. They were out of work. They were broke. They were, at least momentarily, homeless. And they were scared spitless, although they would never admit it. They had a lot more serious matters to worry about at that time than a family wedding.

I think the bad guy was Father Time. This one was a straight up race against the clock. I won but only by a whisker. I’m now an old lady. I’m not always going to win against Father Time. He will win the last race.

On the way back to Texas I made George take a detour so that Emily could see Caddo Lake which is a beautiful spot with big old cypress trees and much Spanish moss. After that I went to sleep and I slept all the way back to Fort Worth.

We never told. And unless by some unlikely accident my first cousin Lucienne and my first cousin once removed Teighlor see this they will never ever know.