The Devil and the Salesman

Take a drive someday, out towards the West somewhere, and find yourself with an empty gas tank. No need to look for it, it'll find you - it seems nice enough - a little hamlet on the prairie, Sun Valley, population two hundred and one.

Take a drive someday, out towards the West somewhere, and find yourself with an empty gas tank. No need to look for it, it’ll find you - it seems nice enough - a little hamlet on the prairie, Sun Valley, population two hundred and one. By trade I’ve been a traveling salesman for twenty some-odd years now. Been to both coasts, seen the Gulf, battled flies in Maine. I’ve seen my fair share of things, but not this. Never this.

It was a clear day in a way that only a prairie day can be - the sun shone uncontested over the infinite grassy plain. There had been a rest stop miles back but for the first time in years I neglected to stop, to fill up. I just kept driving. The road called to me, stronger than it ever has, and I obeyed. Just as the fill light came on it appeared over a shallow rise - a wooden sign, looked brand new, “Welcome to Sun Valley, Neighbor! Why don’t you stay a while?”. Four lanes of empty highway merged to two, and a row of small, tidy homes and shops lined either side. A single-pump service station clung to the outskirts and I pulled in, running dry as I stopped at the pump.

It was an old-fashioned place, the kind where you’re supposed to drive over the air hose so the bell’ll ring. An older man came out of the small office, dressed in a bright white shirt and cap, to tell me that there wasn’t any gas after all, the truck hadn’t come through.

“Why such a hurry anyway, son? Pleasant enough place, this.”

“Not exactly my speed”. I grinned and hefted my case from the passenger seat, and a flicker of a smile passed over his beaming grin.

“Traveling salesman, eh? Used to ply the great American highways myself, back in the day. And my wife, Lenore, she used to be an Avon lady, how about that?”

“I suppose that’s something of a coincidence, isn’t it. Are you sure there’s no gas?”

“Oh yes, afraid so. It’s been a good while since the last man came through, so we’ve never seen the need to stock up. Such a nice place, though”. His grin persisted.

“For some people, maybe. Have you got a phone?”

“Mayor’s got a phone”, he said, gesturing towards a lone pole. “Just follow the line, son.”

The line stretched towards a modest, columned building in the center of town. Passing shops and homes, I found the same grin on all faces - an earnest grin, but disconcerting. A polite grin.

“Nice day here, isn’t it?”

“Another salesman, now how about that?”

“Why don’t you stay a while, son?”

The mayor’s office was in a small, whitewashed down-home courthouse that looked out on the rest of the town from its position on the lone street’s dead end. I found the main door unlocked and entered to an empty hall, save for a desk and a small black phone. Behind the desk, a large red-leather office chair faced a large window on the wall opposite the door.

“It’s such a nice place, isn’t it?”

I began to approach the desk. “I suppose so sir, for some people. May I use your phone?”

The man in the chair turned to face me. What had appeared red leather was a pair of bat’s wings that unfolded with a dramatic flair, and the Devil himself stared back at me from the comfort of a cool grey suit. For a moment he seemed taken aback, though he quickly composed himself.

“I suppose you might, but it’s unnecessary. I’ve had Herb bring your car around - and had it filled, don’t worry.”

I stood, frozen, midway from the door. “You’re…”

He smiled a toothy grin. The spaces between his teeth glowed, as though they were the grate of a furnace.

“I have many names. Devil, perhaps. The Jews used to say Satan - I always preferred that. But I’m not here for you, son”. Satan took a small piece of paper from his breast pocket, along with a pair of half-moon glasses. “It says here one ‘John Cohen’ is supposed to come through today, a traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman. You’re not him, are you?”

“No sir - I sell kitchen knives, have for three years now.”

“So you have. You’d best be on your way then, you won’t want to be here when John is.”

At a loss for words, I turned to leave, but as I reached the door I turned again to speak. “This street is a dead end - how do I get to Salt Lake from here?”

Satan again bore his furnace-grin. “Just go back the way you came, son. You’ll get there eventually.”

“Thank you sir, I suppose I’ll be off then.”

“It’s been a pleasure, Leonard.”

I stepped back out of the courthouse to find my car waiting on the curb, the gas station attendant leaning cheerily on the hood. But as the courthouse door closed in my wake, I heard something I’ll never forget, as long as I live. It was only a whisper, nearly drowned by the squealing hinge, but I heard Satan speak it.

“See you soon.”

The End

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