The Last Summer I Saw Satan
When I was a teenager growing up in the 1970’s, it seemed like Satan was everywhere. It all started with that movie, I think—The Exorcist—and then there was that other movie that came out a few years later, The Omen. I wanted desperately to go see The Exorcist but my parents refused to indulge me in “that nonsense,” so I was forced to read the book version of The Exorcist on the sly, standing hidden in the stacks of the Fuquay-Varina Public Library with the novel tucked inside a copy of Animals of the Serengeti. My mother was raised a Quaker, and having met plenty of Quakers in my twelve years I assumed that if Satan ever ran into any, they’d scrupulously overlook his Satanic essence and offer him pie and earnest conversation.
Some of my friends insisted that after going to see The Exorcist they’d vomited up green slime. When I asked them how much beer they’d drunk they told me I was an unbeliever. I was intrigued at the idea of being an unbeliever but I wasn’t sure what the repercussions might be.
Since my parents discouraged me from talking about The Exorcist, or Satan in general, I discussed the issue with my next door neighbor, Jan Fish, who belonged to the Pentecostal Holiness Church. I often babysat for her three little girls—Etta, Amy, and Jenny, who were seven, eight, and nine. Jan said The Exorcist was merely the tip of a vast Satanic tsunami that was plowing its way smack into all that was good in the world. Just look at real life, she said. Look what had happened in ‘68 at the Democratic National Convention (I couldn’t really remember anything about the 1968 convention, except for a vague sense of chaos). All that anger, with American police beating people up and shoving grenade launchers into people’s faces. American faces. Or all the Vietnam war veterans. Or look at all the racial unrest. And women taking off their bras. Feminism! Hippies! Marijuana! Watergate! And all that birth control!
Look for the breakdown in decency and order, Jan said, and there’s where you’ll find Satan. America, she told me, was bedeviled. She read to me from Christianity Today (the only magazine other than Good Housekeeping allowed in their house) that the devil had absolute power over the earth and controlled our entire rebel world, apart from Christians.
So bedevilment wasn’t a metaphor for her or her husband, Marty. Pentecostal Holiness church members, as I understood it from Jan, believed devils were a concrete reality, and they came in a bewildering, almost endless assortment of power and circumstance. If Etta pulled a temper tantrum, she was bedeviled by a demon of truculence. If Marty felt moody—and Marty was often moody, despite being an outwardly stoic man who managed one of the tobacco warehouses in Fuquay-Varina—he was bedeviled by a demon of sadness. If one of the family got sick, the demon of illness was stalking them. If Jan burned a casserole, it was because of a demon of forgetfulness.
The hitch in all this bedeviling, it seemed to me, was that nothing you did was the result of anything you simply did to yourself, or from bad luck, or from the consequences of other people’s poor choices; it was always a demon. To make matters worse, the more spiritually pure you were, the more you were bedeviled. The level of your sanctity was proportionate to the amount of devils making your life a hellscape.
“It’s like flies to honey,” I said to Jan. “Devils are attracted to good people, so good people have more troubles.” She agreed.
“Like ticks on a dog,” she added. “Sucking up the very juices of your soul.”
“But it doesn’t seem like a good system,” I said. “If you’ve got really strong goodness, shouldn’t God protect you from all the demons?”
Jan gave me an odd look. Frowned. “It’s testing our faith,” she said. “We have to be tested. It’s like Billy Graham said, the devil knows his time is short.”
Her faith began to be particularly tested the day Marty came home the summer of 1974 with an Amana Radar Range Oven.
Marty was house proud and interested in all the latest gadgets, often too interested, in Jan’s worried opinion. Sometimes it seemed like Marty fought the demon of sadness with the demon of greed, but her upbringing didn’t incline her to question his decisions. He took care of bills and banking, saw to the exterior upkeep of the house and yard, managed the car maintenance, and made all major decisions. Jan insisted this worked in her favor, and pointed to their home as proof of how well Marty took care of the family.
They did have a nice home, from the perspective of the 1970s. The house was a split-level with narrow windows that would have been perfect to shoot arrows from had it been a castle. Inside they had brown and gold shag carpet and an orange couch and matching armchairs shaped like barrels, with brown and gold curtains at the squinty windows. Their foyer was papered in silver reflecting wallpaper overlaid with a design of orange medallions.
They kept a portable 8-track tape player on one side of the orange couch, where they listened to “teaching tapes” offered by their church on boring-sounding topics like “The Husband’s Headship.” The tape player included a rosewood-finished plastic cabinet, with two big four-inch speakers in mahogany plastic closures. On the wall opposite the couch was a Cinema Screen Color TV. On the other side of the couch, under a lamp shaped like an American eagle, Jan kept a tiger-striped Princess-style phone molded of high-impact plastic with gold-tone brass fillings.
I was particularly fascinated with Jan’s “Wear as You Work” hair dryer. You could walk around with this thing belted around your waist or slung over your shoulder like a purse. It had a compellingly squishy tube that connected the dryer to a puffy sort of bathing cap that you put on over your wet hair. When you turned on the dryer the hood inflated so that you looked like an alien attached to a breathing apparatus. “I can do chores while I dry my hair!” said Jan.
Jan was thrilled with the Amana Radar Range Oven, although she was taken aback by its appearance. The microwave was sleek black and chrome with touches of walnut grain. It didn’t feel exactly right with the kitchen décor–her ornamental set of duck decoys along the top of the dark cherry woodgrain cabinets, her gold fondue pots, the parsley green sixteen-speed blender, the avocado-toned stove and side-by-side refrigerator (complete with a convertible apartment that switched from freezer to refrigerator to meet immediate storage requirements). Her kitchen looked like Carol Brady. The microwave looked like Star Trek.
Jan loved to cook and thought of food preparation as a sacred responsibility. She laid three solid, well-planned meals a day upon the Fish table, unless she and Marty decided on an evening out. That was when I’d walk over and look after the girls, but I had nothing to do with meal preparation or portion control. Nobody touched the stove but Jan, and nobody ate unless Jan oversaw the eating. When they were absent Jan would have each child’s portion warming in the oven in covered dishes, and I would simply reach into the oven and pull out the plates.
Marty was king of the castle, but Jan ruled as queen of the kitchen. A Christian queen, for whom cooking of a meal was a ritual and the serving and eating an act of communion.
Jan bought cookbooks on how to microwave entire meals, which somehow never turned out quite right. After the initial glamour wore off she started treating the microwave with condescension. It was good for heating things and that was about it, she said.
She hadn’t anticipated how easy and safe it was to use.
One night, after Jan and Marty returned from choir practice, Jan apologized for the big casserole she’d left on the counter top. “I didn’t have time to divide it up and have it warming in the oven,” she said. “I was a little rushed this time.”
“Oh that’s OK,” I said. “We all just spooned it out into plates and heated it up in the microwave.”
“You mean the girls served themselves?” she said.
I sensed something off.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry, should I have served them myself? It was so easy, and Etta only wanted the crusty part around the edges, and Amy has such a little appetite, she only wanted a couple of spoonsful. They seemed happy to do it themselves.”
“Really,” said Jan.
“They didn’t have any trouble with the microwave at all,” I said, hoping to ease the atmosphere. “I even popped some popcorn in it before they went to bed. Ginny said she was going to eat popcorn every day now that she knew about microwaving popcorn.”
“Really,” said Jan. “Well. Here’s five dollars. Sleep tight.”
“You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flies by day,” said Marty.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
Since Marty’s conversations consisted primarily of Biblical quotations, I didn’t talk to Marty with the ease I talked to Jan. He raised a sort of scriptural wall around himself that kept me from feeling that I knew him. In hindsight I see it as possibly a defense mechanism. He may not have known what to say to a twelve-year-old girl.
Not long after that my mother sent me over to the Fish’s house with some fresh squash from her garden. The squash was particularly prolific that summer, and Jan and my mother had an understanding. Every summer Jan made squash casserole from my mother’s extra squash, and my mother made zucchini bread from Jan’s extra zucchini. They froze much of it, and during the fall and into the winter the casserole and bread would pass back and forth between our houses in carefully-wrapped squares of neighborliness.
Jan thanked me for the bag of squash and put it in the sink. Jenny, Amy, and Etta were busy trying to learn macramé at the kitchen table. I watched for a little while but was getting up to go when Jan suddenly said, “Girls, come here a minute.” She was standing at the microwave, which was sitting on the countertop by the stove. She sounded serious.
Obediently, the four of us got up from the table and assembled around her.
“I have something bad to tell you about this microwave,” Jan said.
Darn, I thought, it’s busted already. I wish my dad would get us one.
“This microwave is bedeviled by Satan,” said Jan. “Look, I’ll show you.”
The girls and I watched, frowning, as Jan quickly pressed some buttons. The microwave hummed accommodatingly and the internal light turned on, revealing an empty oven, very clean inside like all of Jan’s kitchen appliances.
“Look really hard, all of you. Do you see him? There’s Satan, right in there. Jenny, Amy, do you see him?”
Jenny and Amy nodded solemnly.
“Etta, do you see Satan in the microwave?” asked Jan.
Etta, the oldest child, hesitated, frowning into the bright empty microwave
“He’s right there,” said Jan.
“Yes, Mama, I see him,” said Etta
Jan turned to me. “You see him too, don’t you, Lee?” Her eyes locked onto mine and I wasn’t familiar with the look I saw in them. Fear? Pleading? I stared at my feet.
I was confused.
“Uhm, no, I’m sorry. I don’t see anything in there.”
“Well, that’s because you’re not sanctified,” Jan said quickly. “We’re awfully sorry for that, aren’t we, girls?” Jenny, Amy, and Etta nodded. All three looked politely sad.
“I better get on home,” I said.
“Please don’t use the microwave anymore when you come over, Lee,” said Jan. “Now that Satan’s got into it, I’m afraid that I’m the only one strong enough in sanctity to use it.”
My feelings were hurt and so I said something mean that I regretted later.
“Oh, you have more sanctity than Mr. Fish?” I said.
Jan turned the microwave off and marched over to the squash in the sink.
“The husband always has the most sanctity, of course,” she said. “I mean about things in this kitchen.”
So the girls and I didn’t touch the microwave any more. Jan used it with no ill effects, but then she was an adult and thus strong enough to withstand the demonic force. She claimed that the demon in the microwave tempted her unmercifully, but her faith withstood the test. I asked my mother if I needed to be sanctified and she smiled and said there was that of God in me as in all people and that was like sanctity. I pondered this but her definition didn’t seem to match up to Jan’s.
What a hot, muggy summer that was.
Late one afternoon in August around five o’clock I was sitting in the tire swing under the hickory nut tree in my backyard when my mother told me she was had to go over to the Fish’s for a minute. She soon returned with the three girls.
“I’m going to be helping Jan with something for a while,” she said. “You and the girls go play in your room. Your dad will get you supper if I’m not back by then.”
She looked pale and unfocused.
“What’s wrong, Mama?” I asked.
“It’s awfully hot,” she said.
My mother hadn’t returned by suppertime and my dad gave us hotdogs and chips and seemed subdued. Etta asked once if her mom and dad had gone to choir practice.
“No, they just had some things they had to take care of,” he said. I wasn’t paying much attention because Star Trek was getting ready to come on. The girls and I watched Star Trek while my father murmured into the phone in the kitchen with the door closed, which was strange. The girls were fascinated by Star Trek—they didn’t watch it on their TV at home because of Leonard Nimoy—and this episode was the Trouble with Tribbles, which delighted them. At about 8 pm that evening my father told me to stay at home to answer the phone. I watched, surprised, as he took the girls back to their house through the summer dusk, where there seemed to be a lot of cars and activity. Were they going to have a party? I wondered.
Everything became sad and confusing after that.
As Jan later reminded me, the spiritual world that the Fishes inhabited required that the most devout and sanctified person be the most bedeviled. Satan and his avatars restlessly rove among all things, animal, vegetable, mineral, or kitchen appliance, selecting and rejecting until they happen upon the choicest soul. That August evening, the demonic power in the microwave, bored with Jan’s resistance, had detected the power of Marty’s faith and had leapt roaring into Marty like a psychic hurricane. This was the reason that he’d come home from his job at the tobacco warehouse, kissed the girls as they played in the front yard, walked through his house, into the kitchen, where he stopped briefly to kiss Jan and retrieve his hunting rifle from its place over the back door, and proceed out to the picnic table in the back yard, where he sat down and carefully adjusted the rifle so that it was under his chin, and pulled the trigger.
Jan heard the shot and saw Marty slumped over the picnic table. She called my mother, and once she knew that her daughters were safely away from the house, she called a member of her church named Sandra.
Sandra arrived within a few minutes in her tan Buick. Like her Buick, she was tan—tan hair, tan skin, sensible tan clothing, crepe-soled tan shoes. Sandra was the holiest member of Jan’s church. She’d come to do damage control.
Sandra parked her Buick around in the back next to the picnic table. Jan stood huddled next to the back door. She grabbed Jan’s hand and walked her up to Marty’s crumpled body and gave it a disgusted look.
“Satan, leave the body of this good man and never bedevil this household again,” she said loudly.
“That was a wonderful moment,” Jan told me later. “I felt a great burden lift from my heart, and this sort of smoke rose out of Marty’s body and drifted off toward Sandra’s Buick.”
Satan had sensed a spirit stronger even than Marty’s.
But that gourmand of souls had proven difficult to get rid of. That night, as Sandra drove her Buick back to her little tan house in Johnston County, the little house with two concrete swans on either side of the front door, she’d felt a heaviness on her right rear bumper and knew something was up.
“I walked into my kitchen that night,” she said during her testimony at Marty’s funeral, “and I felt him jump off my bumper and follow me into the house and get behind the refrigerator.”
For several mornings thereafter, she continued, whenever she came in to make her coffee, he’d stick his head out from behind the refrigerator and hiss at her. He resembled, said Sandra, a withered pumpkin with hair sticking out like pig bristles.
“I merely said ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ each and every morning, and each and every morning he got smaller and smaller until at last I just swept him out the kitchen door like an old wad of dirt,” she said.
I sat with my mother and father at the funeral and saw the satisfaction and humility on Sandra’s face. She couldn’t have been more than fifty, and everyone treated her with great respect, but I perceived her as old, and rejected her, her and her colorless sensible clothes and her sandy tan hair done up in a helmet. I noted the hollowed-out faces of Jan and her three little girls and knew, with a knifelike conviction, that Satan did not exist. Marty had been killed by something wrong in Marty, and Satan was just a story people told themselves to justify their crazy behavior. I felt a keen excitement at this idea.
But then I thought, God must be just a story we tell ourselves, too.
Something in me let go, like a fist opening, and disconnected, and I felt as free, and as empty, as a balloon let loose on an infinite holiday.
* * * * * * *
People wonder how they survive heart-breaking catastrophes, but they do. Jan and the girls had it rough for a few years. Then Jan went back to school in Culinary Management and taught at the new cooking school at Wake County Community College. Etta became a triage nurse. Amy became, of all things, a Wake County Deputy Sheriff. Jenny married well. My father died. My mother continues to live in the house next door to Jan, who never moved or remarried. Jan always felt that Sandra had sealed off the house from evil and she wasn’t likely to find another as protected.
I was visiting my mother last week and we were having coffee in her kitchen when Jan dropped by after work at the culinary school. Her white kitchen uniform was scooched with chocolate. “I’m teaching those kids all about a good ganache,” she said. She looked well. She said she was old enough to retire but didn’t feel like it yet. We talked of this and that, and suddenly I remembered Sandra.
“Jan,” I asked, “is Sandra still alive?”
“Sandra? Oh yes, hon, Sandra’s about ninety years old now. But she’s still real active in the church.”
Sandra, she explained, had become famous among the Pentecostals after she’d cast Satan out of Marty’s body. First local churches started calling her to come work on special cases of bedevilment. Then her fame spread nationally. Pentecostals from across America began begging her to come cast out their demons, the really hardcore cases. Sandra didn’t like to travel, but she didn’t like to disappoint anyone, their need being so great, so she started casting out Satan by phone until she got arthritis in her neck and carpal tunnel in her wrists.
“So she’s retired now?” I asked.
“Oh no,” said Jan. “She’s working just as much as ever, now that she’s learned how to Skype.”