The Turkey Sandwich Gambit

By Bertram Benmeyer

There was no moon; the streetlights had been shot out. The apartment buildings, windows covered with sagging plywood and a few boards, were the last resort for those who were not yet so desperate as to sleep under bridges.

Into the gloom stepped a figure. His coat, of some rough, dark material, hung down his body just past his knees. His wrinkled trousers were almost pipe-stem thin; his shoes were indiscernible but clicked as he strode forward. In his left hand was a small, brown paper bag.

The figure sniffed the air, then turned into one of the buildings. There was no relief in there from the sense of doom that pervaded the street, no sense of safety from brutish life. The dank hallway was filled with trash that had lost any form or meaning—broken glass, the twisted frame of what might have been a baby carriage, some shapeless rags that vaguely resembled clothing—nothing left that had any remaining purpose. Ignoring it all, the figure went up the stairs, walked unhesitatingly to one of the apartment doors, knocked.

"Who's there?" demanded an irritated voice. "What the hell do you want? Get the fuck out of here!"

"Let me in. I've got your sandwich." He spoke softly, yet the old wooden door, scarred from past insults, shrank away, pressed against its frame from the intensity of that demand.

There was a moment when everything was absolutely quiet. Even the building stopped its quiet groaning. The door opened.

"My sandwich? What the hell are you talking about?" The speaker was a tall man with long hair and a shaggy beard, perhaps in his thirties. He looked down at his visitor, his face blunt, a no-nonsense face that would have given pause to anyone rash enough to have knocked that night. But he flinched.

"I'm the devil," his visitor responded, and brushed past him into the apartment. Any sense of warmth it might have had was long vanished. There was a hole in the right foyer wall smashed through to the kitchen. The floor complained bitterly at the added weight, like an old man given a task beyond his capacities, ready to collapse at any moment.

"What the hell do you mean, barging in like—" the man started, but the intruder stepped past him into the kitchen. An ancient, useless refrigerator stood in one corner. Alongside it was a stove with a hot plate sitting on it, its cord going almost straight up to the ceiling where it fit into a tap in a light socket. The open window still had glass in it. There were two empty coffee mugs on the kitchen table.

The devil sat in one of the chairs. He placed the paper bag on the table, and, reaching into a breast pocket pulled out a document that he placed alongside it. "Sign here and you can have your sandwich."

"Get the hell out of here," said the man, his voice a whisper, denying his fears of his visitor's identity. "I don't know who you think you are, but I'm not in the mood for games. Beat it."

The devil smiled. The vagrant smells in the room became even more foul. "Exactly fifteen minutes and thirty-two seconds ago you screamed through that window, 'I'll sell my soul to the devil for something to eat.' Well, I'm the devil, and I've brought you a turkey sandwich. Sign here."

"What are you, crazy or something? You heard me and you're running some kind of game? My wife is sick. I'm not in the mood for your stupidity."

The man reached toward the intruder to pull him out of the chair, but jerked to a halt, hand in mid-air, frozen by sudden comprehension. Instead of the hatted and coated stranger, the devil now appeared in his familiar form—tall and naked, triangular face with an imperious nose, a sinuous tail that wrapped itself around his body, cloven hoofs, and red, all blood-red except for a black goatee and dark, carefully combed hair.

The man wanted to scream his terror, but his words could not get past his frozen vocal cords. All that could emerge was a strained gurgle. The thought of attacking this vile creature kept weaving through the chaos of his thoughts, but it was beyond him.

A woman came into the kitchen. "I thought I heard voi—" She looked at the devil and stared. "Oh," she said, "oh... oh... oh," and started to sink to the floor.

The devil grimaced. "Both of you be calm," he said.

The woman stood straight. "What the hell is going on?" she said in a raspy voice that might have felt painful if she had remembered she was ill.

"You humans are impossible. I'm just here to consummate a deal that this noisy oaf offered me, and what do I get? Damned carrying on, as if I were about to eat him alive. No chance of that with all his hair and needing a bath. Ugh." Turning to the man, the devil continued: "Do you want the sandwich or not?"

For a moment the man wondered why he was so calm. "Excuse me, but would you mind putting on that stupid hat and coat? I'm convinced."

The woman looked at the now re-transformed devil. "What is this about a deal?" Her dark hair hung close to her cheeks. Weariness dulled her, but the planes of her face suggested a special quality that in different circumstances might yet be recovered.

The devil reseated himself at the kitchen table and leaning back against the chair, opened his arms wide with his hands palms up in the universal gesture for seeking peaceful accommodation.

"I'm nothing but a business man. I have things that humans want. Humans have what I want. Nothing more than a simple transaction between two consenting adults. As usual, I am misunderstood." As he spoke a gentle expression gradually replaced his exasperated frown. His eyes grew round and moist.

The man began to feel some concern that the devil might burst into tears. That possibility seemed almost worse than the devil’s true form. But he wanted nothing to do with the devil.

"Get out of here, or I'll kick you back to hell myself," he said, his calm still a surprise to him.

"What have I done to you to deserve such hostility?" The devil's voice quavered. "You offer a deal; I accept it. What could be fairer? And it's not just about a turkey sandwich. Take it. It's yours as a token of my good faith." In his agitation, the devil stood and paced the floor. He was now somehow shorter, with a slight paunch and stooped shoulders.

"You've come for my soul, haven't you?" answered the man. I've been an atheist all my life, but if you're here, it's proof that there's a God, otherwise it wouldn't be fair, so the hell with you and your deals."

His antagonist burst into laughter and fell back into the chair. "Oh, no, not that one again." He laughed even louder. The sound flew though the window to the streets below, frightening the few people lurking in the darkness. "What makes you think anything is fair? God is a delusion that you mortals created to make up for your weaknesses. Go ahead and pray, for all the good it will do you."

"Maybe we should pray," the woman said. "What if he's lying?"

The devil grinned. "What? She's caught up in the delusion too?" He looked around the kitchen. "You'd think that you'd have figured out by now that there's no help for you anywhere. You humans are well aware of the reality that you are too incompetent to exist for very long, so you invent some creature to save you. How any mass of molecules accreted to form you is beyond my understanding." He looked back at the woman. "But go ahead, indulge yourselves."

Distant explosions, perhaps thunder, rumbled through the room. The devil yawned. "Let me know when you are ready to make a deal."

"Why do you want his soul?" the woman asked. "If there were a God then you could count to Him the number of lives you’ve destroyed, and laugh at His incompetent creation. But you say there's no God, so what use is a soul to you... or to us?"

"Oh, well," responded the devil, dropping his head so that the large brim covered his eyes, "we sort of collect them the way some of you collect stamps, and when an unusual one comes along, that's all the better. I'm thirsty." He got up and walked to the sink. "At least the glasses are clean."

The man frowned. "Mine's unusual? How come it's worth only a turkey sandwich?"

"You can't blame me for trying to get a good deal, can you? Anyway, I've said the sandwich is yours, free, no cost, on the house. There are more interesting things that I can offer, really nice things, like winning the Florida lottery, or meeting some really sexy... perhaps you and I should talk in private?"

The thunder, for that's what it was, moved closer to the old building.

"There's nothing private between you and me. I said a stupid thing, asking for a sandwich, whining about how hungry we were. I've changed my mind. Beat it, and take the damned sandwich with you."

The devil scowled. His body became more bulky, puffing up so that his clothing was now too small for him. "You offered a deal and there's no reneging. I try to be nice, but you get all huffy. You don't need a soul. It's sort of like a metaphysical appendix, just the luck of the universe playing its tricks on us all. Now give it to me, or I'll rip it from you. You won't like that." The devil leaned further across the table, close to the man's face, teeth now longer, more prominent in his mouth.

"Your breath stinks," the man said, drawing back. "Look, my wife and I need to talk this over. It's not such an easy decision."

"OK, sure, no problem," said the devil, backing off. "I've nothing else to do. Just wake me up when you decide." With that, he removed his hat and rested his forehead on the table. In a moment he began to snore.

The man and woman went to their bedroom. She had tried to give it life with travel posters of Switzerland, but they disappeared in the gloom.

The woman spoke. "What do we do? You want to make a deal with him?"

The man looked at her face and then sat on the bed. "For a moment, yeah, just for a moment, I figured it would be OK to take the sandwich . . . but that's the devil. Nothing good can come from messing around with him."

"But what do we do? Do you think we should pray?"

"Nah," he responded. "Look, I've just never believed. It wouldn't make any sense to me to start to pray now. Besides, even if there is a God, it seems kind of late in the day to start asking favors. We're on our own."

The woman's eyes opened slightly and she leaned forward. "What did you say? You've never believed... in God?"

"What are you getting at? Maybe I did when I was a kid. My folks sure took me to church a lot... and it was miserable. They beat the crap out of me whenever they said I did something wrong, and I remember praying hard for God to do something about it. But I figured out pretty quick that I was on my own. Just like now."

The woman reached out her hand and touched his cheek. "You never told me about that. I feel sad for the little boy you were."

The man pulled her to him and embraced her. For that moment, nothing else in the universe had much significance.

"Hey, you two," the devil called, "how about making up your minds? I've got other clients to visit. Step it up before I lose my patience."

The man and woman pulled apart. Before he could say anything, she put her hand over his mouth. He relaxed.

"You need to give us more time," she called back. "Go back to sleep."

The man lay back on the bed. She joined him, head on his shoulder.

"How come there's a devil, but no God?" he said. "That doesn't make any sense. Everybody seems to believe in both of them. How come only one pops up?"

"Who knows?" the woman responded. "Anyway, what difference does it make? What are we going to do?" Her raspy throat sounded painful.

"No, it does make a difference. Why should there only be a devil? If there's no God, what's the devil doing here? It doesn't make any sense, unless . . . hey." The man sat upright. "I remember," he said, looking down at his wife. "I was ten years old. People were starving in Ethiopia. I read about it in the newspaper. They had pictures of those poor babies that were so emaciated they looked like leather-covered skeletons. And their eyes. Staring out, comprehending nothing except the misery of their existence, and somehow accusing me of letting them suffer."

The woman sat up, and then stood, staring at him. "What are you getting at?"

"I decided there had to be a devil. People on their own wouldn't let little babies die like that. There had to be something evil in the world that forced everyone to be rotten. Yeah, and that meant that nothing I did made any difference, because the devil was too much for me.

"I was a little kid, too young to figure it all out, too horrified to know what was really going on in the world. It never occurred to me that if people were doing rotten things, it was people who did the good things too—organized the rescue operations, tried to save the whales, and forced us out of Vietnam. Good, bad, everything is inside of us."

His fingers squeezed into her shoulders, pressing hard enough through her thin dress to leave bruises. She remained quiet, not wanting to destroy his mood.

"It never occurred to me that I was so miserable that I just copped out. It was easier to believe in the devil than try to do something to make things better. Hell, I could have sent a lousy ten cents to help. But I didn't because I believed in the futility of trying to do anything against evil. Do you know what I've been doing since then?"

"What?" she murmured, caught up his passion.

"I've been living my life from a ten-year-old’s point of view. A poor frightened ten-year-old kid, who didn't know which end was up. Everything I've done, everything, was based on the futility of being human. Damn it. Damn it." He buried his face in her dress and sobbed. She stroked his hair.

"What's the racket in there?" called the devil. "I can give you only two more minutes."

They ignored him.

"But I'm not ten years old now, and there still is no God, I was right about that, but.…"

He suddenly laughed through his tears. Some of them fell around his mouth. He licked his lips dry, enjoying the salty taste and then stood and gave her a quick kiss.

He laughed again. "That son-of-a-bitch, he almost had me." Taking her hand, he pulled her with him. "Let's go wrap this up."

They returned to the kitchen. "Well, what's it to be?" yawned the devil, showing his big teeth. "Do you act reasonably or do I rip it out of you?"

The man grinned. "In the first place, if you had the power to take my soul by force, you wouldn't be trying to bribe me. So drop the threats." He turned to the woman, his grin growing broader. "They demean our deliberations."

The woman stared.

"What?" the devil said. "Do you want a dem-"

"Don't interrupt," responded the man. He put his arm around his wife. "This is more important. You say there's no God? OK, I've accepted that all my life. No problem. What I figured out, though, is that I've been believing in you. Hell, that was dumb. If there is no God, I have no reason to believe in you either. Somehow you're just a damned figment of my imagination. I even remember when I created you, and I've been living this empty life ever since."

He turned to the woman. "Honey, let's get rid of the garbage on the table. It's not fit for anyone to eat. We're getting out of here. I'm tired of living in these trashed buildings. Maybe I'll take that job with your old man after all. We've got some living to do."

He stuffed the devil’s document in with the sandwich, compressed the bag into a ball, and tossed it across the room into the trash can.

"Two points," said his wife, applauding.

The devil stared for a moment and then bellowed, "Have you both gone mad?"

The force of his words knocked the last few panes of glass out of the window, sending them crashing to the street below. He leaped to his feet, again in his true guise, and reached for the man's neck. Before he could grasp it, however, the man turned to his wife.

"That was some hallucination we both had. I think the shrinks call it a foli a deux. Let's go." They walked out of the kitchen.

Just as they reached the bedroom, they heard a faint pop, as if a balloon had burst.

"Hey," said the man. "I’m still hungry. Let’s get something from that all-night deli." He half-smiled at his wife. "No turkey sandwiches, though."

Copyright 2000, Bertram Benmeyer

About the Author

Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.

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