By Brian d’Eon
Thirty-six year old Rajeev Rakesh Subramanium does not believe in the Christian Devil, nor in a single member of the pantheon of Hindu deities that hovers above his ancestral home. Believer, agnostic, atheist — he resists all of these categories, allowing allegiance only to the Church of Be Nice. “Why can’t everyone just be civil?” he asks himself. People assume Rajeev is being glib but this truly is at the core of his beliefs. All politics, he believes, all domestic disputes, all anxieties and greed can successfully be addressed if only people would follow the golden rule. Obviously, such a universe has very little need of supernatural beings.
It comes as a great surprise therefore when, one cold January morning, the Devil and her Assistant knock at the front door of his house on Dundas Street West.
Rajeev — Raj to his friends — is in the middle of the first draft of a screenplay. He’s bogged down, looking for ways to increase the stakes for his protagonist. You’d think with Dr. Faustus as his central character — updated of course, put in the garb of a Wall Street trader — it wouldn’t be too hard. Yet … niceness keeps creeping into the work…
Rajeev comes to the door with coffee mug in hand, ready to make short work of this interruption. He’s ready to slot whoever stands there into the same category as Latter Day Saints or vacuum salesmen, and equally ready to explain that, although he’s certain whatever they’re selling are very fine products, he really has no time to talk.
Rajeev smiles as he opens the door, glancing only briefly at the man (shivering) and woman (not shivering) who stand there. He’s more interested in the snow drifts behind them which, in the howling wind, seem to disintegrate before his eyes. This is not a landscape his ancestors would recognize. Rajeev was six when his family moved to Canada, but still his DNA trembles when confronted with such a climatic train wreck.
The woman who stands before him looks nothing like the Devil. There are no horns, no forked tail, no fiery red skin. What does capture Rajeev’s imagination — once the woman moves to the side and is no longer in silhouette — is the uncanny resemblance she bears to Helen Fraser, his lab partner, on whom he once had one of those hopeless, Grade Eleven, Quixotic crushes.
“What do you do?” the woman asks, just before door completes its arc.
“You said you were busy.”
Rajeev cannot help himself because, for him, everything is a screenplay:
RAJEEV nudges the door back open. Before him stands a young woman, blond, attractive, coquettish in her expression and body language, the DEVIL. She smiles, then shrugs as she speaks.
“I was just wondering what you were busy with?”
The only way this could be Helen Fraser is if she had been recently thawed from a twenty-year freeze, for she has not aged at all. Yet, there is the straight sun-drenched hair, the little curl atop of her forehead, the high cheekbones, the lips full, redder than nature should allow — God help him — it makes Rajeev weak-kneed just to think about it. Even her left nostril, which he remembers vividly being bigger than her right — in every particular, the woman who stands before him is an exact replica of high school Helen. And it’s as if he’s there. In full Technicolor and stereo. In Mr. Warner’s Chemistry Class that smells of wood stain and bromide. And beside him sits the school’s premier cheerleader who, as the roll is called, pauses in her gum-chewing and sighs as Rajeev obediently shoots his hand into the air.
Extendo manum, ergo sum. No reason for a person not to be civil.
Rajeev clears his throat. “I write.”
A cloud of condensed vapor gushes from the DEVIL’S mouth. For a moment RAJEEV pictures her as a multi-armed Hindu goddess.
“What do you write?”
“I’m working on a … screenplay…” Rajeev grins, nearly apologizes — how Canadian is that? Apologizing because he fears what he does for a living doesn’t measure up. Moreover, irrefutably proving his utter assimilation, on Tuesday nights Rajeev plays recreational ice hockey though his wife keeps reminding him he should refer to it simply as “hockey” and drop the “ice.”
The woman pauses, tilts her head, then smirks. “I was in a movie once.”
Rajeev can believe it. A film dominated by cheerleaders. At a car wash maybe. Lots of suds. He snaps himself back to attention. “Look, I’ve just brewed a fresh pot of coffee…” He snaps his head back towards the kitchen, an invitation. “It looks awfully cold out there.”
“You’re sure we’re not interrupting?”
The word “we” reminds Rajeev that the woman is not alone. Ah well, what can you do? At this very moment, a cat zooms through the door. It does not stop, rushing through the living room, kitchen, and to parts unknown that are soft, warm and, as Rajeev will later reflect, free of demons.
A tall, young black man, energetic, the DEVIL’S ASSISTANT, bends low to peer inside RAJEEV’s house. He smiles. He wears a Toronto Maple Leafs toque.
The semi-giant smiles broadly and sniffs, “The coffee smells good!”
Rajeev waves them in and makes a slight bow as he takes the woman’s coat. A small skiff of snow covers the welcome mat, partly obscuring the words emblazoned there, so that it now reads “Beware of the at.” A vaguely existential caution, Rajeev muses.
Now the woman removes her suede gloves and offers her hand. “Diane.”
That settles it. This is no Stepford wife. No beginning of a zombie apocalypse. No B sci-fi plot based on suspended animation. No story at all, Rajeev fears.
“Is there the slightest chance we’ve met somewhere before?”
Diane laughs. “I would have remembered!”
Almost as an afterthought, Rajeev takes the man’s hand too.
“Curtis,” the large man says, displaying a mouth overflowing with teeth. The lilt in his voice suggests palm trees, sand, and piña coladas.
Rajeev’s wife, Marjorie, is in Winnipeg, a remote city still locked in the ice age as far as Rajeev can tell — there to perform a play. He cannot believe the temperature readings Marjorie relays to him as they FaceTime in the afternoons. She sits before her laptop with gloves on, two sweaters, and a scarf. “Doesn’t the Internet freeze up there?” Rajeev asks, only half in jest. In truth, Marjorie is not much bothered by the cold. In fact, her idea of a holiday is visiting Iceland, which was where she and Rajeev had first met, he coming from London, and she fresh from attending a course on elves. Their meeting is forever vivid in his mind:
Rajeev pocketing his smart phone and giving this stranger his full attention. “There’s actually a course on elves?”
Marjorie sits smugly. “Would you like to see my diploma?”
Absolutely, he would. Rajeev means to pursue this crack in the time-continuum to its bizarre end. “You’re saying people in Iceland truly believe in elves?”
“Well, they’re not like Santa’s elves.”
“No, of course.”
“They’re just like us, mostly.”
Rajeev fears he is an apostate in his own Church, for he can think of nothing nice to say in response.
“Except,” explains Marjorie, “they’re smaller… But they have their own homes — just like us — stores, churches, everything — only smaller.”
Rajeev keeps nodding, keeps checking his watch to see how much longer before boarding. Finally, leaning close to Marjorie, he dares to ask, “Are they invisible?”
“I’ve never seen one.”
“Oh,” Rajeev answers, still unsure to what degree this delightful young woman is putting him on.
In the end, the strategy works, for Marjorie too is a self-professed member of the Church of Be Nice, and one thing leads to another, and finally they get married, but the elf legacy clings on stubbornly. Despite his best efforts, these little Icelandic creatures swell in Rajeev’s imagination. “Muses,” Rajeev decides. “They’ll be my muses.” And thus, like St. George defeating a dragon, once again, Rajeev finds a way to tame the irrational.
Rajeev sets down the coffee things and pours from the carafe. “Milk, anyone?”
There are papers everywhere in the room, piles of books, used coffee mugs, DVD cases, and barely room enough for two people on the couch. Stacks of drawers fill the one chair in the room — a writer’s residence — at least this is the impression RAJEEV hopes he has created. CURTIS asks if he might move the drawers so he can sit in the chair.
“Oh, absolutely!” Rajeev replies. Sheepishly he brings a mug over to Curtis. “Not a day for man or beast out there, is it?”
“It’s no Guadeloupe, I can tell you that!” The man’s voice is resonant, though whether more like Santa Claus or Darth Vader, Rajeev has not yet decided.
“I like it,” Diane retorts, no Caribbean islander, her. She wears a knitted sweater, which does indeed look very warm. It has some pattern on it which Rajeev puzzles over. A Neolithic rendering of a reindeer? Or something abstract? The only safe remark that comes to mind is that he likes Diane’s sweater. Which he does.
Rajeev stirs the spoon around the circumference of his mug and wonders if it’s possible to comment on a woman’s sweater without implying an interest in what lay beneath? Some men could, he supposes, but Rajeev is not one of them.
Smiling, Diane leans forward, holding her cup with both hands. “I imagine you’re curious about why we’re here.”
What a strange creature man is, Rajeev thinks. That in an instant he can revert to his seventeen-year-old bumbling self. “Mildly … I mean, not so much in what you’re selling… but then, who am I to pre-judge?” Rajeev pours himself a second cup, adds the milk and one extra large spoonful of sugar. “What I’m trying to say is, I myself once had such a job.”
“Encyclopedias?” Curtis offers.
“What a job!” Remembering, Rajeev shakes his head. “Magazines, actually.”
The DEVIL and her ASSISTANT both look as if they have just swallowed canaries.
Rajeev continues with the recollection, sweet only because it is in the distant past. “In two weeks, I think I sold two subscriptions. Both to elderly women who said I reminded them of their grandsons. Except that I was darker.” Rajeev reminds himself it isn’t so much the content of what you say, as the tone. He has confidence in his tone. “That’s not to say, of course, that you two wouldn’t have done much better. Just by looking at you, I can tell you are both very good salespersons.”
It’s the eyes that convince Rajeev this woman is an impostor. They study him. They take an interest. The cheerleader of twenty years ago could barely handle rah, rah, rah and regularly stumbled over the spelling of “Wexford.” When it came time to call out: Give me a “W!” Give me an “E!” Give me an “X!” Give me an “F!” her teachers would tense up, wondering if the next letter Helen would call out would be an “O” or an “E.”
Rajeev almost knocks over the carafe in his rush to refill Diane’s cup. He hasn’t entertained a woman in his living room in over a month. “Diane, Curtis — in all honesty — I must tell you — I am in no position to purchase anything. I mean, look around you. Does it look like I have money?” Rajeev laughs more loudly than he intends. He can imagine elves painfully covering their ears.
“Did I miss a joke?” Diane asks, her eyes piercing, hypnotic. Cobra eyes, Rajeev thinks. But then… who is the charmer?
Grinning, Rajeev waves his hand and shakes his head. “I was just thinking about when we were in Mexico on our honeymoon — my wife, Marjorie, and I — and we were accosted by one of those gentlemen on the beach who wanted to sell us a time-share.”
Curtis nods. “He promised you a free dinner? A bottle of cognac?”
“And a free trip to Xcaret.”
“Oh yes, a monumental ‘but.’ When they found out I was a writer and my wife an actress, they bid us a quick goodbye and sent us back to town in a taxi!”
“But! We got to keep the cognac!”
“We’re not selling time-shares, Raj.”
CURTIS steals a quick glance at DIANE as if to say, “not so fast.”
“Unless… a time share is what you want.”
“Because we could do that, no problem.”
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