Rajeev can’t decide who is “good cop” and who “bad cop” in this routine. He does notice, however, that Diane’s shade of lipstick is identical to high school Helen’s. He mentally pats himself on the back for remembering such an exquisite and miniscule detail… Perhaps Helen had a twin sister?
The Devil interrupts his reverie. “Are you aware what day it is?”
Icelandic elves would know.
“It’s Black Friday, Raj.”
“One of my favorite days!” Curtis bellows.
The Devil continues: “You have heard of Black Friday?”
“Yes! The day when stores offer these incredible deals! And people line up hours before opening, and there’s this mad rush to get to the sales bins and so forth. Am I right?”
“Capitalism gone berserk!” Rajeev is proud he has mastered at least this one aspect of pop culture. “So that’s today?” Rajeev feels he is on a roll. “Wouldn’t catch me dead in one of those places.”
Rajeev pauses. Something is not right. In fact, many things are not right but, for the moment, he can latch on to only one. “Wait a moment…. ” Rajeev smiles and wags a friendly but accusatory finger. “This can’t be Black Friday. Black Friday occurs in November, yes?”
Curtis smiles back, shrugging broadly, then clasping his hands together. “You’ve got us, Raj! Can’t put one by you!” He leans forward, confidential, “But… for certain select people, we like to make Black Friday a monthly affair.”
“After all,” the Devil adds, “you can’t get too much of a good thing.”
In the pause that follows, Rajeev feels his unfinished script calling to him. Yet, he also senses a story lurking here … if he can just steer the conversation in the right direction. And, after all, it would only be polite to let his guests give their pitch. I mean, if he were in their place… And who knows what secrets he might uncover? From the Helen-clone in particular, who seems to be about to speak, and Rajeev feels here would be a very good place for an extreme close-up, revealing the texture of her lips.
“So, here’s the thing, Raj: It’s our job to bring Black Friday — the January version — to you.”
“To me personally? I am one of your ‘chosen ones’?”
“You are, in fact.”
An apparently delighted Curtis adds, “You are the man!”
“No line-ups, no jostling, no anxiety about dwindling stock.”
Ah, Rajeev thinks. So this is what it is like to be part of the aristocracy. The raj. Merchants shall come to me with their wares.
At this point, Diane should be hauling a thick catalog out of her bag, but instead she puts a hand on Rajeev’s knee. My God! How he had dreamed of such a thing in high school. And the fantasy would explode into a field full of cheerleaders, including Helen, romping across the grass in skimpy pleated skirts, wielding both field hockey sticks and test tubes — so versatile a group they proved to be.
“We offer you the ultimate in choice, Raj.”
“Well! If it’s a matter of choice, I certainly would insist on the ultimate!”
The DEVIL releases RAJEEV’S knee.
“We need you to tell us what it is you want, Raj.” It is a brazen question. It would be even from a Grade Eleven lab partner. “What is your heart’s desire?”
Rajeev watches the Devil’s chest rise up and down and knows that all his desires have been reduced to one specific thing. Nor has he any wish to resist. If he had been Aladdin, he would have used up all his wishes in an adolescent instant. “I did explain to you that I have no money?”
The Devil’s gaze remains fixed on her client. “Really, Raj, the whole capitalist thing … it’s just a small blip in human history. There are much more valuable commodities to exchange than money.”
“First I give the pitch, Raj.”
The situation is both laughable and alarming. Where is all this going? Rajeev rises and begins to collect the coffee things. “Forgive me, Diane, but this does sounds a lot like time shares.”
“Is that what you think?”
Rajeev shrugs and turns to the ever-smiling Curtis who, in a flash of imagination, Rajeev sees with a rat’s tail hanging from the corner of his mouth.
“We’re selling dreams, Raj. Wonderful dreams.”
With the pitch in full swing the Devil continues: “Whatever you can imagine… ” Her assistant joins her in the final tag. “You decide. We provide.”
Rajeev’s heart begins to beat faster. “You’re serious?”
Rajeev is tempted to ask which institute his guests have escaped from. His be-nice filter renders it as, “What are you guys? Amazon or something?”
“What’s bigger than Amazon?”
Rajeev watches closely in case Diane decides to flick out a forked tongue.
“The Russian Mafia?”
“Pick something, Rajeev. Ask me if we have it in our inventory.”
Aha! Games, then! A little improv. Rajeev can do that. “A Lear jet.” Then a humorous afterthought. “With Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia as hostesses!” No reaction. Not into Shakespeare apparently.
Unblinking, the Devil replies, “Easily done.”
“If I had the money….”
“It’s not a matter of money.”
The Devil’s Assistant excuses himself and stands. His head bumps against a mobile hanging from the ceiling. Little angels with trumpets.
Curtis laughs, then grabs the lead angel and halts its spinning. “I’m sorry, if I may bother you as to the whereabouts…”
Rajeev laughs with his guest. He knows he should have taken down the Christmas ornament weeks ago. Rajeev points. “Through the kitchen and a sharp left.”
Curtis disappears from view and they hear a cat yowl. In vain, Darth Vader tries to reassure the creature. “Nice kitty. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Rajeev feels he owes an explanation. “He doesn’t take to strangers.”
The Devil smiles sweetly. “Fortunately, that trait doesn’t apply to you.”
“Well…” Rajeev replies, unable to restrain the cliché, “we’re all strangers, aren’t we?”
Alone with Diane, who sits with cheerleader legs confidently crossed, Rajeev begins to feel a flutter in his stomach and feels he must move. He picks up a few books, takes them from one pile, and places them atop another. Memories of high school rush toward him like a nightmarish cornucopia. “All right then, why don’t we raise the stakes, Diane? How about … a harem?”
Just a harem? Rajeev can do better than that.
“Seventy-two, if I remember correctly.”
The Devil’s poker face does not flinch. “It’s a common request.”
How specific can Rajeev be? After all, the Kama Sutra is part of his birthright. What about morning massages delivered by a sprinkling of naked masseuses? A baker’s dozen worth. And that, just for starters. Given time, Rajeev is sure he can be extremely creative in this area.
“Could I have a tropical island? Some place near where Curtis comes from?”
The Devil nods wearily as if she’s heard this all before.
“And I could be specific about palm trees, pink sand beaches, cabanas?
“Yes, Raj, the more specific, the better. We would write out a contract.”
“And all this could all be ready in three days?”
Feeling giddy, Rajeev walks to the kitchen. He opens the fridge and returns the milk. From there he shouts, “What about controlling shares in Microsoft?”
The Devil frowns.
“Could I change that to Apple?”
The banter continues a few minutes more. Rajeev manages to find a box of cookies, which he brings back to the living room. The Devil’s assistant has returned to his seat.
The Devil/cheerleader smiles and flutters her eyelids Betty Boop-style. “Very considerate, Raj; thank you. Shall we get down to it?”
Rajeev wonders if Diane will again reach for his knee. If so, it will be no fault of his. “I can’t wait to see your catalog.”
“You must start by telling us your deepest desires.”
Rajeev pauses, in fact, blushes.
“Come now, Rajeev, you’re a writer. It’s what you do every day, isn’t it? Write about people’s desires and how foolishly they go about trying to fulfill them.”
“Not exactly the words I would have used—”
Curtis clarifies. “Think of it as a writing exercise.” The man has, Raj decides, the largest hands he has even seen. “You, my friend, are the protagonist in your own story. What do you truly want?”
Rajeev shrugs, decides to be playful. “Hard to think of anything. I’m most happily married. I have a cat, a career—”
“Mr. Subramanium!” the Devil yells. Her voice is more football coach than cheerleader. She rises from the couch. “You don’t seem to appreciate what we’re offering.”
Rajeev is used to being almost universally liked. He is almost speechless. “You know my last name?”
“Time is a finite commodity; I don’t intend to waste it.”
What has Rajeev said to cause offense? His jokes probably. Marjorie has long accused him of over-estimating his sense of humor.
The Devil heads for the front door. “We’ll see ourselves out.”
Rajeev does not realize he is at a watershed. Were he to resist — at this one crucial moment — the temptation to be “nice,” the Devil might simply walk out his door and forever leave him in peace.
Unknown to Rajeev — who has never shown an interest in genealogy — he is descended from a long line of diplomats, ambassadors, and advisors to rajas, all people who make their living by reconciliation and smoothing things over. It is a genetic imperative over which he has little control. He has no choice but to try to make amends. Even with the Devil.
“I thought you were selling magazine subscriptions. I just thought you needed a chance to warm up.”
“I don’t believe a word of it, Mr. Subramanium.”
Rajeev laughs nervously. He can still win her over. “No, no, now I understand. Obviously there is an app for such a thing! That’s how you discovered my surname.”
It was foolish to think that he and a bimbo like Helen should ever get together in the first place — even though this clearly couldn’t be Helen. Nevertheless… such is the story of English literature, isn’t it? Artist falls in love with bimbo. Bimbo rejects artist. “All right, here’s a question for you, Diane, before you leave: What did they used to call me in school? That will test your psychic abilities.”
The Devil turns and glares. “You do realize who I am?”
“No! How could I?”
“They used to call you Raj, the Submarine.”
What writer could possibly resist an interview with the Devil? Even now, Rajeev is uncertain whether he is speaking to “the” Devil — Satan — or one of his minions. His knowledge of Judeo-Christian theology and its netherworld hierarchy is, at best, nebulous. Yet, even talking to a simple demon would be compelling. Even if this demon were only self-professed, a delusion; this too would be rich material for a story.
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