Readers have occasionally asked me how it was that I came to be acquainted with the devil. I tell many versions of the story (though fewer than those I tell about the origins of my name), yet all sprout from the same bad seed of truth: He came looking for me.
Last October, I had just repatriated to the county after a bout of Hollywood that, due to the stagnating nature of the place, aged me only three of the five years that I lived there. Whereas some would attribute this self-preservation to well-applied sunscreen, others know that Hollywood can be a place of slow death. Thusly acclimated to this Never-Neverland approach to personal maturation, I chose to live in Sonoma, which according to the online brochure I read, suggested that the only thing that aged here was wine. Peter Pan’s dark secret wasn’t that he didn’t want to grow up, but that he didn’t want to die. Having recently turned 30, I knew the tune was the same but now in a minor key.
Still relatively single at the time and with gaps in my social schedule threatening to swallow me like some great maw of loneliness, I diverted myself with every and any event that I could muster. I watched a lot of community theater, probably more than the surgeon general would recommend, but I had foresworn film as the first misstep in my psychic downfall and avoided the local movie houses like an alcoholic does his taverns.
A local youth company was staging a production of “Porknuckle and Schtickelfish,” a compendium of Bavarian folk tales about a pair of sad-luck footmen whose comic bane is being dispatched on bizarre and embarrassing missions by their employer Mad King Ludwig. I once considered poaching the fables as source material on some ill-fated script gig and thought I could tolerate this minor exposure to my system, as one might take an inoculating ride on municipal transit to bolster one’s immune system.
The curtains opened and the play began, but immediately I knew something was amiss. I knew every “Porknuckle and Schtickelfish” episode ever penned, including the so-called “forbidden text,” which, though I’d never seen it (no one had), I knew at least in broad strokes. The reason the play had been banned, then buried, in Bavaria was that it allegedly contained an incantation in the end of the second act said to summon the devil. Its author had installed the spell there to avenge a previous production that had been marred by censorial meddling on the part of the aristocrat who had commissioned it (this back story was to be the crux of my film project). When word of the author’s Satanic booby trap got out, he was summarily arrested, tried and hanged and the play was eventually presumed lost to time.
Not one to trifle with the potentially supernatural, I considered cutting the play short by yelling “Fire!” or killing the lights, doing anything that would stall the action. As I contemplated these and other notions, I happened to notice how wooden the student actors were and how generally dull the production was as it inched headlong into oblivion. My eyes glazed and within a plot point I had fallen asleep.
I awoke with a start to the sound of applause. The audience was on its feet, awed by some spectacle I had apparently missed. The houselights came up and an usher fanning herself with a fistful of programs shuffled us into the foyer for refreshment. I was stupefied by the praise I overheard from parents about how “professional” the special effects were.
As the crowd ambled back from intermission toting oatmeal cookies and plastic cups of wine, I stayed behind to help myself to another pour of plonk. The houselights dimmed.
“I’ll have some of that,” a voice cooed like rough silk through the dark. He punctuated his words by smacking his lips.
I turned, bottle in hand, and poured the wretch some wine.
“I know who you are,” I said as calmly as I could muster.
“And I know you’re the one who slept through my grand entrance,” he toasted and took a swig.
“Ghastly. Not you, I mean the wine. Well, maybe you, too. Whomever you are.”
“Daedalus Howell,” I said, almost reflexively.
“Fly too close to the sun, then?”
“That was the other one.”
“Not a wing maker then?”
“Damn. Used to have wings, you know,” he said ruefully. “We all did. Great, sweeping things – catch the slightest breeze and you’re right off your feet.”
He shuffled his heels on the floorboards in an odd little dance, which received an instant hush from the usher. He scowled back, snagged the wine bottle and threw a sinewy arm over my shoulder.
“So, you’re writer, then, eh, mate?” he whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “Well, have I got a story for you…”