Rodger Cloots lived in a ranch house on Glade Avenue in that part of Brickton that replaced all the farmland in the 1950s. There was a park about a half a block away, and when the weather was nice, kids used to tramp all over the neighborhood, but not past Mr. Cloots’ house. He had a big dog named Spot, but it wasn’t spotted, and no one had any idea what breed it was. Legend in the neighborhood was that Mr. Cloots fed it live squirrels and rabbits he caught in his garden. Maybe even an occasional cat. The thing was like a four-legged Boo Radley.
Jake Ellington moved next door to Mr. Cloots the summer he was eleven, and he quickly learned to take the basketball down to the park instead of using the backboard on the garage behind the house. It wouldn’t roll into Mr. Cloots’ impatiens that way. Jake didn’t even dribble it down the sidewalk. It might bounce off his toe and land on the old man’s lawn, and that would bring Spot running, if not old Cloots’ himself. Jake had learned a healthy dose of fear would keep him out of trouble. In fact, he was the first kid on the block to learn it, because Mr. Cloots had moved in only a couple of weeks before the Ellingtons.
“Does your mother know where you’re going?” asked Mr. Cloots one day. It was after school let out but before the Fourth of July, and the Ellingtons were still unpacking.
Mr. Cloots was sitting in a folding lawn chair, watering every individual square inch of his lawn with a hose. Spot was sunning himself by his master’s feet. Jake slowed down and squeezed the basketball, like it was trying to jump onto Mr. Cloots’ lawn. “The park.”
Jake stopped completely, unsure how to answer.
Mr. Cloots shifted his sneakered feet under the chair and leaned over his round, shirtless belly. His snow white eyebrows and mustache were three of a kind, and covered up his expression, even in broad daylight. “Cat got your tongue?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, sir?”
“Huh?” Jake couldn’t understand why Mr. Cloots had called him ‘sir’, when point of fact he hadn’t.
“In the good old days—back when men were men and heroin was medicinal—boys used to call their elders ‘sir’,” said Mr. Cloots.
“Did they?” Jake didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but he wasn’t trying to make the old man happy, either. He just wanted to get on with his life and play a little basketball.
Mr. Cloots leaned back and cackled drily under his breath. “I’m Rodger Cloots, your new neighbor.” He kept one gnarled old hand on the trigger of the nozzle and offered the other to Jake, who shook it like he’d seen his dad do with people at the social hour after church.
“Jake Ellington. We just moved in.”
“So did I—a couple of weeks ago.”
“I think we’re going to be great friends, Jake. Don’t you?”
“Now go play George Mikan.”
“Basketball, kid. Go play basketball.”
Jake took the ball to the park and practiced his free throws until it was dark, and when he walked home, he took the long way to avoid the Cloots’ place.
“I saw you talking with Mr. Cloots today, Hon,” said Jake’s mom, pulling a casserole out of the oven. “Seems like a nice man, doesn’t he?”
“He’s okay. Kinda weird. Who’s George Mikan?”
“Ask your father. Did you get a chance to play with Mr. Cloots’ dog? I know how you love animals.”
“You know, Jake, I was talking with him this afternoon, and he said you were welcome to come over anytime and play with Spot,” said Jake’s mom. She slid the casserole onto a wooden trivet. “Call your father for supper, will you?”
“Dad!” shouted Jake. “Dinnertime!”
“I could have done that,” sighed Jake’s mom, shaking her head. “Pour yourself a glass of milk. So what do you think about Mr. Cloots’ offer? Mrs. Bendictson across the street said he hasn’t had any visitors since he moved in last month. I think he’s lonely.”
Jake wanted to argue that he had friends his own age, but they were all in Tampa, and school didn’t start until August, so Mr. Cloots was his best option for summertime company, unless he wanted to run the playground gauntlet and risk an encounter with a bully. Jake attracted bully problems like dogpiles did flies—that blue kind with the inhuman eyes.
The next day, armed with the knowledge that George Mikan was a basketball star from the 1940s and 50s, Jake walked toward his garage, ostensibly looking for a basketball, but really looking for Mr. Cloots and his dog, and he found them over the hedge of Mr. Cloots’ midsummer garden. Jake waved and Mr. Cloots waved back, smiling an unpracticed smile. At least he’s trying, thought Jake in his mother’s voice.
“How do you like my garden?” asked Mr. Cloots, beaming over the multicolored landscape.
“Pretty, hell,” said Mr. Cloots. “A garden like this takes a lot of work. I couldn’t grow one like this where I used to live.”
“Oh, yeah?” asked Jake. “Where’d you used to live?”
“C’mon over here so I don’t have to yell,” said Mr. Cloots. “I’ll getcha an orange soda.”
Jake used the narrow walkway between the two properties and saw Spot laying on his side, as if he were dead. Spot normally went bonkers whenever Jake cast a shadow on the lawn, but not now with an invitation. He reached down to stroke the dog.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Mr. Cloots. “Might rile him. He’ll wake up sooner or later. Here’s your soda.”
Fragments of ice slid down the outside of glass bottle, just like some old commercial, and it tasted like technicolor—the perfect thing for a hot, summer afternoon. “Thanks, Mr. Cloots.”
“Ah,” dismissed Mr. Cloots with a wave of his hand.
“So … where’d you used to live? We just moved from Tampa.” He wiped his head with his forearm. “Hotter there in the summer than here, and it’s pretty hot today.”
“You think this is hot,” said Mr. Cloots. “You should try some of the places I’ve lived.”
“I drove a tank in the Korean War, and those things heat up like dutch ovens,” said Mr. Cloots, looking up at the sun with something like ruefulness. “In the early 60s, I worked in Dallas at a storage building for school books. Back then, you’d only find air conditioning in groceries and movie theaters. Even in November, it could burn you up, especially in the top couple of floors. Let’s see—I was a chef in Los Angeles for a while, too. The city’s nice, always about 72º Fahrenheit, but the kitchen just cooks you in your boots. Did some interpreting for the U.N. in Indochina during the late 70s. Give you an idea of what that’s like—imagine pencil pushing in a giant, sweaty armpit—and don’t even get me started on how hot an Iraqi oilfield can get, especially when it’s on fire. Could bring out beads of sweat on a salamander’s upper lip.”
“You’ve worked all those jobs?” asked Jake. His dad was a history professor, had always been and probably would always be, but Mr. Cloots had worked enough for three men. “What do you do now? Sell insurance or something?”
“Don’t be a wiseacre,” said Mr. Cloots. “Come on inside where it’s cooler and I’ll show you some of my collectibles.”
Jake followed him into the house. Spot followed and curled up in front of the door, but Mr. Cloots kept going into the living room, which he called the parlor. Even at the tender age of eleven, Jake could tell the room needed a woman’s touch. It looked like a curio shop without the price tags. There was a triangular crucible from a place called Knittlingen, a Gibson L-1 guitar with the name ‘R. Johnson’ scratched into the back, and a scuffed up hood ornament from a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, but what struck Jake most was that there was a fine patina of dust on everything, like it had been sitting just so forever, even though Mr. Cloots said he had just moved in. Jake cut the dust on the end table in half with his finger, like Moses parting the Red Sea.
“What’d you do over at Mr. Cloots’ house today?” asked Jake’s dad, twirling a forkful of spaghetti into his mouth. He had been unpacking boxes in his office in a pair of khakis and a polo, and a few flecks of sauce finally marked them for the laundry.
“He’s got a bunch of cool stuff in—in his parlor, dad,” said Jake. His mom smiled at him and offered him more salad. “No, thanks, Ma. He’s got some cool Civil War memorabilia. Pictures and stuff. He called them—arrowtypes, I think.”
“Daguerreotypes,” said Jake’s dad. “Early photography. What kind of pictures from the war did he have?”
“Lots of battlefields—after the fact. Dead soldiers lined up and things. There was a really cool one of Abraham Lincoln getting shot, though. I’d never seen it before.”
“The Lincoln Assassination?” asked Jake’s dad. “Must be a mock up.”
“A fake, son.”
“Mr. Cloots said it was the real deal. I’m going back over there after dinner. Wanna come along?”
His dad said that he did, so after Jake cleared the dishes and his dad rinsed them, they both walked across the driveway to Mr. Cloots’ house, where he was waiting in the long shadows of an early summer evening. Spot was laying at the front door, calm as a nap.
“Oh, hi there, Mr. Ellington,” he said, getting up out of his armchair. “How ’bout a nice cold beer?”
“It’s Wyatt, and sure, a beer would be great.”
Mr. Cloots went to the kitchen and brought back two brown bottles of open beer, and a bottle of orange soda for Jake. “Summer night’s in these latitudes are mighty fine, Wyatt.”
“It was a nice one today, Rodger,” said Jake’s dad, taking the beer. “Is that what brings you to Brickton? The weather?”
“You’re a teacher at Evans College, aren’t you?”
Jake’s dad swallowed a mouthful of beer. “A professor, yes. I just accepted a position there. Start teaching in the fall.”
“Well, you came for work,” Mr. Cloots said. “I came to retire.”
“Most people retire to warmer climates.”
“Yeah, well…” he trailed off. “You’ve got quite a boy there.”
“He thinks the world of you.” He rumpled Jake’s hair affectionately. “And who can blame him, with everything you’ve been telling him—and showing him.” He waved the beer bottle around the room, a pawn shop of the bizarre.
“Jake is an observant kid,” said Mr. Cloots, smiling at the boy.
“He even says you have an honest-to-God daguerreotype of the Lincoln Assassination at Ford’s Theater. Can you imagine?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.”
Through the open window, Jake could hear his mother calling his father to come pick up the phone—something about a dean at the school checking up on their move, so his father shook Mr. Cloots’ hand and tried to hurry out the door, but when he did, Spot stood up and bared his teeth, a low rumble coming from his broad chest. Mr. Cloots had to order the dog to back down before Jake’s dad could walk out the door, and even then, Wyatt had to watch his heels.
“What’d you tell your dad about that picture for?” asked Mr. Cloots.
“He’s a history professor at Evans. You know that,” Jake said, looking Mr. Cloots hard in the eyes for a few long moments. “Is it real? My dad says it has to be a fake.”
“It’s real—look.” Mr. Cloots reached into a drawer where he kept his favorite rare photos and pulled out the picture he had shown Jake earlier. “It’s not a daguerreotype. It’s a tintype, a more modern process of picture-taking. A daguerreotype needs a longer exposure, and for a shot like this, an action shot, I needed a quicker film speed to catch it. It’s still not a great picture by today’s standards, but you can see what’s going on. See? There’s Lincoln falling forward, and right there is the shooter, John Wilkes Boothe. Did you know he was a famous actor?”
“Sure, everybody knows that,” said Jake, not realizing that everybody wasn’t the son of a history professor. “But you said that you needed a quicker film speed.”
Mr. Cloots smiled again. Each time he did it came more naturally. “You caught that, did you? Yes. I took that picture, and that’s something your dad doesn’t have the faith to grasp. So don’t go running and tell him. Promise?”
Jake didn’t want to promise his neighbor anything, but found it hard to resist. “Okay, I promise, but I don’t believe you.”
“You’d be amazed how often I’m called a liar.”
“Were you ever a lawyer? My dad says that ‘lawyer’ is how he pronounces ‘liar’.”
“He’s a wiseacre, too, eh?” said Mr. Cloots, swallowing another mouthful of beer. The bottle was more than half full, but he went into the kitchen, dumped it down the sink, and grabbed a new one. “I can’t stand it when they get warm like that.”
Jake’s orange soda was still very cold—so cold he couldn’t hold it for very long or his hands hurt. He took another drink, and eyed Mr. Cloots over the bottom of the upturned bottle. The old man picked up the tintype of the Lincoln Assassination again and lost himself in thought for a few seconds.
“I was there, Jake. I practically set the thing up, if you want to know it all. Boothe needed a lot of coaxing—he was a coward when you get right down to it—but I had a hand in it. That crucible over there, the one stamped Knittlingen? That belonged to Faust. I took that with me after his contract was fulfilled. The guitar belonged to Robert Johnson, who traded with me to be the most influential blues musician of all time. And the hood ornament came from the car James Dean died in. Souvenirs from past transactions. You asked if I was a lawyer, and you’re not far from the mark. I’m the Devil, Jake.”
“Nuh-uh,” smiled Jake. He knew the old man was joking now.
Mr. Cloots held up his beer bottle. “Watch this.” The bottle still had frost on the outside, but it exploded in his hand, spilling steaming beer all over the carpet. “I run really hot, if I let myself. Something like near boiling, and I hate the heat.” He rolled his eyes. “The Loaf Eater really knows how to rub a victory in, you know?”
“That’s what the word ‘Lord’ means, etymologically—at its root. You’ll excuse me for not calling him by his right title. We haven’t been on speaking terms for about six thousand years.”
Jake looked at the shattered glass in the wet spot on the carpet, and then at Mr. Cloots’ hand. It wasn’t burned or bleeding, but it had to be a trick, and Jake said so.
“What proof can I give that’ll make you believe?” he said, and then added under his breath but loud enough to hear: “And they say my greatest accomplishment is making people think I don’t exist … ”
As soon as he said the word, Jake’s feet left the ground. It didn’t feel like he was being lifted by any force, seen or unseen. Instead, it felt like all of his weight, his gravity, just slipped out of his shoes as he floated toward the ceiling, like a helium-filled balloon. Jake knew there was no way Mr. Cloots could fake that, even with hypnotism. “Put me down!”
“You believe me?”
“Yes! Yes!” Jake would have said anything to get what he wanted, but he found that he actually did believe Mr. Cloots. Jake landed softly on his feet and felt gravity reenter his body.
“You should have asked for something harder. I am the Lord of the Air, y’know.”
Jake sat down and gripped the arms of the chair like he was going to fly away again.
“People always accuse me of being a liar, but really, they just hear what they want to hear. I may leave out information, or play up an unlikely possibility, but I don’t lie, not really. How’s that any worse than a Madison Avenue ad man?”
“So, what do you want, Mr. Cloots? With me?”
“Nothing. Everything. You ever wonder how lonely it is being the Devil?”
“What about your demons?”
“Those guys? If I had control over them, I might have won the war for Heaven,” said Mr. Cloots. “But don’t let the name fool you. Propaganda It was more of a collective bargaining agreement gone sour. A union thing.”
“You went on strike?”
“We were locked out. Started collecting souls to bargain our way back in. That just made things worse between ownership and its employees. And now … me and the demons, we’re not even on the same team anymore.”
“I retired, Jake.”
“Can’t stand the heat. But more than that, any nickel theologian will tell you that there’s no way to win. Most major world religions will tell you that I’m going to lose eventually, and that’s when it gets really bad for me. Lake of fire and all that. Brimstone. Eternal punishment. Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. But here’s the catch, Jake. I have to launch that final assault. Armageddon. Ragnarok. The Last Battle. If I don’t—if I just retire to a nice suburb like Brickton—then its status quo, forever. Now if the Big Boss wants to force that last assault, then who’s the bad guy? At the very least, it helps my case getting back in his good graces.”
Jake kept imagining Mr. Cloots in a red cape with the pitchfork, and even then, in his imagination, the old man didn’t look scary—even a little bit. He had yellow-white hair, bright eyes and wrinkly jowls, with just a little more energy than a man in his 80s should have, but he wasn’t a monster or anything, and Jake wondered if thinking that way about Mr. Cloots made him a bad person or something. He drank some of his orange soda and burped faintly.
The next day was a Saturday. Jake woke up late and went downstairs for waffles, which his mom had whipped up special for him. He didn’t say anything to her about what he knew about Mr. Cloots, but she could tell something was bothering him about the old man.
She tried to change to subject. “Hey, hon, there’s a moving van across the street. Another house sold.”
“Three in a month,” she said. “Must be some kind of record, and in a down economy like this! Can you imagine? I went over there this morning to introduce myself. A nice, Greek family. Name is Thanatos.”
“Thanatos?” asked Jake’s dad. “Isn’t that the Greek name for the Grim Reaper?”
Christian Larsen grew up in Park Ridge, Illinois and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has worked as a high school English teacher, a radio personality, a newspaper reporter, a musician and songwriter, and a printer’s devil. He lives with his wife and two sons in Kenosha, Wisconsin.