The Devil and Johnnie Walker
by Cooper Anderson
Everyone’s got a story, I say. And working at the Eden, I’ve heard most of them. It comes with the territory of being a landlord. I pour the drinks and in exchange, people tell me all sorts of things. Husband’s run off with the milkman, dog was kidnapped then held for a ransom of two meatball sandwiches, or, my personal favorite, an artificial leg stolen by a roaming gang of alligators. I’ve heard it all before. There’s just something inherently trustworthy about a stranger handing you a frothy lager that makes you want to spill all your secrets to them. Which doesn’t mean you should. Especially in the Eden. We’re not that kind of establishment.
But I enjoy the work, and I bloody well should. I am the owner after all. Inherited it from my father nearly eight years ago. God rest his soul. I’ve got a picture of him from when he first opened up the place. It’s hanging on the back wall next to our liquor license and the Help Wanted poster. A few weeks ago, my fry cook joined up with the Royal Navy but not the Royal Navy you’re thinking of and I’ve been desperate for a pair of hands on the grille ever since.
In the photo, my dad’s hair is all shaggy and mousy brown like mine is now. Not white and thin like it was in his final years. He’s got a well-groomed, decade appropriate, handlebar mustache and a smile that would rosy the cheeks of even the most frigid of housewives. People say I look like him but I don’t see it. Besides, I’m older now than he was when the picture was taken.
He used to tell me things, my father. Little shells of wisdom that he acquired over a lifetime of serving brews. Things like: never bribe a health inspector with less than three hundred pounds or which booze works best for disinfecting a wound made by an oyster shucker. Things like that. He had a keen eye for business as well. My father knew the best place to build a pub is in the East End of London. That’s how we ended up in Whitechapel. Never a shortage of poor souls in need of a drink in Whitechapel. He’s been right so far. Never slow on a Friday night here.
You get used to people working in a pub. That’s part of the job as well. See, people rely on their landlords. We’re the sympathetic ear that listens, the shoulders to cry on. We are your therapist by trade and your pharmacist by profession. It’s a public service in its very nature. Cheaper than real therapy, too. The best example of this that comes to mind happened a few years back.
I remember it being a perfectly ordinary Wednesday night at the Eden. My nine regulars were chatting away about something or other and Chelsea were playing Man City on the tele. Then this old man in an ancient bomber jacket walks up to the bar. He tells me that he wants the best scotch in the house, runs a hand through his silver white hair, and cements himself on our least filthy bar stool.
“We’ve got Johnnie Walker Blue.” I tell the old man.
He tells me that’ll be fine and pulls out four very new, very crisp, fifty pound notes from his jacket pocket.
“Keep the change but leave the bottle.” He says in his thin elderly voice.
I hold the notes up to the light to make sure they were real. An entire weeknight’s earnings was just placed into my hand and I was going to be damn sure they were real. People who come to the Eden don’t carry fifty pound notes. Especially not four new ones that look like they were printed this morning. And even if someone did happen to walk in carrying four sequential fifty pound notes, complete with water marks and her majesty’s royal likeness on them, some upstanding citizen would come along to alleviate them of such a burden. I quickly stash the notes under the self-locking till before any of my regulars notice what I’m holding. I hand the old man a bottle with a blue ribbon drawn onto the label and a mostly clean glass.
“What’s the occasion?” I ask. Normally I wouldn’t. Asking questions in the Eden is like slathering your hand in honey then sticking it into an ant hill.
“I’ve just retired.” Said the old man. “Picked up my severance package today.”
He said this as if he’d just been given three months left to live. His accent isn’t a typical London accent. It’s too posh to be from Whitechapel and far too English to be American. It’s not Australian or Kiwi either but its close. South African maybe? Either way he’s from the empire and his money’s British enough so I stop trying to guess.
“Isn’t retirement a good thing?” I ask. “More time for fishing, or golf, or whatever it is that retired folks like to do with their newly freed time?”
He twisted off the cap of the Johnnie Walker and poured himself three fingers worth.
“Normally, yes. But it is a forced retirement.” He holds the glass up to me and says something that sounded like l’chaim, but it comes out all fuzzy like he’s saying through an old radio. But a good bartender always knows a ‘cheers’ when he hears it. So I nod out of respect. He drinks half the glass in a single sloosh and lets out a sigh.
“I loved my job.” He says as if he’s mourning the death of a lost lover. “It’s who I am. Or rather, who I was. It was tailor made for me. And I was good at it, like really good at it. And now that I’m out, what am I? You know?”
“Not really. I’ve worked here most of my life.”
Which was true. My father opened the Eden back in 1984. The year I was born. I muddled about in school for a while. Getting into trouble every so often. Not a lot mind you. Well, not at first anyway. I would’ve been a model student if they didn’t make fire alarms look so damn tempting.
But after getting expelled from high school for the third time in two years, I decided that my career in the public education sector had come to an end and that I’d join the family business. Mum wasn’t too happy about it. But she eventually got used to the idea and liked having the extra pair of hands to help out in the back. Not that she’d ever admit it of course. And it’s not like I was dead weight back then either. I was the one who suggested the decorative umbrella stand by the door and the pool table in the back corner.
“But you can’t be a real English pub without a pool table.” I hear my sixteen year old self say. “It’s like sacrilegious or whatever.” That was nearly twenty years ago. God, I’m getting old.
“What line of work were you in? If you don’t mind me asking.” I say to the old man. I remind myself that questions like these are dangerous things and that I should really stop trying to nick the cheese before the trap slams shut on my throat.
“I was the Devil.” He said and took a sip from his glass.
“Sorry. It sounded like you said you were the Devil?”
“That’s right. The Devil. Otherwise known as: Satan, Lucifer, Abaddon the Accuser, Beelzebub, the Deceiver, the Bringer of Darkness, the Conjurer of…bad things. Honestly the title’s changed so many times I can’t keep track anymore. But yes, I was, for all intents and purposes, the Devil.”
“Are…are you having a laugh?” I ask him.
He shakes his head.
“Not at all. Here I can prove it.” And the old man reaches into the inside of his coat pocket and pulls out a red and black business card that, sure enough, read:
Beneath that it read,
Located at any crossroads when the hour strikes midnight.
Then beneath that in very small letters,
*Offer not valid during the Feast of Souls or on Boxing Day.
“Well that settles it then, doesn’t it?” I say handing the card back to him.
He waves me off and tells me to keep it.
“You never know when you might need to sell your soul for something. I can still do the occasional deal in my golden years.” And he winks at me as if he’s offered me an insider trading secret.
“And what is the going rate for the average soul these days?” I say indulging the old man.
“Better than what the pound goes for. I’ll tell you that much.”
I notice that he’s half way through the bottle now which was strange because I only remember him having the two glasses. If the old man was drunk, he didn’t show it.
“Good money then? Being the Devil?” I say as I slip the red and black card into my trouser pocket.
“Oh, there’s loads of it. Tobacco sales, oil refineries, conflict diamonds, door-to-door salesman. You name it. There’s oodles of it out there. All for the taking. And I knew how to take.” And only then did he remember why he was there in the first place.
“And now it’s all gone. Done and over with. Forever.”
“Well, there’s still big tobacco and oil companies and all that. Are you saying they’re all just going to stop? Just like that?”
The old man shook his head. “They’re all run by the horsemen now. They’re all growing bigger and faster without me being in the way.”
“You know, horsemen! Of the apocalypse. Book of Revelations.”
“Sorry, I’m not much for reading.”
The old man shrugged and said nothing as he threw back his current tumbler full of scotch and then poured himself another.
Now I’m not normally interested in the sad and sodden tales of the crazies that darken my doorstep. I barely tolerate them from my regulars. But he seemed harmless enough, which could mean a fatal mistake in the Eden. But I decided to chance it anyway as this man would have to be a special kind of bastard to harm a guy who’s serving you top shelf. Besides, Chelsea were three-one up in the first half and the old man was entertaining. So I asked him.
“Well, if business is so good, why retire at all?”
“Well, it’s you, isn’t it? Human beings. You lot either find a way to fix anything that I can stir up. What with your clean energy bills or your ethical trade laws, what have you? Or you think of something far more horrible than anything I could think of. Like Ted Bundy or ATM transaction fees. It’s pure genius. I can’t keep up anymore. I’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s like being a symphony composer in the 1700’s. You practice and you practice all you like, but all anyone is ever going to be talking about is Mozart.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, mate.” I tell the old man.
But he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He was looking down into his drink as if he could find his answers at the bottom of the glass. Then, for that briefest of moments, I saw him for what he really was. A sad old man who had seen the future become history before his eyes and had failed to grab on as it sailed past. He was alone, and with no one but a middle aged landlord with no O-Levels to spend his retirement party with. I almost felt sorry for him.
“I mean it’s not like I didn’t try to adapt in these new confounded technological times. I mean I invented buffering for internet videos for Antichrist’s sake. I made sure there was at least one crying baby on most airline flights. Hell, I even came up with that self-check-out line at the grocery store that never seems to work properly.”
“All that was you?” I chuckle at the man. “Anything else you can put on the old résumé?” It came out harsher than I intended.
He sat there and for a moment I thought I had offended him but then he said
“You know how sometimes your phone doesn’t get a signal? Even when you’re in the middle of the city?”
“You’re welcome.” He finished off his latest glass and filled it to the top once again. The bottle sloshed. It was nearly two-thirds of the way empty.
“So I tried. I really did. But you lot are too adaptive. Too persevering. Every time I try and unleash some new and terrible inconvenience upon the world, you have to go and think of a way to make life that much more tolerable. I create pop up ads, you invent spam blockers. I bring up the wait times at Disneyland to almost inhumane levels, you come up with Fast Pass. I make T.V. commercials twice as long as the shows they’re in, and you invent TiVo. I mean, what’s the point of me doing anything anymore if some punk from M.I.T. or Oxford is going to come along and fix it? God, I hate Oxford.”
“Yeah I usually bet on Cambridge myself during the boat race.”
He didn’t laugh at my joke.
“So what are you going to do now in your newly acquired retirement?” I ask him.
He sighed then. In the way that an old dog sighs on a hot summers day.
“I suppose I’ll find ways to keep myself busy. Sure I’ll do the occasional possession but that’s really just to keep up with appearances mostly. Corrupting members of the clergy was always fun but it takes ages. Not like with the politicians. But they’re more like fish in a barrel to a guy like me. No, I think I might just turn into the skid and head over to Florida. I hear they got some really nice condos now. Of course property taxes are through the roof. So to speak. Thieving bastards.”
“You’re telling me that the Devil hates taxes?” I jab at the old man.
“I mean, I know that I’m the Devil and all. But that’s just plain evil. Isn’t it?”
He picks up the now nearly empty bottle, swirls the last remaining ounces, and tells me to get another glass. Since there is almost a guaranteed spot in hell for those who waste expensive scotch, I obliged.
“What should we toast to?” I say extending my arm towards him.
He pondered it until, eventually, he said “To people. The cause and correction to all your own problems from now on.”
Our tumblers clink and it burns all the way down in the way that good scotch is supposed to. I try to remember the last time I had Johnnie Walker Blue and if there was always this smoky aftertaste that’s coating the roof of my mouth. Before I can think of the answer the old man, seemingly defeated by this brave new world of neon and L.E.D., shifts himself off the stool. He brushes some imaginary lint from his shoulder and a cracker of an idea plops into my head like a stone being dropped in a pond.
“Why don’t you work here?” I ask.
He looks at me with wrinkled eyebrows and I almost rescind my offer when he tells me…
“What kind of work you talking about?”
“Nothing too strenuous.” I tell him. “Kitchen work mostly, maybe the occasional drink pouring when I’m busy. My last fry cook up and left me about a month ago. Didn’t even take his last week’s pay. Just poof! Gone. It’s been a bit of a toss-up since. You up for it?”
He stands there, sort of shocked or angry. Like I’ve just told him his mum was the best shag of my life. Whether it was genuine offense at my asking or just Mr. Walker’s liquid courage finally kicking in, the old man responded with: “I”—he says a bit more dramatically than I think he meant too—“am the dark lord of creation. I am the shadow that mirrors the sanctity of life. I tarnish the souls of the innocent and claim them for a kingdom of which I rule absolute. I have waged war against the creator and crashed into the gates of paradise. I questioned ineffability and tore the plains of Purgatory asunder. I strike fear and hate into the hearts of holy men throughout reality. I am the harbinger of calamity and the reckoner of the apocalypse. I am evil incarnate. I am the Devil.”
“Yeah.” I say. “But how are you at frying up chips?”
“I…I mean…I’ve never…well, how hard could it be?”
“Exactly. A smart fella like yourself, you’d pick it up in no time.”
His mouth wrinkles itself into a corner as he mulls over my offer. He starts to fiddle with the zipper on the end of his bomber jacket.
“When…when would I have to start?” I hear him ask almost sheepishly.
“You could start right now if you like.” I motion in a general direction around the Eden. “Still got mouths to water and bellies to fill. If you’re not busy of course.”
There’s a pause in the air as the old man takes one final iota of time to make up his mind but I know what his answer is already. I can see it in his eyes. I throw him a folded up apron.
“Come on.” I tell him. “I’ll show you how everything works round back.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Cooper Anderson currently lives and works in Japan teaching English as a second language. He grew up in rural North Carolina. He doesn’t own a cat, but a cat owns him. Cooper has also been published in The Odyssey.
3 thoughts on “The Devil and Johnnie Walker”
Some really nice lines in this story! Hooked me with your devil’s entrance.
I suggest you tighten it up and also darken your “dark lord of creation”. If, on the other hand, you want your character to appear more like a defeated bully (which is perhaps your point here) I’d develop that more.
Nice work. Keep writing!
Also love the line about the cat owning you. So true!
Side note: I believe when you are teaching English in another country where English is not the first language, under the TESOL umbrella you are an EFL teacher or English as a Foreign Language teacher.
Nice character piece. Some typos that need correction. But the notion of the Devil finding a home in Eden tickles the fancy, The notion seems to be that human nature has made the devil’s work obsolete, but it doesn’t quite gel for me. Good dialogue, scene well set, interesting characterization. My sense is that this good be a corker if reworked a bit. AGB
I enjoyed it, but AG’s comment about humans making the devil’s work obsolete is right. That idea lessened the impact for me.