"Ok, I gots the shit, but you gotta promise me you ain’t
not gonna tell nobody who gave it to you, amen?"
"Booboo," I replied, "you have my word."
He slipped the rolled parchment into my pocket and went on his way. His services
had cost me $75. Punchy would pay $100 for proof Booboo was back on the streets.
$25 would buy me some new shoes.
The easier route, of course, would have been to just steal them off another
soul’s feet while he was sleeping, but so few of my new comrades wore
size 15. Thank you, Mother, for passing on your gigantism. Sometimes, when
the half-healed blisters pocking the bottoms of my feet ripped open while
scraping against filthy street, I didn’t feel as guilty for decapitating
you and Father.
Before heading down Punchy’s way, I took the crosstown bus to the Crowley
College stop. I made sure, as I lay across the handicap seats, to belch and
fart and mumble so everyone would stare. Some days, a guy just needs some
The ride to Crowley College was a scenic twenty minutes. I hopped off the
bus, handed the driver a sodden piece of my coat as a tip, and ambled up the
green hill. I knew the way.
The philosophy department was housed in a stout brick building near the south
quad. No security guards impeded my journey. No professors accosted this raggedy
redhead marching through their academic wonderland. I entered the building
and descended the stairwell and approached Jessie Juniper’s office door
without a single obstacle.
Everyone is invisible on a college campus.
As I raised my fist to rap on Jessie’s door, I noticed the knuckles
of my fingers had become dirty again, as if I spent my days like an ape, walking
to and fro with a humped back and dangling arms. Did filth grow on me now?
Would I soon sprout weeds from my scalp? Would filth begin to randomly dot
my body like acne?
I knocked twice before she opened the door. Her twenties had not been kind
to Jessie Juniper. Her short, little girl body had bloated to almost two hundred
pounds, stretching her floral print blouse taut not only across her amorphous
chest but also along her weighty arms. Only her hair had loss mass; what once
had been a pompous afro had been reduced to a dark, oily crew cut.
"Go away," she rasped, and pushed close the door.
I blocked it at the frame with my long bony foot. "You know why I’m
here, Jessie," I said.
Her eyes refused to meet my stare. Yes, she knew why I was here. Ten years
ago, we had both been so callow, dipping our toes into the pool of magic arts.
Had we only been aware of the beasts waiting for us underneath the water’s
"I’m not interested," she lied.
She had made our first successes. While I had emptied myself into tome after
tome, failing to decipher ancient texts, Jessie had gone to the streets to
find the real juice. The night she’d returned to our apartment with
the orange tattoo, everything changed.
I shoved my way into her office. The college had given her cramped quarters,
but she had prettied it up with candles and decorative sashes.
"Very nice," I said. "Very ‘Bedouin witch.’"
"I won’t ask you again."
"Good." I smiled down at her black scalp. "Because you sound
so silly when you do."
Finally, her gaze lifted. As much as her body had swollen, her blue eyes
had become feeble; what once beamed now barely flickered. I felt momentarily
sad for the old girl.
"You couldn’t have done this at my apartment?"
I sat down in one of the room’s two chairs. The wood squeaked under
my lanky weight. "You would never have let me in the front door. This
way, we get to see each other. Have you missed me, Jessie?"
She took the other seat, behind her desk. No doubt she wanted the desk between
us, not to keep me at a distance but to hold her own temptation at bay. Oh,
Jessie, you poor soul.
"Let’s get this over with. What have you got?"
I withdrew Booboo’s parchment and tossed it across the desk.
Naturally, she didn’t unroll it.
"What is it?"
"What is it?"
"What. Is. It?"
"Jessie," I replied, "you know I can’t read it."
The night of the orange tattoo, she had come home late. I knew what she’d
been doing, and half-wished I had joined her. Instead I had opted to study
for our mid-terms. When she’d slammed open the door at 3:46 a.m. and
bellowed out a name I had never heard before, I knew something had happened.
I found her on her knees on the living room rug. Her hands were digging like
a gardener’s at the carpet. With her shirt half-open, I could easily
see the mark painted over her left breast. It was the chalk-orange palm print
of a child…only the four fingers were bent at strange angles and the
thumb seemed abnormally long, almost phallic. What in the name of God had
Jessie lay herself down flat on the carpet and began to sob. I bent down
to caress her shoulders and she flinched away.
After that night, she could read the ancient texts. She could now do other
things, too, but I wouldn’t find out about that until much later. I
also wouldn’t find out until much later what price she’d had to
In her office, the candlelight cast thousands of tiny shadows across her
scarf-lined walls. I leaned back in my creaking chair and watched her, waiting
for the inevitable. She would open the scroll. She would read the spell. I
would find out what I wanted, and then by nightfall deliver the parchment
to Punchy for my $25.
So imagine my surprise when instead of unrolling the document and returning
to the arcane world in which she belonged, Jessie Juniper picked up the spell
and lobbed it into her wastepaper basket.
"Anything else?" she asked. "Because I’ve got office
I felt my dirt-stained knuckles scratching up and down the legs of my chair.
How could she so casually – so callously – have thrown away this
opportunity? True, she wasn’t aware of my personal stake, but even if
she had been informed, would her initial reaction have been different?
So I changed the topic:
"How have you been, Jessie? How is your life?"
"My dissertation is finished." She leaned back, smugly. "I
go before committee next week."
"Right. Your dissertation. ‘The Influence of David Hume on Contemporary
Satanic Philosophy.’ Well, congratulations. It is spectacular to see
that all your ducks are in a row. No wonder you have no need for my meager
I lifted erect my tall frame. A hole in my coat caught on one of the chair’s
arms; threads parted with ease, barely even making a whimper.
"Jesus…" she muttered. "When was the last time you ate?"
"It’s been a pleasure, Jessie. Truly."
I shrugged my coat away from the chair and headed for her office door.
"Just like that?" She rose her substantial mass from her seat. "That’s
My hand rested on the cold brass doorknob. "What else is there?"
She reached into the basket. "Don’t forget this."
"Keep it," I replied. "After all, what good is it to me?"
I turned the knob slowly.
I opened the door.
Ah. There it was. The unmistakable crisp sound of centuries-old parchment
I closed the door.
Painting innocence on my face, I turned to see her. The paper trembled in
her hands. No – her hands were trembling and the paper was merely along
for the ride. Gagging noises erupted, as if a swarm of cockroaches had suddenly
lodged inside her throat; that plump tongue of hers slithered out and whipped
left and right, left and right.
Finally, I spoke:
"Am I now addressing the spirit of Torath-Gol?"
"I AM TORATH-GOL." Her voice-box struggled with each word. I could
only imagine the long term damage. Well, I needed a medium.
"Torath-Gol, you are great and mighty. I will not waste your time. Surely
you already know the reason I have summoned you."
"ALL MORTAL REASON IS KNOWN TO TORATH-GOL."
A small red patch, no larger than a dime, suddenly appeared under Jessie’s
left eye. I noticed several more on her hands. Those would be the blood vessels
bursting. I didn’t have much time.
"Then omniscient spirit, I beseech you. Is there an answer to my longing?"
Her eye whites were filling with blood. Thin scarlet trickles, like tears,
ran down to her jowls. "I HAVE CONTACTED THE GATESMAN. HE WILL ACCEPT
"That’s wonderful! Thank you, great and mighty Torath-Gol." The
candlelight circled around the room in incandescent jubilee. "For your
services, I offer you this woman’s soul. Enjoy."
"I SHALL TAKE. NOW."
Jessie Juniper, quite dead, collapsed to the floor.
The Gatesman had accepted my trade! I felt like dancing a jig. Quickly I
maneuvered out of the dank brick building and bussed back downtown, hopping
off at Cider Street. Surely some hapless freshman, arriving to discuss his
term paper, had by now discovered Jessie’s crimson corpse.
Jessie and I had met during a postmodernism class our first year of grad
school. She’d come from Alaska, while I was a homegrown New Roman. I
showed her around, highlighting the cool night spots most Crowley students
frequented and the cooler alternative night spots I preferred. While riding
the Cobra down at Bayside Thrill Park, she kissed me. She was young, intelligent,
lithe. I was clean cut. Back then I had money in my wallet. Back then I had
a wallet. We would head down to New Roman Tomes and browse for hours, trading
tales of the occult with the shop’s old owner, Edgar Cleeman.
After the night of the orange tattoo, however, she refused to join me on
any more visits to New Roman Tomes. She also refused to tell me why. One evening,
not many weeks later, she sat me down on our pink sofa and held my hand and
told me she was moving out.
"We’re too different now," she’d said. "It’s
not something I can put into words. There are some things I’ll never
be able to explain to you now."
"So show me," I’d replied. "Show me."
Strolling down Cedar Street, I fingered the stiff parchment, once again rolled
up and safely tucked inside a pocket. Booboo would be torn apart for dealing
curses again, but he never should have shorted me in that Belasco trade. Before
visiting Punchy, though, I paid a quick stop to my cart, secured beside a
dumpster down a nameless alleyway, and sucked down some stolen pudding. My
decayed teeth couldn’t handle anything more substantial.
The Gatesman had a distinctive aura. That was how he would be recognized.
I had to remember to buy some cheap aura-divining tools from Punchy. So went
my desire for new sneakers, but I had older dreams to fulfill.
If all went right, my parents would soon be back home.