Short Story: “The Devil Went Down to Tulsa”

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 NIV

It isn’t until you look the Devil in the eye for the first time–really look at him–that you realize that you have seen him before. I was actually going to introduce this story as the time I met the Devil, but that would be wrong. Because the day I met him, I realized that he wasn’t really a stranger.

In fact, Satan was someone I knew pretty well. I didn’t know him by that name; he rarely goes by his given names. He is the Father of Lies, after all. But I had seen him every time I walked into a store and bought something I wasn’t proud of. He was the man who worked the cashier at the theater when I went to see the movies I didn’t tell people at church about. He was the waitress who picked up the receipt and flirted with me, even though I have been a happily married man for many years. How did I know it was Satan? It was all in the eyes. There was always a certain expectation, a special hint of enjoyment, when you disappointed those you depended on you, when you failed to live up to who you thought you were as a Christian. I told you so, the eyes seem to say. You’re not really a Christian, are you.

But this was different. This wasn’t some casual sin that I could cover up and ask for forgiveness for later. This was for the whole ball of wax. There he was, sitting on a bar stool, right next to me in this empty bus station. He was wearing an expensive looking polo shirt and a sports coat. On top of that he wore a tan overcoat, as if he expected foul weather outside. He seemed in a hurry for some reason, and leaned forward toward me, eager to hear my response.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said. I looked at him blankly.

He grinned. “I swear the godawful truth. I am he. Satan. Lucifer. Beelzebub. Whatever you want to call me. And I have a deal that I know you are going to like.” He raised an eyebrow and leaned in even closer.

“If you are who you say you are, then I doubt you have anything I want,” I said, an unsure note in my voice. Then I added, “What is it?”

He clucked his tongue. “The Bible talks about selling your soul and gaining the world. That seems like a pretty good deal to me, especially if you’re not too confident in your own soul to begin with.” He looked at me with those intense eyes of his. “What kind of shape is your soul in?”

I frowned. “I’m not sure. I’m a Christian. Don’t I need my soul to be saved?”

Satan squinted and scratched his chin. “Maybe. I wouldn’t know. If that’s all you’re concerned with, maybe we can work out a deal. How about I borrow your soul? If you’re not using it while you’re here, I will hold onto it until you’re ready to be judged. Then I promise to give it back to you. I won’t even tarnish it. How does that sound?”

“What do I get in return?”

“What do you want?” He hesitated, then continued. “Wait, don’t tell me. I know. You’re a writer. I will give you worldly success as a writer–even put you on the New York Times Bestseller List–in exchange for you temporarily surrendering control of your soul.”

I narrowed my eyes and looked at Satan. He was, after all, a liar. How could I trust him?

“So let me get this straight. I surrender my soul–temporarily–to you. You make me a successful writer. When I die, or when Jesus returns or I otherwise need it, you return my soul back to me. That about it?”

He smiled crookedly and nodded. “Talented and smart too. Yep, that’s about it.”

I still wasn’t sure. It sounded like a good deal, but I didn’t have a good track record with Satan.

“Can I think about it?” I asked. “At least a few minutes?”

Satan looked over his shoulder at the clock on the wall. “I’m on the bus to Tulsa in about 20 minutes. You have until then to decide.” He grinned, shrugged, and walked away. I could tell by his swagger that he thought the deal was already made.

I stared at the empty coffee cup in front of me, unsure what to do. I heard someone clear their throat and saw an elderly woman sitting a few seats down the bar, looking at me.

“Sounds like a raw deal, if you ask me,” the woman said. She was carrying packages as if she had been shopping. Her purse was set on the bar in front of her, along with a Danish and a half-drunk glass of milk.

“Excuse me?” I said. “Were you eavesdropping?”

She smiled slightly. “I couldn’t help it when the man introduced himself as Satan. It kind of gets a person’s attention.”

I raised my eyebrows and smiled as well. “Yeah, I see what you mean.” I paused. “Why do you think it’s a raw deal?”

“He gets your soul and all you get is, what, some money? Money is easy to come by. Souls, not so much.”

I stared at the woman. “What do you know about souls?”

She shrugged. “Some. I know that we get them when we are born, we keep them our whole lives and they are the only thing we take with us when we die. Sounds pretty important to me.”

“He did say he was going to give it back.”

She laughed harshly. “That’s like offering to give a life jacket back after you drown. What good is your soul going to do you if you don’t have it here?”

I stared at her blankly. “I don’t understand.”

“I know you don’t,” she said. “You don’t have the first inkling as to what a soul is, do you.”

I didn’t answer her, mainly because she was right. I didn’t really know what a soul was.

She got up and moved over to the seat next to me, the one that Satan had sat in moments before. But she didn’t lean it, pressing herself into my space as he had. Instead, she sat lightly on the edge of the round stool. I also noticed that her packages were all but forgotten behind her.

“A soul is what makes you you,” she said. “People give you your reputation, but you give yourself your character. That’s what a soul is.”

I nodded as if I knew what she was talking about, even though it was still fuzzy in my head.  “So a soul is how you are seen by God?”

“Yes,” she said, smiling. “And no.” She hesitated. “I only say no because we only think God is interested in our spiritual side. He’s wants to know all of us. Who we find interesting romantically. What we are doing creatively. What our dreams are. What our fears are. Put all of that together, and you have the real you. Not the you that other people see. Not the you that you present to yourself. But the you that God sees. The real you.”

“The soul,” I added, making the logical leap that I knew was coming.

She nodded, grinning now. “If you give that over to Mr. Pointy Ears out there, you give up you being you. Sure, you might get a new car and a new house. But in the end, he gets you. That’s what he’s after.”

I nodded, thinking. “Somehow, I knew that answer already. But it was good to hear you explain it. What’s your name, by the way?”

She smiled, turning away from me. “Oh, I don’t really have a name. See you around, Kid.” As I watched, she vanished, and her packages vanished as well.

I looked up at the clock on the wall and realized that it was time for the bus to Tulsa to board. Outside the window, I could see the line of people getting on the bus. Third in line was the man who had identified himself as The Devil. He hadn’t bothered to come back in to ask me what my decision was. Somehow he already knew what my answer was.

As he took a step into the bus, he turned and looked at me. He gave me an angry look that should have frightened me. But somehow I felt reassured.

Now that I knew what my soul was for, I had plans for it. And they didn’t include him.