by Richard Butner
Download a 44MB mp3 audio file of Richard Butner reading “Ash City Stomp.”
She had dated Secrest for six weeks before she asked for the Big Favor. The Big Favor sounded like, “I need to get to Asheville to check out the art therapy program in their psychology grad school,” but in reality she had hard drugs that needed to be transported to an old boyfriend of hers in the mountains, and the engine in her 1982 Ford Escort had caught fire on the expressway earlier that spring.
Secrest was stable, a high school geometry teacher who still went to see bands at the Mad Monk and Axis most nights of the week. They had met at the birthday party of a mutual friend who lived in Southport. She had signified her attraction to him by hurling pieces of wet cardboard at him at two a.m. as he walked (in his wingtip Doc Martens) to his fully operative and freshly waxed blue 1990 Honda Civic wagon.
The Big Favor started in Wilmington, North Carolina, where they both lived. He had packed the night before — a single duffel bag. She had a pink Samsonite train case (busted lock, $1.98 from the American Way thrift store) and two large paper grocery bags full of various items, as well as some suggestions for motels in Asheville and sights to see along the way. These suggestions were scrawled on the back of a flyer for a show they’d attended the week before. The band had been a jazz quartet from New York, led by a guy playing saxophone. She hated saxophones. Secrest had loved the show, but she’d been forced to drink to excess to make it through to the end of all the screeching and tootling, even though she’d been trying to cut back on the drinking and smoking and related activities ever since they’d started dating.
That was one of the reasons she liked him — it had been a lot easier to quit her bad habits around him. He had a calming influence. She’d actually met him several months before, when he still had those unfashionably pointy sideburns. She pegged him as a sap the minute he mentioned that he was a high school teacher. But at the Southport birthday party they had ended up conversing, and he surprised her with his interests, with the bands and books and movies he liked and disliked. Since they’d started dating she had stopped taking half-pints of Wild Turkey in her purse when she worked lunch shifts at the Second Story Restaurant. His friends were used to hunching on the stoop outside his apartment to smoke, but she simply did without and stayed inside in the air-conditioning.
Hauling a load of drugs up to ex-boyfriend Rusty, though, was an old bad habit that paid too well to give up, at least not right away.
She compared her travel suggestions with his; he had scoured guidebooks at the local public library for information on budget motels, and he’d downloaded an online version of North Carolina Scenic Byways. His suggestions included several Civil War and Revolutionary War sites. Her suggestions included Rock City, which he vetoed because it turned out Rock City was in Tennessee, and the Devil’s Stomping Ground, which he agreed to and did more research on at the library the next day.
“The Devil’s Stomping Ground,” he read from his notes, “is a perfect circle in the midst of the woods.
“According to natives, the Devil paces the circle every night, concocting his evil snares for mankind and trampling over anything growing in the circle or anything left in the circle.”
“That’s what the dude at the club said,” she said without looking up from her sketchbook. She was sketching what looked like ornate wrought iron railings such as you’d find in New Orleans. She really did want to get into grad school in art therapy at Western Carolina.
“Of course, it’s not really a historical site, but I guess it’s doable,” Secrest said. “It’s only an hour out of our way, according to Triple A.”
“So, there you go.”
“This could be the beginning of something big, too — there are a lot of these Devil spots in the United States. We should probably try to hit them all at some point. After you get out of grad school, I mean.”
“OK.” It wasn’t the first time he had alluded to their relationship as a long-term one, even though the question of love, let alone something as specific as marriage, had yet to come up directly in their conversations. She didn’t know how to react when he did this, but he didn’t seem deflated by her ambivalence.
That was how the trip came together. She had tried to get an interview with someone in the art therapy program at Western Carolina, but they never called back. Still, she finished putting together a portfolio.
The morning of the Big Favor, she awoke to a curiously spacious bed. He was up already. Not in the apartment. She peeked out through the blinds over the air conditioner and saw him inside the car, carefully cleaning the windshield with paper towels and glass cleaner. She put her clothes on and went down to the street. It was already a hazy, muggy day. He had cleaned the entire interior of the car, which she’d always thought of as spotless in the first place. The windshield glistened. All of the books and papers she had strewn around on the passenger floorboard, all of the empty coffee cups and wadded-up napkins that had accumulated there since she’d started dating him, all of the stains on the dashboard, all were gone.
“What are you doing?” she asked, truly bewildered.
“Can’t go on a road trip in a dirty car,” he said, smiling. He adjusted a new travel-sized box of tissues between the two front seats and stashed a few packets of antiseptic wipes in the glove compartment before crawling out of the car with the cleaning supplies. As they walked up the steps to his apartment she gazed back at the car in wonder, noting that he’d even scoured the tires. She remembered the story he’d told of trying to get a vanity plate for the car, a single zero. North Carolina dmv wouldn’t allow it, for reasons as vague as any Supreme Court ruling. Neither would they allow two zeroes. He made it all the way up to five zeroes and they still wouldn’t allow it. So he gave up and got the fairly random HDS-1800.
After several cups of coffee, she repacked her traincase and grocery bags four times while he sat on the stoop reading the newspaper. They left a little after nine a.m., and she could tell that he was rankled that they didn’t leave before nine sharp. It always took her a long time to get ready, whether or not she was carefully taping baggies of drugs inside the underwear she had on.
Once they made it north out of Wilmington, the drive was uneventful. He kept the needle exactly on 65, even though the Honda didn’t have cruise control. He stayed in the rightmost lane except when passing the occasional grandma who wasn’t doing the speed limit. After he had recounted some current events he’d gleaned from the paper, they dug into the plastic case of mix tapes he had stashed under his seat. She nixed the jazz, and he vetoed the country tapes she’d brought along as too depressing, so they compromised and listened to some forties bluegrass he’d taped especially for the trip.
“You’re going to be hearing a lot of this when you’re in grad school in the mountains,” he said.
She was bored before they even hit Burgaw, and her sketchpad was in the hatchback. She pawed the dash for the Sharpie that she’d left there, then switched to the glovebox where she found it living in parallel with a tire gauge and a McDonald’s coffee stirrer. She carefully lettered WWSD on the knuckles of her left hand.
What Would Satan Do? Satan would not screw around, that’s for sure. Satan would have no trouble hauling some drugs to the mountains. She flipped her hand over and stared at it, fingers down. Upside down, because the d was malformed, it looked like OSMM. Oh Such Magnificent Miracles. Ontological Secrets Mystify Millions. Other Saviors Make Mistakes.
In Newton Grove, she demanded a pee break, and she recovered her sketchpad from the hatch. Just past Raleigh, they left the interstate and found the Devil’s Stomping Ground with few problems, even though there was only a single sign. She had imagined there’d be more to it, a visitor’s center or something, at least a parking lot. Instead there was a metal sign that had been blasted with a shotgun more than once, and a dirt trail. He slowed the Honda and pulled off onto the grassy shoulder. Traffic was light on the state road, just the occasional overloaded pickup swooshing by on the way to Bear Creek and Bennett and further west to Whynot. He pulled his camera from the duffel bag, checked that all the car doors were locked, and led the way down the trail into the woods. It was just after noon on a cloudy day, and the air smelled thickly of pine resin. Squirrels chased each other from tree to tree, chattering and shrieking.
It was only two hundred yards to the clearing. The trees opened up onto a circle about forty feet across. The circle was covered in short, wiry grass, but as the guidebook had said, none grew along the outer edge. The clearing was ringed by a dirt path. Nothing grew there, but the path was not empty. It was strewn with litter: smashed beer bottles, cigarette butts, shredded pages from hunting and porno magazines were all ground into the dust. These were not the strangest things on the path, though.
The strangest thing on the path was the Devil. He was marching around the path, counter-clockwise; just then he was directly across the clearing from them. They stood and waited for him to walk around to their side.
The Devil was rail thin, wearing a too-large red union suit that had long since faded to pink. It draped over his caved-in chest in front and bagged down almost to his knees in the seat. A tattered red bath towel was tied around his neck, serving as a cape. He wore muddy red suede shoes that looked like they’d been part of a Christmas elf costume. His black hair was tousled from the wind, swooping back on the sides but sticking straight up on the top of his head. His cheeks bore the pockmarks of acne scars; above them, he wore gold Elvis Presley-style sunglasses. His downcast eyes seemed to be focusing on the black hairs sprouting from his chin and upper lip, too sparse to merit being called a goatee.
“This must be the place,” she said.
The Devil approached, neither quickening nor slowing his pace. She could tell that this was unnerving Secrest a bit. Whenever he was nervous, he sniffed, and that was what he was doing. Sniffing.
“You smell something?” asked the Devil, pushing his sunglasses to the top of his head. “Fire and/or brimstone, perhaps?” The Devil held up both hands and waggled them. His fingers were covered in black grime.
Secrest just stood still, but she leaned over and smelled the Devil’s hand.
“Motor oil!” she pronounced. The Devil reeked of motor oil and rancid sweat masked by cheap aftershave. “Did your car break down?”
“I don’t know nothing about any car,” the Devil said. “All I know about is various plots involving souls, and about trying to keep anything fresh or green or good out of this path. But speaking of cars, if you’re heading west on I-40, can I catch a ride with y’all?”
“Uh, no,” Secrest said, then he turned to her. “Come on, let’s go. There’s nothing to see here.” He sniffed again.
“Nothing to see?” cried the Devil. “Look at this circle! You see how clean it is? You know how long it took me to fix this place up?”
“Actually, it’s filthy,” Secrest said, poking his toe at the shattered remains of a whiskey bottle, grinding the clear glass into a candy bar wrapper beneath.
The Devil paused and glanced down to either side.
“Well, you should’ve seen it a while back.”
Secrest turned to leave, tugging gently at her sleeve. She followed but said, “C’mon, I’ve picked up tons of hitchhikers in my time, and I’ve never been messed with. Besides, there’s two of us, and he’s a scrawny little dude.”
“A scrawny little schizophrenic.”
“He’s funny. Live a little, give the guy a ride. You’ve read On the Road, right?”
“Yes. The Subterraneans was better.” Secrest hesitated, as if reconsidering, which gave the Devil time to creep up right behind them.
“Stay on the path!” the Devil said, smiling. “Forward, march!”
Secrest sighed and turned back toward the path to the car. They marched along for a few more steps, and then he suddenly reached down, picked up a handful of dirt, then spun and hurled it at the Devil.
The Devil sputtered and threw his hands up far too late to keep from getting pelted with dirt and gravel.
“Go away!” Secrest said. He looked like he was trying to shoo a particularly ferocious dog.
“What did you do that for? You’ve ruined my outfit.”
She walked over and helped brush the dirt off. “C’mon, now you’ve got to give him a ride.” The Devil looked down at her hand and saw the letters there.
“Ah, yep, what would Satan do? Satan would catch a ride with you fine folks, that’s what he’d do. Much obliged.”
From there back to the interstate the Devil acted as a chatty tour guide, pointing out abandoned gold mines and Indian mounds along the way. Secrest had the windows down, so the Devil had to shout over the wind blowing through the cabin of the Honda. Secrest wouldn’t turn on the AC until he hit the interstate. “It’s not efficient to operate the air conditioning until you’re cruising at highway speeds,” he had told her. That was fine with her; the wind helped to blow some of the stink off of the Devil.
A highway sign showed that they were twenty-five miles out of Winston-Salem. “Camel City coming up,” the Devil said, keeping up his patter.
“Yeah, today we’ve rolled through Oak City, the Bull City, the Gate City, all the fabulous trucker cities of North Carolina,” Secrest replied. “What’s the nickname for Asheville?”
“Ash City,” said the Devil.
“Fair enough,” Secrest said.
They got back on the interstate near Greensboro, and Secrest rolled up all the power windows. When he punched the AC button on the dash, though, nothing happened. The little blue led failed to light. Secrest punched the button over and over, but no cool air came out. He sniffed and rolled down all of the windows again.
He took the next exit and pulled into the parking lot of a large truck stop, stopping far from the swarms of eighteen wheelers. He got out and popped the hood.
“You guys should check out the truck stop,” he said. “Buy a magazine or something.” In the few weeks she’d known Secrest, she’d seen him like this several times. Silent, focused, just like solving a problem in math class. She hated it when he acted this way, and stalked off to find the restroom.
When she returned, he was sitting in the driver’s seat, rubbing his hands with an antiseptic wipe.
“What’s the verdict?”
“Unknown. I checked the fuses, the drive belt to the compressor, the wires to the compressor…nothing looks broken. I’ll have to take it to the shop when we get back to Wilmington. You don’t have a nail brush in your purse, do you?”
“A nail brush, for cleaning under your fingernails. Never mind.”
“Don’t forget me,” the Devil said, throwing open the back door. He had a large plastic bag in his hand. Secrest pulled back onto the road and turned down the entrance ramp. The Devil pulled out a packaged apple pie, a can of lemonade, and a copy of Barely Legal magazine and set them on the seat next to him. Secrest glanced back at the Devil in the rearview as he sped up to enter the stream of traffic.
“What have you got back there?”
“Pie and a drink. Want some?”
“No, I want you to put them away. You’re going to get the back seat all dirty.”
The Devil folded down one of the rear seats to get into the hatch compartment.
“What are you doing?” asked Secrest, staring up into the rearview. The car drifted lazily into the path of a Cadillac in the center lane until Secrest looked down from the mirror and swerved back. She turned to look at what was going on and got a faceful of baggy pink Devil butt.
The Devil didn’t respond; he just continued rummaging. Finally he turned and gave a satisfied sigh. He had a roll of duct tape from Secrest’s emergency kit, and he zipped off a long piece. Starting at the front of the floorboards in the back seat, he fixed the tape to the carpet, rolled it up over the transmission hump and over to the other side, carefully bisecting the cabin. A gleaming silver snake guarding the back seat of the car.
“I get to be dirty on this side,” he said. “You can do whatever you want up there.” Then he picked up his copy of Barely Legal and started thumbing through it, holding the magazine up so it covered his face.
Secrest didn’t argue. She looked over at him and noticed he was preoccupied with other matters. Secrest’s hands, still dirty from poking around in the engine compartment, had stained the pristine blue plastic of the steering wheel, and he rubbed at these stains as he drove along.
She could see the speedometer from her seat, and he was over the speed limit, inching up past 70 steadily. He’d also started hanging out in the middle lane, not returning immediately to the safety of the right lane after he passed someone. Traffic thinned out as the land changed from flat plains to rolling hills, but he still stayed in the middle lane. Plenty of folks drove ten miles over the speed limit. That was standard. Secrest probably attracted more attention the way he normally drove — folks were always zooming up behind him in the right lane, cursing at him because he had the gall to do the speed limit. Now he was acting more like a normal driver — breaking the speed limit, changing lanes.
The Devil sat silently on the hump in the middle of the back seat, concentrating on the road ahead. The pie wrapper and empty can rolled around on the seat next to him. She watched the speedometer inch its way up. At 75 Secrest suddenly started to pull over through the empty right lane into the emergency lane.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Then she craned her head around just in time to catch the first blips of the siren from the trooper’s car. Blue lights flashed from the dash of the unmarked black sedan.
The Devil leaned forward and whispered in her ear. “Be cool, I’ll handle this,” he said.
“Goddamn!” she said, and this curse invoked a daydream. In her daydream, she keeps saying “Goddamn!” over and over. Secrest is busy with slowing down, putting his hazard lights on, and stopping in the emergency lane. The Devil is not in her daydream. She pops the door handle and jumps out while he’s still rolling to a stop, losing her footing and scraping her knees and elbows against the pavement as she rolls to the grassy shoulder. She stands up, starts running into the trees along the side of the road. As she goes, she reaches up under her skirt and peels the Ziploc from her panties, but it’s already broken open. Little white packets fly through the air in all directions. They break open too, and it’s snowing as she charges off into the woods. The trooper chases her, and just as the last packet flies from her fingertips, he tackles her. She starts to cry.
Outside of her daydream, the state trooper asked Secrest for his license and registration. He retrieved these from the glove compartment, where they were stacked on top of a pile of oil change receipts and maps. The trooper carefully watched Secrest’s hand, inches away from her drug-laden crotch, as he did this. She was sitting on her own hands.
“Ma’am, could you please move your hands to where I can see them?”
She slid her hands out and placed them flat on top of her thighs.
The trooper took the registration certificate and Secrest’s license, but he kept glancing back and forth from them to her hands.
“Nice tattoo, isn’t it, officer?” the Devil said, pointing to the smeared letters on her knuckles. The trooper slid his mirrored sunglasses a fraction and peered into the back seat of the car, staring the Devil in the eye.
“Not really. You should see the tattoos my Amy got the minute she went off to the college. I won’t even get into the piercings.”
“Kids these days…,” said the Devil.
“Yep. What are you gonna do?” The trooper pushed his sunglasses back up on his nose and straightened up. “Well, anyway, here’s your paperwork. Try to watch your speed out there, now.” He smiled and handed the cards back to Secrest.
They stopped for gas near Morganton. There was a Phillips 66 there.
“The mother road,” Secrest said.
“Last section decommissioned in 1984, and now all we have are these lousy gas stations,” said the Devil.
“Ooh, 1984. Doubleplusungood,” Secrest said.
“I’ll pump,” the Devil said. “Premium or regular?”
Inside, Secrest got a large bottle of spring water, another packet of travel-size tissues, and breath mints. She stared at the array of snacks and the jeweled colors of the bottles of soda, trying to decide. Behind the counter, a teenage boy tuned a banjo, twanging away on the strings while fiddling with the tuning pegs.
It took her a long time to decide to forgo snacks altogether, and it took the teenager a long time to tune the banjo. She tried to think of a joke about Deliverance, but couldn’t. Secrest went up to pay, and she headed for the door.
She went around to the side of the building to the ladies’ room. The lock was busted. She sat to pee, carefully maintaining the position of the payload in her underwear. The door swung open and the Devil walked in.
“You know, I’ve been wanting to get into your panties ever since we met.”
“Get the hell out of here, or I’ll start screaming,” she said.
“Oh, that’s a funny one,” the Devil said. “But I’m staying right here. You owe me.”
“I don’t owe you anything.” She was trying to remember if she had anything sharp in her purse.
“Of course you do. Why do you think that cop didn’t haul your ass out of the car? You have me to thank for that, for the fact that all that shit in your panties is intact, and for the fact that you’re not rotting in one of their cages right about now.”
“OK, for one thing, I don’t know what you’re talking about. For another, get out of here or the screaming really starts.”
“What I’m talking about is all that smack you’ve got taped inside your underwear. The dope. Las drogas. I want you to give it to me, all of it, right now. That stuff is bad for you, in case you hadn’t heard, and it can get you in a world of trouble.”
“Screw you. You’re not getting any of it. I was serious about the screaming part.”
But then it didn’t matter, because Secrest came in right behind the Devil. He spun the Devil around by the shoulder and kneed him in the crotch. It was the first time she’d ever seen him do anything remotely resembling violence. The Devil crumpled to the concrete floor.
“Screw you both,” the Devil gasped. “I’ll take the Greyhound bus anywhere I want to ride.”
They checked in at the Economy Lodge in Asheville. Secrest checked the film in his camera and folded up an AAA map of downtown into his pocket and set out to see the sights.
“The historic district is a perfect square,” he declared, as if he’d made a scientific discovery. “So I’d like to walk every street in the grid. I figure I’ll get started today with the up and down and finish up tomorrow on the back and forth while you’re at the university. Want to come with?”
She told him she was tired and crashed out on top of the musty comforter with all of her clothes on while the overworked air-conditioner chugged away.
She met Rusty at the Maple Leaf Bar. It had been less than two years since she’d seen him, but he had to have lost close to fifty pounds, and his hair, once a luxurious mass, was now thinning and stringy. He still got that same giddy smile when he caught sight of her, though, and he rocked back and forth with inaudible laughter. They walked back to his place on McDowell Street, where he gave her the $900 he owed her plus $600 for the drugs in her underwear. They celebrated the deal by getting high in his second floor bedroom, sitting on the end of the bed and staring out the gable window over the rooftops of old downtown as the fan whirred rhythmically overhead. After a few minutes, he collapsed onto his back, let out a long sigh, and then was silent.
She was daydreaming again. In her daydream, Secrest is out walking the maze, crisscrossing through the streets until he sees the Devil walking toward him from the opposite direction. The Devil’s shoes look even filthier, and his goatee has vanished into the rest of the stubble on his face. His shirt is stained with sweat under the arms and around the collar, turning the pink to black.
“Not you again,” Secrest says, kicking the nearest lamppost with the toe of his wingtip. “I was almost finished with walking every street in the historic district.” He looks away, back toward the green hills of the Pisgah Forest to the south, then turns back, as if the Devil will have vanished in the interim.
“Oh, really?” says Secrest.
“Yes, and the police are closing in, because an old friend of hers has ratted her out to the cops. They’re probably climbing the stairs right now.”
Or maybe he says, “An old friend of hers is dying on the bed next to her right now.”
Anyway, the Devil reaches out and grabs Secrest’s hand, shaking it energetically.
“Thanks for the ride, buddy,” he says.
Then Secrest comes running up the street to save her.