ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"The Devil's Tavern" by E.M. Schorb


There are three kinds of lies:
lies, damned lies, and statistics.
—attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli


            Sam Stock is a man of his time, a hyperproductive computer programmer employed by the New York branch of the International Ministry of Wellness as a data analyst, a stat man, a Super Cruncher.  He finds correlatives—hamburgers and high blood pressure, gum soles and flat feet, life and death (one-hundred percent).  Everyone is at-risk.  Life correlates to danger.  But cyberchondria abounds.  Sam thinks he might be contributing to the general unease.  His work as a technocrat may have contributed to the fears of the public—their fear of walking, of breathing, of whispering (aspiration produces deadly micro-globules of sputum).  This winter in New York people are lining up at the mobile Wellness Stations to get bat flu shots. Three cases had been reported in Miramar.  The queues, Sam has noticed, are extraordinarily attenuated.  People don’t want to get near to one another.  But of course, the bat flu shots are mandated.  Those who do not get them are considered public enemies and are sought and found and sent on to mental health clinics.  Just the other day, Sam saw that a group of senior citizens who protested the ban on donuts was rounded up and sent to the Senior Mental Health Center for examination.  Sam Stock thought that, yes, they should have their heads examined.  After all, carbs can be deadly, and some of those donuts pack icing—vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate; veritable guns of destruction.  But there was something troubling about declaring all those old people insane.

            Sam tries to balance these thoughts as he maneuvers the lunch hour streets in search of a health food stand.  It depresses him to think of the recent ban on mustard.  He had to admit that mustard was the only thing that made much of the proffered food of the city palatable.  But he himself was the first to find the correlation between mustard and misbehavior.  It was bruited about that upscale gangs of rebellious youth in Brooklyn were now attacking public officials with gobs of grey poupon, and of course there was that incident in Atlanta where the mayor was assaulted with deep-fried hush-puppies after instituting a ban on them.

            Sometimes Sam Stock thought that officialdom was going a bit too far.  He understood the impulse, natural to people in power, to tell others who have no power what to do.  But sometimes . . . ah, a stand full of Free-Toes—sugar-free, carb-free, fat-free, and food-free.  And not even a dab of mustard to put on them!  Sometimes Sam Stock thinks that life is becoming tasteless . . . munch, munch.

            Twenty-twenty, the centennial of Prohibition, that was a big year for the Ministry of Wellness!  The events of that year included a world-wide ban on smoking, the Bacon Act, and, perhaps the greatest coup the Ministry had ever effected, the institution of the Department of Mental Wellness, which allowed the authorities to take action against people who refused to care for themselves, people who puffed, tippled, or consumed food that was found by the experts at the Ministry of Wellness to be unhealthy.  These slackers were of course costing us all money under the Universal Wellness Program.  They were to be considered insane and sent to an asylum until they mended their thought-processing ways.  Sometimes Sam Stock thought the authorities took advantage of this law to declare insane anyone who in his or her life of quiet desperation heard the sound of a different and distant drummer.  It was from the dark underbelly that rumblings could be heard.  There was the mysterious case of the physicist who smoked, the notorious case of the tippling mayor, the amazing case of the cake-eating songstress—these stories were heard of and retold, novelized on-line by rebel writers—Smokey, The Mad Scientist, The Red Nosed Mayor of Castorbridge, and God Bless America: The Dreadful Story of Cake Smith.  Sam Stock reads these cautionary tales and tries to learn from them; but sometimes he yearns for romantic adventure.  The idea of sharing a chocolate-covered donut with a beauty on a tiger-skin rug set his heart racing.  His Free-Toe melts like icing in his mouth at the thought.

            How could Sam Stock fail to notice Lorelei Rhinestein?  She had been about the office for some time.  But Sam is always intent on his production of correlatives.  He sees another one—reading and suicide—and begins to run it.  But he is distracted.  Lorelei Rhinestein has lovely violet eyes.  She reminds him of a flapper of eld.  She has just come in from getting her bat flu shot and is flushed with . . . anxiety?  The Ministry of Wellness does not want to tell the public about the many deaths correlating to bat flu shots.  Sam Stock puts down “bat flu shots and death.”  He runs it—ummm!  He looks at Lorelei Rhinestein.  The flush is leaving her face.  Not only will she live, he thinks, she will triumph.  How not, with such eyes? 

            In the days following, he gets her name and her modus vivendi.  She brings her own lunch.  Fried chicken from home, long since banned from restaurants.  She eats surreptitiously, suspicious even of associates.  An atmosphere of danger clings to her drumstick.  Sam Stock suspects her of transfats.  He could see her in some ancient noir film, the banned-for-smoking “Casablanca” perhaps, still extant in cyberspace.  Sam Stock blushes to think of it.  Yes, he thought, she’s like Ingrid Bergman—mysterious, beautiful, hat down over her violet eyes.  But of course Ms. Rhinestein wears no hat.  Though not yet banned, hats—with the one exception of cycling helmets—had been deemed bad for the circulation.  The more fashionable members of the ruling class wore them; but, Sam Stock noted, Authority says yes to itself and no to everyone else.  He bet that in secret they even ate cake.  They did as they pleased.

            Sam Stock is increasingly restive, so when Lorelei Rhinestein asks him for a date—a date with a woman of danger—he decides to give adventure a chance and finds himself saying—

            “Delighted.  Where shall we go?”  Men do not ask women for dates, nor do they decide where their time shall be spent; men cautiously wait to be invited, and even here could be entrapment.  Can mystery and candor exist simultaneously in enchanting violet eyes?  Fling it, he tells himself, I’m taking a chance on love!

            Lorelei Rhinestein wants to go to New Jersey.  She knows a place out beyond the Pine Barrens.  She drives them.  It’s Saturday night at the Jersey Devil’s Tavern.  Where are we, he wants to know, what is this place?  What does it remind him of, dark and forebody with the moon overhead?  In the woods, isolated, oh, what did they call them, roadhouses, speakeasies?  Something out of cyberspace on-line noir dramas.  “I don’t like the looks of this,” he tells Lorelei.  His hackles rise, tickled, but really he does like the looks of the place.  The place is like Lorelei herself, mysterious, beautiful in the moonlight, dangerous.

            “I’ve been watching you, Sam Stock,” says Lorelei. “I’ve been watching you and thinking maybe you need a real outing.  If I’m wrong I think I can trust you to keep this to yourself, but if I’m right about you . . .  well, we may be able to share something exciting.  You don’t look like a scaredy-cat.  The last boy I brought here—a personnel director for the Nursing Corps—he ran away like a rabbit and got lost in the Pine Barrens for two days.  First time he had missed a day’s work in his life.  He threatened to report me to the Ministry of Wellness, but I threatened to tell them that he was the one who brought me here and he kept his mouth shut.”

            “I’m not afraid,” Sam Stock blusters.  He is afraid but for some obscure reason it embarrasses him.  Contradictions abound in a nature taught from childhood to be afraid of everything and at the same time to swim with Bubbles, the friendly shark.  Sam Stock allows himself to be led into the Jersey Devil.  People sit at candlelit tables, drinking adult beverages, smoking cigarettes and cigars, or dancing to the strains of  “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  Seated, Lorelei orders the house cocktails, two Jersey Devils, looks over the flickering candle at Sam, and, in a low voice, sings—

                                    “They asked me how I knew
                                    My true love was true
                                    Oh, I of course replied
                                    Something here inside
                                    Cannot be denied . . .  ”

            Sam tries to ignore her alluring, husky, melodious voice.

            “What kind of place is this?” he asks, looking through a haze of smoke, here and there set aglow by dim lights.

            Lorelei observes how wide his innocent blue eyes are in the mesmerizing undulation of the candlelight.  “Sam Stock,” she says, “this is a den of iniquity, a speak-drink-and-smoke-easy, and I have lured you here in order to make a criminal of you.”  She is saying this in such a manner that it sends a thrill of fear up Sam’s spine, but then she laughs, and says, “Don’t be afraid, Sammy,” and Sam is so tense that he laughs too—a nervous hack—as the aromatic Jersey Devils arrive in tall, red, steaming glasses.

            Three Jersey Devils later Sam finds himself smoking.  At first he coughs but then he gets the hang of it and begins to like it.

            “Inhale,” urges Lorelei, and sings—

                                    “Oh, so I smile and say
                                    When a lovely flame dies
                                    Smoke gets in your eyes . . .”

            Six months later, at work, Sam is dying for a cigarette.   After all, smokers are people who have one friend no worse than others, the sometimes of their pleasure and the ultimate difficulties, the big troubles, the being able to be quiet in the hurried world, the holding hands without a word, the sad truth of the matter as recognized by ashes, or ashes recognized, whatever is looking up from nothing, from the smoke-filled no-bottom of everything, the oh for just a moment, the please slow it down, the oh God I'm late, the don’t forget, the oh forgotten, but smokers are people who have at least one friend. The relationship between smoking and disease is merely a correlative one, he tells himself and the greatest correlation of all is life and death (100%), but right now he needs a cigarette.  Everyone who has a moment of contentment, he tells himself, dies; therefore, contentment kills.

            Minutes after this moment of illumination, Sam is arrested by the dreaded Green (really olive drab) Shirts of the Ministry of Wellness for smoking in the men’s room and taken away to the insane asylum for mental reprogramming.  His psychiatric report confirms that he may ultimately prove to be a danger to the State.  He has a definite proclivity toward disrespect of authority.  Sam says, “Authority says yes to itself and no to everyone else!  It says No!”  Sam tells Doctor Forbrane, his counselor, to shove it.

            “And all this rebellion started with a single cigarette,” Doctor Forbrane tells his colleagues over cigars and port.  “Good thing we wiped out marijuana,” he continues, stabbing his Montecristo into space for emphasis, “or all of the little people would have become non-productive.  But have no fear.  I have implanted in his brain a continuously ticking taser in order to pacify him.  He will represent no more challenge to Authority than a popinjay.  He will, in fact, become a useful member of society.  Wellness will be his way!”

            One year later, Lorelei meets Sam upon his release.  “Are you cured?” she asks as she drives him away from the asylum.

            “I’m fine now, but they caught me just in time.  Got a cigarette?”

            “In the glove compartment,” Lorelei says, hitting the gas, heading for the Jersey Devil’s Tavern, which, despite all efforts of the Green Shirts of the Ministry of Wellness, exists forever just beyond the Pine Barrens.

E.M. Schorb’s most recent prose poems appear in the current issues of Oxford Poetry, Main Street Rag, and Poetry Salzburg Review. His first novel, Paradise Square, was recently re-released through the Authors Guild Back-in-Print program, and was the winner of the International eBook Award Foundation’s grand prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2000. His Resurgius: A Sixties Sex Comedy was recently published by Rainy Day Reads Publishing.

Schorb's story, Murphy's Star, appears in Offcourse #58.

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