The Cousin Kathy Intervention
Mark Benedict (Sarah Lawrence College, USA)
We’ll just see about this crap, Shane thought when his mom called with the update about Kathy. Doom was closing in on his favorite cousin? Not if he had anything to say about it. After getting off the phone, Shane left his office cube, then the building, and drove straight to the gym to whoop on one of the new punching bags they’d installed by the pool area. It felt good to unleash some sluggers, no doubt, to sweat and to pound, and to eye the bikini babes. But what good did it do? How did it help anything?
He drove over to Kathy’s to get the straight dope. Greg, her accountant husband, said she was resting and took Shane into the kitchen. The disease had become more aggressive, he said meekly, drinking vodka from the bottle, and Kathy had less than two weeks to live. Shane was silent but raged inside. Not just about Kathy’s prognosis, but about Greg’s attitude. This fucking dude! He had no fight to him, no grit.
Shane himself was all grit. When his mom was let go from the mill without a severance package, Shane had cornered the foreman in the mill parking lot, clobbered his guts, and took fifty bucks out of his wallet to give to his mom. Not that he was strictly a physical violence kind of guy. Not at all. Sometimes psychological violence was called for. After his kid sister Jody got slapped around by a date for not putting out, Shane stalked the guy on Facebook, friending him through a fake account, then piling up his page with ads for bedwetting support groups and impotency treatment centers. That was some funny shit, he had to say. It did give him a laugh to reflect on it. Sure, he’d done some jail time for his escapades, but so what? A man took care of his own.
But this is a story about sacrifice, not grit. It is about love. It is about faith. It is about getting your ass kicked in a bar that you thought was a strip club. An unseen spiritual world will be confirmed, and glimpsed. Gather round: the story continues.
Prowling around the city later that week, Shane came upon a bookstore called Freak Shack and for no particular reason went inside. The place was empty and smelled like jungle. At the front counter a flabby flannel guy sat on a stool eating pretzels. Shane browsed around, read a few paragraphs in a Wiccan book. Plant tentacles crawled up the shelves. A scrawny cat lurked in every corner. The counter guy came over and introduced himself as John and asked if there was anything he could help with. Shane laughed grimly and told him about Kathy. Did he have any ideas how to help with that?
And the guy did have an idea: a loco one. Or maybe he was just having a laugh?
‘See here, buddy,’ Shane said, as soon as he got the gist of it. ‘This is my closest kin, right? Don’t be shitting a dude. Don’t even think about it.’
‘Not shitting a dude,’ John said, absently scratching his flannelled stomach. ‘Got the book right here on the shelf. Never done it before, but it’d be fun to try.’
Shane made for the exit. ‘Anyhow, I don’t truck with no conjuring. Not that I especially believe you in the first place. Nice to meet you, though.’
Shane visited Kathy the following night. She sparkled with pain and grief, but did she complain? Did she bitch and moan? She did not. She just lay there reminiscing with him about summers at the cottage with all the cousins. So tough! In her place he would’ve alternated between weeping like a little girl and calling up old girlfriends and rounding up some sympathy sex. The Reaper was one cat he didn’t want to tangle with. Shane felt his face contorting. This could not stand. It just couldn’t! That hell-conjuring idea of John’s: well, shit. But what if there was no other way?
There was a knock at the door. Kathy’s three children came tumbling in and stood fluttering around the bed. Looking hopeful. Looking fearful. Kathy hugged and said goodnight to each in turn: love you Benjamin, sweet dreams Samantha, love you Sofia. Shane clenched his fists. But the worst was yet to come. Sofia, the youngest, asked if the medicine was making her mommy better. Kathy’s smile faded and her eyes dimmed. Meanwhile, little Sofia in her red sleepers and matching red hair bow was waiting for an answer and making a quiet whimpering sound. Shane looked around for something to break. But there were only lamps and framed photographs and anyway Kathy would flip out if he broke anything.
And then he made it: the decision on which his life would turn. The decision, in fact, that would result in his transcending this earthly life.
‘Your mom is gonna be just fine, Sofia,’ he said, exhaling, delivered from anger, released from rage. ‘I mean, of course! No worries! Take it from your favorite cousin.’
Sofia smiled at him. Kathy glared at him. Shane scrammed out of there.
He called his mom on the drive over to the bookstore. When he told her how he planned to save Kathy, she berated him up and down for ten minutes. Typical Mom: no faith, lots of cussing. But that was okay. Shane had faith enough for both of them.
‘Let’s conjure,’ Shane said, storming into the bookstore. ‘Let’s make a deal.’
‘It takes a while,’ John said, petting the cat on the counter. ‘I gotta prep.’
‘Get the beast on the line, I said!’
John closed the shop and took the conjure book down from the shelf. Candles were lit, pretzels snacked on. They toasted themselves good luck with schnapps. Finally, John opened the book and started in with the chanting. When the devil appeared, dressed in a dark suit, human-looking save for a tint to the skin, John squawked.
Shane shrugged. ‘Eh, he ain’t all that,’ he said.
‘He’s floating,’ John said.
Shane took a closer look. ‘All right, that’s a little freaky,’ he admitted. ‘Dude casts a colored shadow too. But is he even red? He looks more like purple to me.’
‘Maroon, I think.’
‘How may I assist you gentleman?’ the devil said.
Shane quickly explained the Kathy situation. ‘So we need her well, man,’ he concluded. ‘Full recovery. And for our gratitude, and as a tribute to your power, we could, like, I dunno, sacrifice some animals for you or something.’
‘Not cats,’ John said.
‘Dammit John! Don’t mind him, cats are fine. Well, not fine, but we could do it. Better still is if we could, ya know, just get you some cash.’
The devil smiled patiently. ‘I believe you know what I require.’
‘Told you,’ John said.
‘John! Motherfucker! Anyhow. Surely we can get you something you want without nobody getting hurt.’
‘No exceptions. Whose soul will it be? Yours?’
‘What about my car or some shit?’
‘Gentlemen,’ the devil said, less patient. ‘Unless you promise me one soul to be claimed at the end of human life, there is no deal.’
‘Okay! Damn! Yeah, sure. Mine.’
‘The deal is done,’ the devil said, smiling, and faded away.
Shane felt like puking up his pretzels. Instead he let John talk him into going to a strip club he knew about. To celebrate saving Kathy, John said. When they entered the sprawling club, a bunch of strippers squealed and swarmed John. They called him Papa Heartbreaker. Shane sat down, ordered a drink, and watched John get spirited away to the private dance area. Spotlights zoomed around the walls, music thumped and crackled. On the main stage naked girls humped golden poles. Shane was approached several times about a lap dance but flatly refused. Ain’t never paid for love, not about to start now. John kept disappearing, then returning to the table with more drinks. Shane lost track of how many he’d had. Things got slurry. Time seemed to be speeding up. But anyhow! A fun night. And, hell, maybe a dance wasn’t such a bad idea. He pawed a red-haired beauty and asked her how much, sweetie, how much. Except it turned out she wasn’t a stripper but some guy’s girlfriend. In fact they weren’t even at the strip club anymore; it was just a regular bar. Nah, don’t be like that, it was an honest mistake. Huh? Aw, fuck. Against the wall, then on the floor. Ugh to the gut, ugh to the gut. Soberer already. What up Papa Heartbreaker. Time to go? Well, sure. Just get me up.
Back at the Freak Shack, Shane sat against the wall, holding an icepack to his head and fending off cats. ‘John, brother, can I tell you something?’ he said. ‘I don’t think I want to give up my soul. In fact, I’m pretty fucking sure I don’t.’
John sat across from him, against the front counter. ‘Told you that’s what he’d want,’ he said, packing a bowl on his stomach bulge.
‘I’ve never even had a classy dame in a dress ask if she can get me a drink and call me darling,’ Shane went on. ‘You know, like in old movies?’
‘Darling would be good,’ John said, toking up. ‘But he’s not getting your soul until you die, Shane. Darling can still happen.’
‘True enough, friend. Only, would a classy dame want to kick it with a dude who’s damned to hell? I reckon not.’
‘Damned to hell is bad. But there’s this priest at my church. Preacher Frank. Maybe he could help. I’ll text him and ask him to meet us here tomorrow.’
Shane called in sick at work the next day. The receptionist asked him what he had and he told her it was more about what he wasn’t gonna have. She said oh you getting your tonsils out hon and he said yeah something like that. Then he called his mom and gave her the update. She cussed him out, per usual.
He met John and Preacher Frank in front of the Freak Shack. Preacher Frank was wearing a shirt and tie and had a messenger bag slung across his chest.
‘You don’t look like no preacher,’ Shane said.
Preacher Frank made a face. ‘That’s because I’m an assistant youth pastor,’ he said. ‘Or to put it another way, a lawyer who volunteers at his church.’
‘But people call him Preacher Frank.’
‘You’re the only one who calls me that, John.’
‘Well, but he’s got the spirit,’ John said. ‘Doesn’t matter what his title is.’
‘What’s this about, fellas?’
Shane quickly explained about Cousin Kathy.
‘Poor girl,’ Frank said. ‘My heart goes out to her family.’
Then Shane explained about the devil.
‘Bullshit,’ Frank said.
But they talked and hollered at Frank until he agreed to come into the bookstore. John showed him the conjuring book he’d used. Shane acted out the conversation with the devil. They called to have Mexican delivered. Finally, after a burrito and a couple of Coronas, Frank got into a more receptive frame of mind.
‘Okay, what the hell. Let’s conjure him up. Let’s see what you guys can do.’
‘We could go to the church,’ John suggested. ‘Frank’s got the keys.’
‘There you go, bro!’ Shane said. ‘Kind of a homefield advantage.’
‘We’re not going to the church,’ Frank said.
‘Get him another Corona,’ Shane whispered. ‘So let’s say the situation was purely among citizens,’ he said, turning to Frank. ‘How would you dope things out?’
‘Well…okay, one more, I guess,’ Frank said, taking the beer from John. ‘I suppose it’d be a contractual matter. You want to re-negotiate terms. You entered the deal knowingly, but he’s got a monopoly on this stuff, so I’d say turnabout is fair play.’
‘Now we’re talking! How do we turnabout on this purple bastard?’
‘He was more maroon I think,’ John said, handing out shots of tequila.
‘What’s this?’ Frank asked.
‘Wasn’t it the Good Lord who said drink and be merry?’
‘Actually, I think it was a disciple.’
‘Let’s talk about it on the way to the church,’ Shane said, downing his shot and then hustling the other two out of the shop.
The church was dark and smelled like sexy. Probably the guilty perfumed sweat of sinful girls, Shane figured. Frank went around sipping his Corona and turning on lights. John was camped out on the floor with the conjure book and a king-size bong.
‘John! What the fuck! Can’t you show some respect for this holy house?’
‘Meekly wait and murmur not,’ John said, puffing. ‘The conjure is under way.’
The devil appeared shortly after. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said.
Frank spilled his Corona. ‘Holy shit!’
‘I know, right?’ Shane said. ‘Dude just materializes and shit.’
Frank frowned. ‘Except he’s not really red.’
‘That’s what I been saying! But do your thing, man. Lawyer this fucker.’
Frank laughed nervously but improvised an offer, asking the devil to accept a thousand dollars in lieu of Shane’s soul. ‘The deal as originally struck was coercive,’ he argued. ‘You gave my client no other options. Plus, he was under emotional duress.’
‘He had the option of declining my offer,’ the devil said, unmoved.
Frank turned to the others. ‘Things aren’t going so great,’ he said.
‘No shit,’ Shane said. ‘Thought you were gonna turnabout is fair play on this fucker. What happened to that? John! What the fuck? Can you put away the pot pipe for ten seconds?’
‘I thought we were on a break.’
‘It’s tricky,’ Frank said. ‘We don’t have anything he wants.’
‘All right,” Shane said. ‘Let’s put some thought into this. What would Bogart do? Or Steve McQueen?’
‘Jimmy Stewart would get an angel,’ John said.
Shane grinned and socked John’s shoulder. ‘Damn, man! Half your ideas are turds, but the other half are nuggets. You’re like a sewer on top of a goldmine.’
John beamed. ‘It’s the reefer. It keeps me nuggety.’
‘But how are we going to get an angel involved?’ Frank said.
‘You’re the church guy, you figure it out,’ Shane said. ‘Meanwhile, I’ll harass and distract him. Listen up, Purple,’ he said, turning to the devil. ‘You really piss me off, you know? Furthermore, you look like a kielbasa.’
The devil twitched. ‘Take it back,’ he said.
‘We got the fucker on the run,’ Shane said, over his shoulder.
‘Keep it up,’ Frank said. ‘We’re combining the conjure book with the Bible.’
‘Good thinking. Hey Bratwurst, what makes you so tough anyway?’
‘I could arrange to have your body shredded,’ the devil hissed.
‘Guys? Better hurry it up a bit.’
There was a swoosh of wind through the church. A bearded man in robes materialized, not exactly like any of his various likenesses, but close enough, followed by an angel, then another, and another. Next there was a poof and a kangaroo appeared.
‘For real?’ Shane said.
‘We hit the mother lode,’ John said.
‘But a kangaroo?’
‘It’s not an exact science,’ Frank said.
Jesus seemed to be calmly taking stock of his surroundings. When he noticed the devil, he scowled and pointed at him sternly. The angels came up behind Jesus, flanking him. The devil hissed, cowered. The kangaroo hopped back and forth excitedly. Jesus and the angels circled the devil and the devil squawked and dematerialized. Next he waved an annoyed hand at the kangaroo; it disappeared. Then he huddled with two of the angels and dematerialized with them.
The savior, a group of angels, and a demonstration of spiritual power: heaven was thus confirmed, or at least strongly implied. What the hopper proves, and indeed where it came from, heaven or kangaroo heaven, a local zoo or the Australian outback, is an interesting question but beside the point here. Brave men and women risk everything, risk their very lives, without knowing if there’s a world beyond. But how much braver would they be if they knew there was? How much quicker to risk?
The remaining angel stepped forward. ‘The contract has been voided,’ she said. ‘The young man’s soul has been released.’
‘But what about Kathy?’ Shane asked.
The angel smiled sadly. ‘The young woman’s path is unchanged. We’d like to help but we’re limited in this earthly world. Her reward, however, will be eternal.’
‘Take me instead,’ Shane said.
‘Shane, no!’ Frank said. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying.’
‘All respect, Lawyer Frank, but I reckon I know my own mind better than you.’
‘Is it even possible?’ Frank asked the angel.
The angel looked upward, whispered something, then nodded and disappeared.
Shane felt something dark and inky come alive in him. ‘Kathy’s saved.’
‘But Shane,’ John said, ‘that means you’re—‘
‘Skip it,’ he said. ‘I’ll drop-kick my job and live it up right to the end. It’ll be the best send-off ever.’ But then a wave of weakness spread over him. ‘Aw, hell,’ he said, and eased himself down into a pew.
‘Shane! How long did you say Kathy had?’ Frank said.
‘No matter,’ he muttered. ‘Naw, don’t even say it. Ain’t no way am I gonna croak it out in a hospital. Get me a pillow, could you?’
Soon after, Shane was curled up in the pew with a pillow and blanket Frank had found in the church daycare. The night passed uneasily. He didn’t feel all that sick, just exhausted, and he’d done the right thing. A man took care of his own and damn the consequences, right? Of course, motherfuckers! But still, there was a selfish desire, a willful wish: that he hadn’t been there when little Sofia asked if Kathy would recover. No more cozy Christmases with Mom and Jody, he reflected woefully. And no more chances, none whatsoever, for a cozy family of his own. But that was just selfish crap! Negative thinking! Sleep came eventually, but it was wild and restless.
Frank was standing over him when he woke. ‘Hey there. How’re you feeling?’
Shane sat up. ‘Fair to fucking middling. You?’
‘Not bad, not bad. We got up early to see some people and do some errands. I saw Cousin Kathy. She’s already feeling a little better. Asked me to give this to you,’ he said, handing Shane an envelope with his name on it, encircled by flower stickers.
Then John arrived with a beautiful young woman, snazzy-dressed and vaguely familiar. ‘Look who I found: the classiest dame in the whole city.’
She stepped toward Shane, put a hand on his shoulder, and murmured sweetly, ‘Can I get you a drink, my darling?’
Shane grinned. ‘Dammit, John. You’re classy yourself.’ Then he recognized her as a stripper from the other night, and laughed. ‘Drinks for everyone, I reckon.’
‘Open the card,’ Frank said.
Shane did. It was homemade, with pictures on the cover drawn, apparently, by Kathy’s children: bright rainbows, smiling pandas, cheerful monkeys. Inside there were more drawings and also a short note from Kathy. He read it once, then again. It was like they were hardly words; it was like she was singing to him. He sat back in the pew and could hardly breathe for several minutes. Then he wiped his eyes and grinned.
‘Don’t know what we’ll do without you,’ John said, tearing up.
‘No crying for me, Papa Heartbreaker,’ Shane said. ‘I’ve lived my best life.’
Frank shook his head. ‘Cool as McQueen. And did we beat the devil or what?’
‘Beat the devil and got a glimpse of heaven.’
The dame served drinks. ‘Sounds like you guys have earned these,’ she said.
‘More people are on their way,’ Frank said, taking his drink. ‘Seems like everyone’s got a story about you, Shane. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am impressed. It’s people like you that make the world go round.’
Shane took his glass, shrugged. ‘We work, we drink, we take care of our own. Our rage is our passion and our passion kicked the devil’s butt. The rest is God’s grace.’
There is little more to tell. There was a toast to Kathy, and then a celebration with friends and family, though Kathy was still too weak to attend, and then finally, after all had left save for a few, a transition to another world. In his last moments, Shane spoke of summers at the cottage with his cousins and asked that his mom be looked after. The funeral was held a week later in the same church. Little Sofia attended with her family; clutching her mother’s arm, she wept and smiled through the whole service.
Mark Benedict recently completed an MFA in Fiction Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. His thesis is titled That Autumn Feeling and contains sixteen short stories, including “The Cousin Kathy Intervention.”