Today’s story comes from guest author Elias Keller, who earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, APIARY, Slush Pile, Forge, Pindeldyboz, and The Legendary. He currently lives in New Orleans and teaches creative writing at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. www.eliaskeller.com.
Seven years without being disturbed by noise, to write my books, and for that, my soul—
That was my proposal. It must seem silly, preposterous, the premise of a fairy tale. But let me ask you something. Have you ever really offered yourself to the Devil? Not as a joke, or in a fit of anger, not “I’d sell my soul for a billion dollars” or “I’d make a deal with the Devil for that girl”—but in earnest?
Then again, I had my own doubts about soul pacts and eternal damnation. Death was death, an absolute unconsciousness beyond time and space. I agreed with Seneca: “Death is all that was before us.” And once dead, I would not know it, or even that I had ever been born. It’s fair to ask why, then, I thought my proposal worth making at all. If I didn’t really believe I even had a soul to offer, and did not really fear eternal damnation, with what exactly was I propitiating the Devil?
But desperation overrules logic, and I was indeed desperate.
It had already been a trying day. In the morning, a power sander stripped paint from my neighbor’s house. The afternoon was a symphony of dogs and lawn maintenance. And evening brought a party at my other neighbor’s house, still thumping at two o’clock in the morning. Feeling the throb of bass against my pillow, fantasizing about filling their house with carbon monoxide, I cursed my uncontrollable hypersensitivity to noise. Therapy, meditation, plugging my ears, playing music, a white-noise machine—none of it worked. Meanwhile, time was passing and my books remained unwritten. So having tried everything else, why not give Satan himself a shot?
But I had to step carefully. I crafted my pitch as deliberately as I would a paragraph of prose. “Immunity to disturbing noises but not deafness,” “Loss of sensitivity to noise but not artistic sensibility”—far from ironclad clauses, but at least the Devil would know I had done my homework. And seven years seemed like time enough to write my books, with some urgency as a spur.
Finally the party ended. I turned off my air-conditioner to mark the gravity of the moment. Sitting cross-legged on my bed, the room lit by tealight candles, silent but for the hum of the city, I closed my eyes and voiced my proposal. Then—nothing. No puff of red smoke, no numbing of my ears, and certainly no ruddy fiend with a blood contract. I was not deaf, either: a second later I heard an ambulance scream down my street. So I just stuffed my earplugs into my ears, turned the air-conditioner back on, and fell asleep, not quite proud of my proposal, but not exactly ashamed either.
Then it was morning in uptown New Orleans and I awoke to back-up beeping from a distant truck. Now, I have nothing against trucks making deliveries. I, too, want to buy things in stores. But think for a moment about back-up beepers. Their purpose is to alert someone directly behind the vehicle they are in immediate danger of being hit. But the beeping pierces the air for hundreds of feet, becoming so ubiquitous and constant, especially in cities, that everyone ignores them anyway. Besides, most experts say that better mirrors or rearview cameras are exponentially safer.
Such were my customary thoughts on back-up beepers, usually followed by a wish for their proponents to be deleted from the planet, right along with those of leaf-blowers and subwoofers. But today was different. I heard the beepers—but not those bloody, vengeful thoughts. The beeping entered my ear, but where the road forked into avenues of Ignore and Make Enraged, today the beeps eased gently onto the former. In other words, my ears heard the noise, but my mind paid it no attention.
That day I was slated to meet a friend for coffee. I walked to the café on Magazine Street, past a grocery store parking lot where a custodial worker was cleaning up litter by leaf-blowing it just outside the boundary of the lot. I watched him “clean up” the same plastic bag three times and then kept walking. Like the back-up beeping, however, the whiny roar did not bother me. I still recognized the stupidity of the trash-blowing, but today I didn’t feel as I usually did, like a talon clutching my heart.
When I got to the café, my friend was standing just inside the door. “We can go somewhere else,” he said immediately, even before greeting me.
“What’s wrong with here?”
He pointed at the ceiling, where white speakers blared out music, peppy electronic chirps with a heavy undertow of bass thumps. “I thought you’d hate it here.”
My friend’s assumption was justified: I had so many times fled from loud cafés, calling them “coffee nightclubs,” ranting about the impossibility of finding any public space without six speakers and a subwoofer. But today I heard the music only as part of a general and not unpleasant din.
“It’s fine here,” I said.
He waved a hand in front of my face. “Are you under hypnosis or something?”
“Funny you should ask.” I looked at the chalkboard menu and decided on my drink.
We sat down at the espresso bar and my friend asked again why the cacophonous café wasn’t bothering me.
“Last night I traded my soul to the Devil not to be annoyed by noise anymore,” I answered nonchalantly.
My friend laughed. “Is this a story you’re writing?”
“No—it’s for real.” I told him about the back-up beepers and the trash-blowing. “The noise just went in one ear and out the other.” I was being so candid with my friend, a computer engineer, precisely because he’d never believe my tale.
“And you think it’s because you made a deal with the Devil?”
“I asked the Devil for immunity to noise and woke up with exactly that. What else would it be?”
My friend laughed again. “It’s just the placebo effect. Because you don’t want to be upset by noise.” He shrugged. “Well, whatever works.”
I thought about his theory for a moment. True, I had met no Mephistopheles, no mysterious stranger with red horns and a pitchfork. I had signed nothing. Maybe it was the placebo effect. But if so, how long would it last? A week? A month? A year? Seven years?
For the rest of the day and night I wandered the city, testing my immunity to noise. Bars, dog parks, construction sites—nothing bothered me. As a final test I brought my notebook to a park called The Fly, bordered by a parking lot filled with blasting car radios and thumping subwoofers. On the crowded grass itself, picnickers played music from stereos or portable amplifiers. Normally I wouldn’t dream of coming near this place. But today I sat down and wrote a page, then another. No mental turmoil, no tirades against “noisy pieces of shit.” And my writing seemed the same as ever, no better or worse, no less sensitive—and no less “soulful.” This placebo effect was either armored with steel, or I really had made a Devil’s deal.
That night in my bedroom, I voiced these words: “To whatever gave me immunity from noise, give me one irrefutable sign, as a show of your power.” But the only reply was a keening car alarm that did not bother me in the least. The only thing that did bother me as I drifted off to sleep, actually, was that just yesterday it had seemed like asking not to be disturbed by noise was asking for the world. Tonight, though, I wondered why I had put my very soul on the trading block for so slight a reward.
I had, in the past, completed writing projects by forcing myself to block out noise and concentrate on my work. But if noise itself was no longer a problem, now I had to block out something else. With every noise I heard but was not bothered by, I was needled by uncertainty about whether my immunity was psychosomatic—or satanic. Perhaps this was the Devil’s trick, though, the little caveat appended to every pact no matter how carefully one stepped. After all, he wasn’t called the Devil for nothing.
But I gritted through, and in two years I had a novel manuscript, which an agent sold to a publisher and which was released, not to great fanfare, but good enough reviews and sales to keep me from utter obscurity. By the fifth of my seven years a second novel was published with even more success. I had some touches of literary fame: book signings, a few radio and magazine interviews, speaking engagements at writer conferences and colleges.
During the Q&A session of a reading at Tulane University, someone asked what single factor had most contributed to my success.
“That’s easy,” I quipped, buoyed by my well-received reading. “I sold my soul to the Devil.”
The auditorium rippled with laughter and on that high note I ended the session. After drinks with the event organizers and several students in the creative writing graduate program, I ended up in the bedroom of a cute twenty-four year old with dyed black hair. As I looked over her shelf of books, she asked what I had meant by my final comment. “You asked the Devil to make you a good writer?”
I didn’t want to relay the “truth” of my situation: it felt, at that moment, unmanly and counterproductive to my immediate goal. “No,” I smiled, looking up from a compendium of short stories. “I asked the Devil to make other people think I’m a good writer.”
Shortly after this we were in her bed. It felt a little predatory, her being a decade younger than me, but I hardly had much to lose at this point. After just a few minutes, though, she halted abruptly and looked around like an unsettled watchdog.
“Do you hear that?”
I did hear music from an adjacent room in the graduate student dorm, the bass tones seeping under the walls like water.
“Ignore it,” I soothed.
“Those pieces of shit,” she spat out, pressing her ear against the wall. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“No,” I answered, honestly, tugging gently at the waistband of her red panties.
She shook me off—almost derisively. “Well, it bothers me.”
Muttering furiously, she put her clothes back on and flounced out of the room. I heard her yell at the neighbors, and them yelling back, until a security guard came. I slipped out of the dorm and away from the unpleasant scene, away from this reminder of when I still had a soul to be irritated by noisy pieces of shit.
I finished my third novel and pressured my publisher to fast-track the revision process. Its release date, strangely enough—or perhaps not strange at all—was the last day of my seven years, when my debt might be collected by Beelzebub himself.
For my last few days I splurged on a chartered trip to Nepal, to enjoy some solitude, away from New Orleans, away from people and their noises, even if those noises didn’t bother me anymore. I took long walks through serene forests and also did something I had longed to do so many times in the days when noise upset me: visit a silent monastery. Speaking was only permitted for one hour a day and during that hour I recounted my dilemma (through a translator) to a young monk. He nodded at times, as though he heard such tales every day, and when I finished speaking he lay back on a bamboo mat and took a short nap.
When the monk awoke he said one thing: “Most noisy place is own mind.” Then he ambled away with his hands clasped behind his back.
Later that afternoon I took a long hike, enjoying the sounds of the forest: birds chirping, streams burbling, leaves rustling, woodpeckers tapping. I sat down on a rock and made another earnest vow: if still alive a few days from now, I would move to a place like this. That vow only saddened me, though, as I asked the trees and birds and silent monks why I had not made them my neighbors so long ago.
Then I was back on the small charter plane with five other people, heading home. As I looked down over a lush forest I wondered if tomorrow would really be my last day with a soul, or a life. If so, it was too bad—there were other things I could write—but it was my own doing, and I had gotten exactly what I’d asked for. “A bargain made is a debt unpaid”—isn’t that the old adage?
Soon I became aware of a sensation, one very alien but also very familiar. Across the aisle was a nondescript but well-dressed man blaring music through a pair of earbuds: I could hear the tinny overflow even over the plane engine. No, not just hear it—I was infuriated by it, infuriated in a way I hadn’t been for seven years. My old rage flared up like a paused tape resuming at the touch of a button.
Without a second thought I stood up and poked the man’s shoulder, feeling a knobby slope of bone through his black blazer. “Excuse me—”
The man looked up at me and smiled. “Oh! Mr. Sebastian, right? I recognize you from your author photo.” I drew back, but he snatched my hand and clasped it firmly. “I didn’t realize you were on this plane,” he said. “I’ve read both your books, you know. And I’ve preordered your next.”
A moment later came a crackly announcement about a patch of severe turbulence. The plane jolted sharply and the four other passengers gripped their armrests. I grasped the seat to steady myself, chilling with a clammy fear when I noticed the man’s red pocket square, folded into three overlapping and curiously sharp points.
“I wish I had a copy for you to sign,” he went on, placidly. “But perhaps we’ll meet again sometime. You never know.”