Christopher Palmer, our wiry high school custodian, threw me across the basement furnace room as easily as you might flick a Frisbee to a friend. I hit the wall and heard a couple of things crack, maybe a rib, definitely my arm — my pitching arm. It went completely numb as if flash frozen.
Strangely, my first thought was that I probably wouldn’t be pitching against the Carver Valley Indians on Tuesday. My second thought was this really didn’t matter, because the next thing Christopher Palmer was going to do was murder me — or worse.
He stood there in his worn overalls looking at me like a cat might look at a mouse it had just crippled, a little disappointed that the fun was now whacked out of it. Filaments of coal dust floated around his head, mixing in the shadows of the fading afternoon sunlight. Most of the students had gone home by now.
He stepped forward, his sturdy angular frame backlit by the orange glow of the flames burning in the massive old furnace that heated Jefferson High School. As I sat there looking at him silhouetted in the firelight I thought, well that’s appropriate, he is, after all, the devil.
I felt strangely calm for someone eye to eye with the devil, but maybe that was because I couldn’t get all panicky, quick-breathing-like. My ribs felt like they were sticking to my lungs, and with every breath I winced.
Palmer smiled, enjoying this. Though I doubted I could stand up, I looked for an exit, or at least maybe a place I could crawl away to in the cavernous furnace room’s maze of hissing pipes and conduits. Palmer saw me looking around, and gave a quick glance around as well, but he knew he had me. He was the apex predator, the lord of the jungle, the harvester. I was just some kind of bug. To Christopher Palmer all people were bugs, unless of course he wanted your soul. And souls were why Christopher Palmer, masquerading as a quiet, sheepish custodian, had come to Jefferson High School.
What better place than a high school for a devil. Middle school kids, even for the devil, were mostly too young. They couldn’t grasp the concept of trading a soul. College-age kids were a little wiser, or suspect, and that could create problems. But high school, that was the sweet spot, just the right degree of lingering innocence and coming of age vulnerability, a time when people might give whatever it took to be the most popular, the most beautiful, the most valuable player, the smartest in the class.
What might the awkward geeky guy trade to get the prom queen, or the girl to get the quarterback? What would you give not to be the butt of jokes, to finally fit in, to be liked, to be invited into the circle, to get “that” call on a Saturday night?
It was a bargain and Palmer was the perfect pitchman. And like all good pitchmen he’d get you to overlook the catch.
What did Christopher Palmer actually get when you got what you wanted? I don’t know, maybe nothing straight away, maybe he’d just collect his chit 20 or 30 years down the road. If you grew up to be a politician maybe he’d come and corrupt you; if you made bank president maybe he’d whisper in your ear that it was okay to embezzle. You deserved it. Maybe if you were a devoted wife, he’d snow you in when your husband was away, and then have your handsome young neighbor come shovel you out. Maybe the pump was already primed and all he need do was put a bottle of booze in your hand, or a bottle of pills, or a gun. Just spread some darkness around and let the evil grow like a rank mold in that darkness.
I came to believe Christopher Palmer might just be the devil by accident. As I’ve said, I pitch for Jefferson High. My dad gave me my first glove when I five and by six I was pitching in the Pee Wee League. I was the M.V.P. on my team through grammar school, and up through high school. That is, until this year, when I was bumped by Ricky Jensen.
I’ve been playing baseball with Ricky my whole life, and the only pitch he had was a decent curveball. About two months ago I started seeing him with Palmer after practice. They’d be in the stands, Palmer leaning on his broom or fixing a bleacher seat, and Ricky sitting there looking up at him as if entranced. Within a week Ricky had himself a blistering fastball. A week later he had an un-hittable slider.
I didn’t make the connection with Christopher Palmer at the time, nor did I make the connection when I saw him jump-starting Monica Corley’s car in the parking lot after school. That was in April, and by the end of May Monica just seemed to blossom, like a late spring flower, into the prettiest girl in class. Suddenly she was popular, and just as suddenly she had a long line of suitors, among them perhaps a few naive, desperate guys maybe willing to (if Palmer gave the right pitch) give their souls to sleep with her.
I’d like to say I was perceptive enough to suspect some connection with Christopher Palmer and Ricky and Monica’s good fortune, but that wasn’t the case. I just stumbled upon Christopher Palmer. In the papers.
I’ve always had a thing for statistics, pitching statistics in particular, and one rainy afternoon I was searching the Web looking at old state high school records. Suddenly there he was. It was an old article, on some kid from the little town of Alpine, out in West Texas. A young phenom with an incredible fastball. Major League stuff. It was the main feature on the sports page in the town’s local newspaper, The Alpine Gazetteer. The thing is, it seems a lot of these old town newspapers are digitizing their archives these days, printing old pictures of the way the town looked, or how much it cost for a bushel of hay in such and such year. The Gazetteer had a photo of their pitching phenom, Dickie Clavits, standing out on the ballfield with his team. And there, right next to Dickie, was coach Ron Horner, looking proud, beaming at the camera with a imperceptibly sly smile — the same smile I was now looking at in the shadows of the Jefferson High School furnace room.
Christopher Palmer was coach Ron Horner. Not a thing had changed about him, yet the picture in The Alpine Gazetteer had been dated April 13, 1937.
A few days later I found Palmer again, only this time he was in the Sanderson Town Crier — the Sept. 18, 1954 edition. He was the high school basketball coach at the time, but he had that same unmistakable sly, devilish smile. And he hadn’t aged a day.
I printed both pictures and brought them to school with me. I didn’t show anybody, I’d just quickly check them, then put them in my pocket, and then walk near Palmer in the hallway or cafeteria. It was him.
Sometimes curiosity is like a poison ivy itch, you shouldn’t scratch it, but you do. I cut school on a chilly Tuesday morning. Palmer lived outside of town, down by the river. I kept off the roads going there, and spent a long time looking at the house from the woods before going closer. Everything around it was dead — the bushes, the grass, an old cottonwood tree with a rotted rope swing. Even the birds seemed to avoid it.
The following week at school I tried to avoid Christopher Palmer, but he was on to me. I don’t know how. I’d been careful not to disturb anything in the house, I’d even covered my tracks in the dusty yard. Maybe he smelled me in his house.
I wasn’t sure what I would find in the custodian’s office down in the furnace room, but it was suddenly another itch. I had run some extra laps after practice and, walking back to the locker room, I noticed that Palmer’s old Ford pickup was not in its parking space. The school was virtually empty. I decided to have a quick look.
I’d been in the furnace room before. My dad had owned the heating repair business in town and I used to help him out at the shop before he got sick. I was just a kid, so I’d carry his tools or hold the flashlight and he’d give me a couple of dollars spending money. My dad serviced Jefferson High’s furnace every spring and fall. The few times I went with him he’d patiently explain to me how all the systems worked. My dad loved the mechanical aspect of things.
I hadn’t expected to find Palmer there, but there he was.
Palmer looked up at the basement door, perhaps wondering how he could dispose of my body. It was then I remembered my dad showing me how the old coal chute worked. The furnace had been converted from coal to gas in the 1970s, but they left the chute in place. It was covered by two large iron doors in the floor. You’d stack a pile of coal on the doors, then hit the release switch on the wall, and they would swing downward, dropping the coal into the flaming boiler.
Palmer stepped in closer. He stopped just before the doors, which were covered in dust. I didn’t dare look at the release switch on the wall for fear he’d follow my eyes. I knew it was there though, a large red button on a push spring just 10 feet away. It wasn’t much different than the trip switch on the water tank game at the Jefferson High School Booster Fair where I’d dunked a smiling Principal McCreedy five out of five times. I hit that button with a baseball. From 20 feet away. I didn’t have a baseball however, and my arm was likely broken. I looked at Palmer leering at me and something inside me said sit up. I got my arms underneath me and began to push myself up against the wall. And that’s when I felt the brick. It had become dislodged when I hit the wall. It was right there, just behind my hip. I very, very slowly closed my fingers around it and tested its weight. Could I hit the switch? I told myself it would be just like dunking Principal McCreedy. Only McCreedy would probably have just laughed if I missed, while Palmer was going to eviscerate me with what now looked to be claws slowly twisting outward where his fingers had once been.
Palmer took another step forward. He seemed to sense something, and I pulled myself up to distract him. He shifted his attention back to me. The flesh in his face now seemed to be rippling. Then he softly said, “Here’s where I’m supposed to ask you if you know any prayers.” His words seemed to float across the basement like a hiss of slowly releasing steam. His sly smile began stretching into a full grin, his yellow teeth no longer human.
I thought about being on the mound on a hot summer night, a crowd in the stands, the batter eyeing me up, digging his cleats into the dirt, me thinking only about my wind-up and delivery. I looked at the release switch and this time Palmer did follow my eyes. I picked up the brick and prayed I could deliver the pitch.
Peter Bar is a web developer who spends his summers in Montauk.