The price the fellow offered to pay was more than Sleet McMaster could pass up. So, after an obligatory period of haggling, Sleet agreed to the terms: McMaster’s soul in return for thirty years of exorbitant wealth.
“Just to clarify,” McMaster said after their requisite handshake, “I relinquish my soul at the end of thirty years…after I’ve collected full payment from you.”
“I don’t do business that way,” the man replied. “I’ll pay you over a thirty year period for your soul, which I want right now.”
“What the hell? You didn’t take out a mortgage on my soul; I said I’d sell it. How am I supposed to live for thirty years without a soul?”
“Not my problem, Sport. You should have thought of the practicalities before you jumped on the deal. Greed will kick you in the nuts every time!”
“Look, I’ll live up to my end of the bargain. You can have my soul, but I want you to live up to your end, too. What’s to keep you from taking my soul and then reneging on the thirty year payment?”
“Nothing, actually. But I’ve never reneged on a deal yet and I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years.”
“Thirty-five years? I thought you’d been doing this since Adam and Eve.”
“Who are Adam and Eve?”
“What do you mean, ‘Who are Adam and Eve?’ They’re the source of original sin. I mean, you’re Satan. You should know that!”
“I beg your pardon? I’m not Satan. I can understand from the context of our transaction why you might think it, but, no, I’m Tim Ledbetter. Just a soul trader. Well, not just a soul trader. I’m the best there is. Like I said, I’ve been doing this for thirty-five years.”
“Listen, you misrepresented yourself, so the contract is null and void…”
“…the hell it is! And I did not misrepresent myself. In your hurry for a quick buck, you just failed to do your due diligence.” Ledbetter’s beet red face and clenched fists highlighted the intensity of his anger.
“Okay, okay, don’t get crazy on me. How ’bout we work a compromise, okay? You can have my soul, but you wait ten years to collect. That way, I have ten years with my soul intact and you still get my soul. I get my payment. Everybody’s happy. Listen, the deal is still on, we just fiddle with the terms.”
“You want to renegotiate the terms after the deal’s done? Okay, I’m flexible. I’ll meet you half way. I’ll wait ten years to collect, but you only get fifteen years of wealth. Take it or leave it. If you leave it, I’m taking your soul right here, right now.”
The stoop of McMaster’s shoulders and the look in his eyes expressed his defeat. Ledbetter probably had seen those signs of resigned failure in hundreds of people during his thirty-five year career. But that’s only supposition because, as you know, we’re not privy to his thoughts.
“Wait,” you’re saying about now, “who are you talking to? This is a little confusing.”
I’m not “talking” to anyone, dear reader, but I’m writing to you. That’s right, I’m interrupting my story to engage you in conversation. Let’s just drop the quotation marks, okay? They seem a bit pretentious, inasmuch as this is a one-on-one conversation between you and me. Let me fill you in, ex parte, on some details about Ledbetter and McMaster.
First, McMaster. He is the personification of greed and sloth. The man is lazy on steroids, but he’ll clean up his act for a moment if he smells an opportunity to make a buck. He’s an advertising copywriter by profession, if you call such a noxious endeavor a profession. He doesn’t do much writing, though. Instead, he skims magazines, looking for catchy phrases. He marks them with a yellow highlighter and, later, has his secretary create lists of phrases from the words he marks and then uses them to craft ad campaigns. In other words, he’s a word recycler who’ll sell those words to the highest bidder.
Now, about Ledbetter. The one word that best describes him is this: delusional. He can no more trade souls than a Siamese cat can speak Portuguese through a drinking straw. But he talks a big game. Scares the hell out of people. Makes them think he’s Satan or Satan’s diabolical twin. But, like I said a moment ago, I don’t know what’s in his head, not really. What would cause a man to lure people into bogus contracts to sell their souls? I haven’t the foggiest idea. But it’s interesting to watch.
Back to the situation at hand. I’ve seen this scene with McMaster and Ledbetter play out hundreds of times. Not with McMaster…he’s a new mark…but with Ledbetter. He attracts offbeat targets with the scent of money, then springs the trap with a cockamamie story about buying their souls for preposterous sums of money. “Money for nothing,” as the song lyrics say.
Well, McMaster was especially easy prey, it seems. He had just invested the last bit of money to his name in a business that was doomed to failure from the start. He’d had the absurd notion that he could sell his recipe for spicy chicken and papaya corn dumplings. He paid five thousand dollars for a web site and hired a competing ad agency to create an ad campaign. (If that doesn’t tell you how much confidence he had in his marketing capabilities, I don’t know whether you’re going to be able to cross the street by yourself.) When the agency finished creating the campaign (and, in the process, emptied another $80,000 from his 401K accounts), McMaster paid a food marketing guru a flat $14,750 fee to get Costco to let him offer free samples of his dumplings. It seems his expectation was that, once people tasted them, they would happily pay $39.95 to buy the recipe. Not only did people not want to buy his recipe, most of them who tasted his samples took one bite and spit it into the trash bins next to the demo stand, where they also discarded the uneaten remains of the dumpling they had just tasted. The web site did no better. At the end of 90 days, it had received a total of only 71 hits.
That little fiasco is what made McMaster such an easy mark for Ledbetter’s pitch. McMaster was flat broke and the riches beyond his wildest dreams that Ledbetter offered spoke to him in a language he could understand. Plus, McMaster probably never really believed in souls. Souls were the brain-children of people who couldn’t face the fact that humans are just animals that die and decompose, an ignominious end to an artificially fanciful existence.
To bring this little tale to a rapid conclusion, McMaster and Ledbetter came to a mutually agreeable compromise. McMaster expected unlimited wealth and Ledbetter expected another soul to add to his collection. What neither expected was an out-of-control van careening around the corner as they stepped out of the alley at the corner of First Street and Avenue M. The van, its side painted with the words “First Baptist Church of Trinity Acres,” was full of youthful zealots on their first indoctrination field trip to the seedier side of town. The van’s driver, Pastor Bob Jeffress, if he saw McMaster and Ledbetter at all, saw them through bloodshot eyes. Pastor Jeffress’ blood alcohol level, at 0.242, was three times the legal limit. Neither McMaster nor Ledbetter had a chance of survival; the van’s speed on impact was estimated to be 55 miles per hour.
As you might imagine, the incident caused quite a stir in church circles. Pastor Jefress spent several months in jail before being tried and convicted of vehicular manslaughter, which was followed by a sentence of five to fifteen years in prison. Fortunately for him, Governor Sarah Sanders, a long-time member of the First Baptist Church of Trinity Acres, immediately commuted his sentence.
The uproar following the commutation led to an investigation of the relationship between Jeffress and Sanders, which revealed their years-long extramarital affairs, both with each other and with several others unnamed in this story. Given the endemic hypocrisy one finds in both government and organized religion, the affairs were readily forgiven by the parties’ supporters. But, after their marriage to one another, both were arrested for bigamy, inasmuch as they did not bother to divorce their respective spouses before getting married. That infraction, we learned, was unforgivable. And, we also learned, the punishment was equally harsh. They both were sentenced to death by hanging and firing squad, the sentences to be carried out simultaneously. Public executions, which had been brought back during Sanders’ first term in office, attracted crowds in excess of eighty-thousand. Food trucks park on the streets around the execution site, offering execution-viewers a number of options for lunch: Indian, Chinese, soul food (hmmm), Panamanian, hamburgers, hot dogs, Peruvian (check out the roasted guinea pigs, they’re delicious!), and several Uzbek and Mongolian choices.
On the day of the executions…wait, you’re wondering how I’m bringing this tale to a “rapid conclusion,” aren’t you? Well, I understand. So I’ll just stop here. But, really, try the Peruvian food truck if you get a chance.