Skip Taylor and The Devil Dog
The following was written as a character monologue for the first live performance of Pleasuretown at Stage 773 in Chicago. The concept quickly grew and became a WBEZ Podcast and was one of the first live podcast events I showcased when I created the WBEZ Podcast Passport Series back in the day.
I hadn't seen Skip Taylor in ten years.
Skip and his common law wife, Trisha, were a troubled couple. You know - made for one another as some kind of cosmic joke because they were the only pieces that fit each other but were destined to have almost non-stop friction in spite of the fit. Case of two people who loved each other but couldn't stand to be around each other at the same time.
She drank. A LOT. Trisha was the sort who started in on her homebrew at 8:30 in the morning and graduated to grain alcohol by noon. I'm not sure anyone in town has ever seen her sober even once. And alcohol (or maybe it was just her - who could say) made her the Gatekeeper of Dante's Special Level of Hell devoted to Manhaters. Not so much witty but caustic and with an ability to rip out a man's self worth in less than three words.
Skip was a beaten man. All of his steam had long since been depleted by Trisha and he could often be seen skulking around, his shoulders slightly hunched with a hollow look in his eyes. He'd come over to my place and smoke a bit and complain about how he planned to kill himself. Hanging was a Big One for him. He figured it was sort of poetic to hang himself. He also thought that hanging would really piss Trisha off because it was so much less efficient than drowning himself and less painful than shooting himself in the brainpan.
One afternoon, one of hundreds of afternoons populated by one or another in Pleasuretown seeking guidance or solace or just some quality tobacco product, Skip came by with a different look in his eye. It was almost upbeat. Almost defiant. Almost human.
That afternoon, he didn't talk about hanging himself in between heavy drags from my pipe. That afternoon, he wanted to talk about my dog. Everyone knows my dog. Cyrus is a legend in town. Cyrus was Delilah's dog before she met me and we became us and after I became known as "The Widower" or "The Devil's Bane" or "The Fella with the Magic Smoke"
I loved Delilah more than most people love anything ever. When she passed, all I had left of her was some clothing, some pictures, and Cyrus. All the love I held for D got transferred to him. He was my one living, breathing reminder that she wasn't just the hollow dream of a prisoner - one who can see but never feel the heat of the sun. And, when Cyrus wandered into the road and got his body broken by a stupid man on a horse, my mind couldn't conceive of it.
But I got Cyrus back - you've heard the stories. The most I'll tell you here is that they are true. Like Orpheus, I travelled through Hell and brought my dog back. And I didn't look back to make sure.
Skip wanted to talk about the dead coming back to life. He wanted to ask me about my trip through Hell and compared it to his own daily life. "Trisha is a demon, man, " he told me. "She is a succubus sent to torture me for eternity. How does someone escape from that?" As almost always, I just listened. Skip rarely needed to hear what I had to say and talking usually just took more energy than I wanted to extend. Pretty much the same for most folks in town.
"What if I'm dead, right now? What if I'm dead and found a way to resurrect myself? What if I'm lying somewhere in a hole in the woods, dying of exposure and this - this life imprisonment - is some kind of dying fever dream? If I don't escape from death or at least try then what was the fucking point of existing in the first place?"
"Good question. Or questions."
"You're goddamn right it's a good question!" He became incredibly animated in a way I'd never seen. He didn't look like Skip anymore - he looked a little insane but full of life. "And I HAVE THE ANSWER!!!"
He sat back down, beaming this crooked half smile and staring a thousand yards beyond me and Cyrus and Pleasuretown.
After about four minutes, I asked him "You gonna tell me the fucking answer or what?"
He took one last big, healthy hit, held it for a moment, blew the smoke up in the air. "You'll see. You'll understand. I don't know if anyone else in this godforsaken berg will, but you will. You've been there. You've seen it." And he split, walking - no, strutting - up and out and away.
Cyrus wagged his tail approvingly. I had seen. I had been there. And ever since I brought him back with me, he seemed like he was smarter - maybe smarter than me. Hell, maybe smarter than most people. Maybe dying and coming back gives dogs a better grasp on things. Hard to say. He still couldn't talk but he sure seemed to listen. And that tail was wagging with gusto.
Sometimes it was downright eerie looking at that dog. He was still Cyrus - all muscle and grin - but he was MORE than. It was like he had been somehow imbued with an otherworldly intelligence. He had seen things that, when I crossed over to retrieve him, I could only see blurry renditions of. A sea of heads of the most despairing faces imaginable. Thousands of heads squashed next to one another as if each person had been buried up to his or her neck in blood soaked soil. Crying out. Trying to connect with something or someone who made sense. I closed my eyes and walked among (and sometimes on) these faces. Cyrus was right down in there with them. And the black waters. Not black from lack of light but actually black water that didn't reflect anything from my torch. Did Cyrus drink some? I wanted to - Hell, I would've killed Delilah at the time to get a drink of that water.
But Cyrus WANTED to come back. Delilah couldn't bring herself to come. In the wager I won from the Landlord of that Hole, the prize was her. I won that fucking battle of wills but my prize was so fargone, so filled with emptiness, that she wouldn't even recognize me. , however, did. I begged her to come for what seemed like a hundred years. Even though I'd beaten that Unholy Fucker at his own game (did he really think he could beat me in a series of tobacco related tests?) her sadness almost held me there. And then I felt Cyrus casually lick my face. And I came back.
And now he knows things. He has no fear. He is my companion, my protector and my keeper all at once. I can't say I believe Skip's life was even close to Cyrus time in the Deep Dark but I can understand that he saw it that way.
Two weeks later, it hit me that I hadn't heard from Skip. He owed me a few bucks and was usually pretty good about that sort of thing so I put on my cap, whistled for Cyrus, and headed over to his place. Trisha answered the door.
"Whaddya want, Hellspawn?"
Her breath was so alcohol laden, it was like being spit on by pure fermentation and her beady eyes were bloodshot and angry. Her hair was matted and stringy and a black cigar hung loosely from the corner of her lower lip, the saliva cementing it in place. Succubus, indeed. Cyrus emitted a low, barely audible growl.
"Hey, Trisha. Just looking for Skip, you know..."
"Haven't seen that worthless piece of shit for two weeks at least. Good riddance says I!" and started to slam the door in my face.
"Wait, now." and I put my foot in the door. "Two weeks? Did he say where he was going?"
"He took the trash out. Never came back. Hope he's fucking dying in a gutter that lazy asswipe." She and Cyrus locked eyes for a hot second. They both growled audibly. Her eyes grew wide with fear and recognition. And she shoved me back and got the door shut. I heard the deadbolt turn.
"Good riddance says I!" she barked through the door.
And like that kid at school that gets transferred to another school because his dad got a different job or something, Skip became just one of those people we all once knew. No one really looked for him. Once in a while someone would bring his name up when telling a funny story or whenever Trisha stirred up trouble in town. "That Skip." someone would say reverently. "He got out while the gettin' was good." And we'd all smile for a beat.
Last week, I took the train to Oregon to talk to a man about a new plant. I got off the train with Cyrus - for a quarter he gets to sit with me as long as he's in the corner - and we sauntered up the depot. A couple of conductors were headed in the opposite direction and barked what sounded like a greeting. I looked up and there, standing upright, looking tanned and alive, was none other than Skip Taylor. His eyes grew wide and I caught a whiff of panic. Then he relaxed and held out his hand.
"Skip? Really? What the fuck?"
"How you doing, man?"
"Me? How the fuck are YOU doing? Where you been? What? Ten...?
"Years? Yeah. That's about right. I'm flying the rails now, brother. Locomotive locomotion."
It turns out that Skip decided that fated night to carry out the trash. He dragged the heavy wooden crate down to the alley and looked up at the house. She couldn't see him from the window - the side of the place blocked her view. And he turned South and just started walking. He walked for almost two days, one foot in front of the other. He walked himself straight out of Hell and got himself some wings.
"Just like you, man. I never looked back. I just kept walking until the edges of the world went from crimson and black to blue and white. Just like you."
And Cyrus's tail wagged like the Devil.