Your gentle commentator J. Grump had not darkened the doors of Café Preténse for many months. His free time had been occupied with familial concerns, which included the reading of Protestant dogmatics for proselytization purposes. This particular Saturday saw a lull in the glossing of Reformation ramblings, and he made his way to the old caffeinating hole for a bit of creative writing. The clientele was hipster and millennial as usual, and your pious provocateur noticed that the café’s prices had been hiked during his absence.
“The cost of being pretentious,” I mumbled to myself as I sipped an admittedly subtle cappuccino.
I had left my wife at home to spend the morning with friends, and she told me not to return until I had finished the first draft of a poem. My mind wandered from the rhyming dictionary and I began people-watching. I recognized a minor local Catholic celebrity a few tables down. He had gained a following with his polemic podcast and was talking to someone whose back was turned to me. I thought at first it must be a fan, but then I saw the familiar tail sprawling out behind the chair, and my back stiffened.
The composition of verse suddenly became very engaging, and I hoped to go unnoticed. I had scratched out three lines of doggerel before the horned devil stopped short on his way out the door.
“Why,” he said, “if it isn’t my old friend Mr. Grump!”
I looked up from my notebook with a weary look.
“Mind if I sit for a moment?”
“Thanks.” He made himself comfortable. “So. What is new in the world of you? Which fresh annoyances are making your life difficult these days?”
“I’m sure you already know. What is new in the distillery?”
“Bother, that old thing. Never get into the family business, I always say. Nothing but complaints from the lowerdowns about the decrease in quality, but I have been able to successfully market Wormwood’s Abyss to the lesser devil-class. What we lack in prestige we make up for in volume, but the damned aristocrats are pushing for a more refined small batch. Recruiting great human souls for such a spirited end is extraordinarily difficult.”
“Is that why you were talking to Prof. Podcaster over there?”
“Indeed.” The devil removed his hat and scratched his horns in consternation. “Perhaps one day I’ll snag him, but he’s a crafty one. Your parish of Tradistanis has a few men and women of potential greatness, but I fear the quality of preaching has plateaued their development.”
He shrugged. “Those priests are trained to expound repetitively about the same spiritual habits. It’s more than the fluff that normal diocesan priests splutter out to their sleepy flocks, but not enough to raise up greatness. The virtues they promote require only a little thought, and souls with undeveloped minds and wills cannot commit great sins. I swear to Styx, I am so tired of tempting people to indulge in phantasmal luxuries.”
“Perhaps a simple and humble faith are what people need,” I said. “Who am I to despise anyone for their weird devotions and clinging to scapulars? I expect the Virgin Mary smiles more on them than on me, sometimes.”
The devil traced an inverted pentagram over his chest in a spasm of superstition at the mention of that name.
“Well, I had hoped for better from you.”
“Vainglory is not the greatest of sins, but it is not a minor one. Encouraging people to look down on their fellow-man can be a stepping stone to bigger things.”
“Happy to disappoint you, I suppose. Don’t you worry that you’re telling me too much about your plans?”
“Oh. No, we’ll think of something else to do with you. Speaking of which, how’s the extracurricular reading coming along?”
“The Protestant theology of Dr. H? Slower than I had hoped. I would like to be done with it sooner rather than later. I don’t know what is more difficult, reading the blasted book or writing the commentary I promised my family. At least they’re engaging with me on something of substance. Family gatherings where everybody just ignores that I and my wife are the only Catholics in the room were getting so very old.”
“If you want my advice, be sure to respond in fine detail to all of that Calvinist’s arguments. That’s the only way to undo the wily wickedness of old Dr. H.”
“I cannot help but notice your twitching tail.”
“Don’t mind that. Have I ever told you of Dr. H’s arrival in the infernal realms? He lived to see the end of the Great War—one of the causes of the current dearth of greatness, by the way—and spent his last years in worry and doubt over the logic of the Modernists, not over the possibility of Papism. It was not hard to keep him distracted. You’ve seen clearly enough how he responded to those secular intellects with careful reason but to Rome with wrath, and then he added the usual Calvinist corruption of the divine character on top of that. Defamation of the Enemy and willful ignorance make for a fine vintage in the winepress of Dis. In fact, I believe there is a plan to open that particular bottle on the centennial of his death. The look on his face when he arrived…”
At that the wormy devil became lost in a reverie. I glanced down at my notebook and realized I could improve the rhythm of the second line. My scribblings interrupted the other’s thoughts and he packed himself up to go.
“See you on Sunday,” he said. “I need to see how our sermon plans are coming along.” I waved him out.
“Now,” I thought aloud, “what rhymes with ‘absinthe’?”