Heckfire and Darnation: a Cautionary Fable by Heath Lowrance

Mrs. Grait got religion one Sunday morning in spring while watching a television evangelist. She caught it like a sudden chill on a hot day, and within moments it had consumed her so thoroughly she could only weep bitterly at all the long years she’d wasted not in service to the Lord. “Thank you, Jesus,” she said, crouched down in front of her television set. “Thank you for revealing to me your Divine Plan.” Then, “And thank you, Mr. Oral Roberts, for bringing the Savior’s Divine Plan to me, via my television set.”

She immediately thought of poor, unsaved Mr. Grait, even now lingering over a pre-lunch sandwich in the kitchen. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she hurried to her husband.
“Frederick!” she said. “Frederick, I have seen the Light, at last! We must repent our sins. And you must start with your language. You must immediately cease your profanity and watch what you say, because God is offended by a vulgar tongue. The man on television said so, and his name is Oral so he would know.”
Mr. Grait chewed his sandwich and said, “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“That!” his good wife said. “That is exactly what I’m talking about! You must stop using such language, Frederick, or you’ll be condemned to suffer for all eternity!”
“What nonsense,” said Mr. Grait, finishing his sandwich over the sink and washing his hands.
“It’s not nonsense. If you love me, and love God, you’ll clean up your language immediately.”
Mr. Grait smiled at his wife, put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her forehead. “Very well,” he said. “For love of you, I’ll watch my language from this moment on.”
“And for love of God.”
“Yes, and for love of God, sure.”
“Promise me, Frederick!”
Mr. Grait was of that rare breed able to espouse in the finest of profane eloquence. He was capable of elevating blasphemy and foul phraseology into a sort of art, unleashing torrents of vulgarity inspired enough to bring tears to the eyes of grown men. If awards could be given for sustained and creative use of profanity, Mr. Grait’s mantle would be brimming with trophies.
But he said, “I promise, dear.” And, raising his right hand, “I do hereby solemnly swear that, if another vulgar word comes out of my mouth, the earth may open up and swallow me whole and drag me down to the pit, where I shall endure an eternity of torment in the fires of—“
Stricken, Mrs. Grait hurriedly put a finger on her beloved husband’s lips. “No!” she said. “Don’t say it. Even that is a vulgar word, in the eyes of Our Sweet Savior.”
“Very well, dear. Never again will I utter a profane word.”
Mrs. Grait sighed happily, threw her arms around Mr. Grait’s waist, and rested her head against his chest. “Thank you, Frederick, my love. You’ve made me very happy.”

Within the half-hour, Mr. Grait, who’d had the very best of intentions while making promises to his beloved wife, found bitter regret needling his mind. The occasion to swear seemed to present itself on an alarmingly frequent basis.
It started with lunch, which the Sunday preparations of usually fell to him. He made omelets, a personal specialty of his, with freshly grated Colby Jack cheese, minced Portobello mushrooms, and chunks of ham. They turned out in the skillet golden-brown, perfectly wrapped, thick cylinders of eggy perfection. Humming happily, he brought the skillet to the table, where his beaming wife awaited, and used his favorite spatula to heft the perfect omelets onto her plate.
But halfway from skillet to table both omelets slipped, flopped on the corner of the table and splattered all over the kitchen floor.
Mr. Grait’s reaction was instantaneous fury. He dropped the skillet on the table, threw the spatula into the sink and stood trembling and staring at the ruined omelets at his feet. He felt the profanity rising up out of his stomach, toward his throat.
His good wife, sensing her husband was already close to breaking his vow, put a calming hand on his arm and said, “Frederick.”
He looked at her. He clenched his teeth. “Darn it,” he said. “Oh, doggone it anyway.”
She smiled at him.

His next temptation to err happened only an hour later. He’d taken the old lawnmower out of the garage, preparing to mow their modest lawn. It was a lovely spring day and by that time he’d quite forgotten his anger over the ruined omelets. He pushed the old machine down his driveway, situated it at the closest corner to the house, where he always began this most sacred of rituals, and paused very briefly to gaze over his lawn. The grass blades only needed to be sheared by a half-inch or so.
“I wonder if I’ll be able to start the old girl with one good yank this time,” he said to himself. He propped his foot on the lawnmower, reached for the starter cord, and gave a mighty pull.
The cord came entirely out of the lawnmower and Mr. Grait stumbled backward and landed in a heap on the driveway, still holding the useless starter in his hand.
If it had been a cold day, steam would very likely have been evident around Mr. Grait’s head. His face went red and his fists clenched and he threw the starter down the driveway, where it bounced once and came to rest in the gutter.
Mrs. Grait was not there to soothe him this time, and his lips almost formed the words, almost verbalized the vilest profanities imaginable. But he glanced at the house and imagined his sweet wife inside, and imagined how disappointed she would be if she knew he’d faltered in his resolve.
So he said, “Rats. Rats, rats, rats, and boogers!”
It did not make him feel better.

Later that afternoon, Mr. Grait retired to his workroom, a place of infinite pleasure and tranquility to him, to putter around with a new birdhouse design he had been working on. His nerves by this time were frayed and thin, as if he’d had too much coffee. He knew why he felt a wreck—the curtailing his wife had imposed upon him was taking a toll, and an ominous sense of oppression had begun to settle over his head.
He placed a small board in the clamp mounted on his workbench and sawed at it, thinking, why should I not swear if I want to? Why should I be denied this simple pleasure that is afforded to other men my age? After all, what harm is there in it? It is Mrs. Grait who has found religion, not I.
He frowned and removed the small board and placed it against its mate. He found the wood-glue and began joining them together. But ah, he thought. I should not resent my loving wife for this. I made a promise, and not all promises are easy to keep. If it was easy, it would be worth nothing.
These rationalizations were true, but they did nothing to make him feel better. He wanted to swear. He enjoyed swearing.
He placed the now-angled pieces of wood upright and prepared to nail a portion of the roof on with thin nails. With thumb and forefinger, he placed the tiny nail, aimed carefully with the wood-working hammer, and tapped.
The birdhouse collapsed and three separate pieces of board fell to the floor with a loud, irritating clatter.
Mr. Grait gripped his hammer, looking for all the world like a maniacal killer, ready to bash out the brains of an innocent passer-by. Fortunately for his community, people did not, as a rule, wander through his workroom.
Very quietly, Mr. Grait said, “Poopy. Oh, darn you, poopy poophead.”
These juvenile ramblings were most unsatisfying. He despaired of ever truly expressing his rage. Tears streamed down his cheeks.

He had made a promise, a vow, to his wife. If ever he should swear again, he’d said, may the earth open up and may he be consumed by the flames of ever-lasting torment, or something to that effect. He did not truly believe in the same things his wife believed in, but he did believe in the sanctity of a promise. He would not, he decided, break his vow, although everything in him cried out to say one word, just one little profanity, to ease his pain. He felt like those drug addicts he’d read about or seen on CSI, suffering through withdrawal symptoms.
So our dejected friend went about the rest of his day with his head hanging low and his heart heavy. His good wife, noticing her husband’s despondent attitude, went to great pains to please him. She made his favorite dinner, pork chops and boxed macaroni and cheese. She rubbed his shoulders and kissed his cheek and told him he looked like he was losing weight—Oral Roberts that morning had not said anything about pleasant lies.
But nothing seemed to help. Mr. Grait only smiled sadly at his wife and patted her hand and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Oh, I’ll be all right, dear.”
But behind the lackluster melancholy façade, Mr. Grait seethed and burned. The profanities ran through his head like a ticker tape on Wall Street, faster and faster, just a blur of vile words and vulgar phrases.
Oh gosh, he thought. By golly, I would give my right arm just to curse right now. Why did I ever make that stupid, gosh-darned promise?

Mrs. Grait went to bed early and her husband sat up in front of the television watching a show on cable about mobsters who killed a lot of people and ate pasta and dropped the F-word with every third breath. He switched the remote, found a young stand-up comedian who kept the audience roaring with his various uncensored descriptions of male and female genitalia. He switched the channel again, found a documentary on PBS about the history and usage of vulgarity.
He switched off the television, dropped the remote on the floor and sat there in darkness for long minutes. His anger had given way to a deep, dark depression.
After a while, he got up and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. His face looked drawn and exhausted in the cabinet mirror. Sighing, he lifted the toilet seat and stared at the wall while urinating. Feeling rebelliously apathetic, he didn’t bother to flush, or lower the seat.
He fished his toothbrush out of the cabinet, applied a liberal amount of toothpaste, and started to raise it to his bared teeth.
The toothbrush slipped out of his fingers, and, as he fumbled for it, bounced against the side of the sink and went plop! Right into the unflushed toilet.
Mr. Grait stared for a moment with numb incomprehension. His toothbrush settled with a soft bubble to the bottom of the bowl, and toothpaste fizzed in the fouled water.
And the word came out of his mouth like a sudden belch, a word so vile even he rarely used it. He tried to clamp his mouth shut after that, but it was too late. Without warning, a virtual torrent of blasphemy and profanity spewed forth out of him. He shook his fists and stamped his feet and the words kept coming, a veritable avalanche of venom and rage, as colorful and creative as a watercolor painted by a lunatic.
Once he started, he couldn’t stop. The pressure had been building all day, and now it was released. He cursed and raved and ranted, strung together flamboyant strings of expletives, found new ways to connect seemingly unrelated and unnatural sexual acts and private biological functions. If any living person had heard the depravities coming from the mouth of Mr. Grait at that moment, their hair would very likely have turned white and they would be plagued for the rest of their lives by a nervous condition.
After three minutes of non-stop vulgarity, Mr. Grait began slowing down. The force of the words lessened, until, like the last dripping trickle of water from a tapped well, they dried up entirely. Our hero leaned, exhausted and depleted, against the sink, breathing hard, a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead.
Under his feet, the floor shifted and cracked, and he looked down just in time to see it open up entirely. Flames belched from somewhere far below, and The Devil appeared in a burst of noxious-smelling smoke.
“Hello, Mr. Grait,” the Horned One said.
“Oh, hello,” Mr. Grait said. “I suppose I screwed up pretty badly, eh?”
“I should say so,” said His Satanic Majesty. “You must come with me now, to burn forever in the pit.”
Mr. Grait sighed, nodded. “Yes,” he said. “But it doesn’t really seem fair, does it?”
Old Nick shrugged. “It’s a fucking bitch, but what the fuck are you gonna do?”
Whereupon he grabbed Mr. Grait by his collar and dragged him, cursing, into the fiery pits of… well, you know.

*

Heath Lowrance blogs at Psycho Noir

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