August, 1988Spencer Shuler’s mind was on the cassette tape covers flattened between his mattress and box springs as he sat crammed between his mother and the end of the pew in the air-conditioned chill of Mount Bethel Baptist Church. This was no regular Sunday night service. A few shocked gasps went up from the crowd when the deputy standing behind the pulpit flashed a picture of Motley Crüe on his projector screen. They were surrounded by candles, human skulls, and a giant pentagram, their hair teased and poofed to heights the girls at school could only dream of, smug pouts on their made-up faces. Spencer felt sick to his stomach, as if his bedroom door had been thrown open and the whole world had caught him jerking off.
When the audience had recovered from the shock of seeing Motley Crüe, the deputy continued. The pentagram was a symbol devil worshippers revered, the deputy explained, switching to a picture of the five-point star graffiti-scrawled on the wall of a local abandoned church, a place that Spencer had heard whispers about but had never been to, eliciting another gasp from the audience. “We’ve been responding to more and more calls like this,” the deputy said, his tone grave like a high school baseball coach informing his health class about the realities of gonnorhea, “and Satanic graffiti isn’t the worst of it. Last month we had an incident where someone’s cat was dismembered in a possible sacrifice ritual.”
“The thing is, folks,” the deputy continued when the murmuring died down, “is this stuff ain’t just coming from the fringes. It’s coming straight from the top of the pop charts, songs they hear every time they turn on the radio.” He paused to fumble with a tape in the boom box sitting at his feet, the bald spot in the top of his buzz cut shining pink in the church light.
Suddenly the church was filled with the limpid chorus of Def Leppard’s “Love Bites.” It was a song Spencer knew well and hated, as it reminded him of the junior high dance, of sitting alone on the metal bleachers in the darkened gymnasium, stiff and ridiculously overdressed –he’d allowed his mother to convince him that all the boys would certainly be wearing ties—while young couples melted into one another on the dance floor. When he’d first gotten his hands on the Def Leppard Hysteria cassette album, he’d fast-forwarded to the last song on the first side, the tantalizingly titled “Armageddon It,” only to find that it wasn’t about the death and destruction at end of the world at all. It was just another song about sex, something he couldn’t relate to, and he’d never listened to it again.
The presentation was making quite an impression on his mother. Spencer could feel the timbre of her worry rising and was sure she would scour his room looking for offensive materials when we got home, armed with the pamphlets clutched in her hands. If a picture of Motley Crue made up like girls put a flea in her panties, as Spencer’s father would say, she would surely have another of her spells when she read the lyrics inside Slayer’s South of Heaven tape cover or saw the shadowy devil flogging a drowning priest on the cover of Dio’s Holy Diver.
He thought again about moving in with his dad. He certainly wouldn’t have to hide his tapes over there. His dad was, in fact, so corny that he would probably pop into Spencer’s room while he played Nintendo and bang his head along to Slayer, pretending he liked it. But his mother would never let him live there, and lately his dad had been unbearable whenever Cindi, his new girlfriend, was around, and she’d been coming around an awful lot.
The deputy paused the tape as “Love Bites” began to fade out and urged the crowd to listen closely. “There’s a guy talking here, and his voice is all messed up with some kind of special effects. He’s mostly saying about how love is an art, not a science, all kinds of nonsense like that, but then, at the very end, well, I’ll just let you hear it for yourself.” He started the tape again and turned it up loud so the congregation could hear the demonic voice. No one seemed to catch what it was saying.
“Hear that?” the deputy asked. “Right at the end of the song, he says it, clear as day. ‘Jesus of Nazareth, go to Hell.’” He played it again and this time everyone heard it. Certainly Spencer’s mother, who looked as if she might faint, had heard it. Even Spencer heard it. He thought that it was probably just a joke, but it still gave him a sick, empty feeling in his guts. It also added an undeniable little whiff of mystique to the song he otherwise hated. He understood now why his friend Rusty had given him the stash of heavy metal tapes and why he had to get rid of them himself. He looked over at his mother, who folded and unfolded the pamphlets in her lap, and thought of the tape covers under his mattress, where other boys might keep pilfered copies of Hustler, suddenly aware that he’d stashed them in the most obvious place imaginable.
By the time the deputy flashed a picture of King Diamond up on the screen, Spencer’s mother had seen enough. She tapped him on the knee and motioned to him that they were leaving. He’d seen pictures of King Diamond as he flipped through the metal magazines at Piggly Wiggly while his mother shopped, and knew him to be the singer of Mercyful Fate, whose cassette album Don’t Break the Oath lay at the bottom of the box of tapes hoarded in the utility shed. There was an aura of secretive danger about it, and it intrigued him, but he’d left it there in the bottom of the box, passed over in favor of other bands, because it also scared him. He turned to look back as he and his mother slipped out the door, and there was King Diamond, gnawing on a cross of bones, the beckoning look in his eye burned into Spencer’s vision even after the church door swung closed.
Spencer had traded his friend Rusty three Nintendo cartridges, including The Legend of Zelda II, which he hadn’t even beaten yet, and a sex toy catalog he’d found in the trash at his dad’s new house for the box of tapes that Rusty had inherited when his older brother went off to the army. He’d hidden the box behind the lawn mower in the tool shed, where his mother would never step foot because she’d once seen a snake there and swore that it chased her all the way back to the house even though Rusty was sure that snakes didn’t chase people. He dared only to bring a few of the albums into the house at a time, hiding the tapes in the cases of the Oak Ridge Boys and Kenny Rogers cassettes his mother had given him, along with the boom box, a few years before.
The secrecy was necessary because devil music was already on his mother’s radar, even before the seminar at the church. Right after he’d gotten the boom box, knowing nothing of Black Sabbath beyond the snippet of “Iron Man” that played while the Road Warriors sprinted to the wrestling ring to wreak blitzkrieg destruction upon their opponents, he’d asked his mother to buy him one of their tapes at K-Mart. She’d been perplexed by his sudden interest in black gospel music until she’d taken a good look at the song titles. “We Sold Our Souls For Rock n Roll?!” she’d screeched. “Children of the Grave?!” She’d nearly had one of her spells right there in the store, and the next day she wrote a letter to the manager of the K-Mart asking him if he knew that his store sold filth to children. She was that kind of woman, a Christian soldier, always marching as to war, and her fire for the Lord had only grown more intense in the wake of Spencer’s dad leaving.
The seminar, which was sure to fuel her resolve even further, was only the latest event in a wave of Satanism paranoia that had swept through the midlands of South Carolina that summer. Billy Mayo, a former drummer turned traveling evangelist, had set up a tent revival on the outskirts of town, where he preached against the evils of heavy metal and the lure of Satanism for a solid week. They’d even let the guy conduct an assembly at Babylon Springs Junior High, where Spencer was an eighth grader, learning about the separation of church and state, which apparently didn’t apply to Babylon Springs. “Let me tell you about my journey into rock n roll,” he’d begun in his weatherman voice, pleading with the students not to make the same mistakes he’d made, stalking the stage wearing baggy jeans like the ones the kids wore and a white sports coat. “It’s really my journey into Hell, and let me tell you, Hell is not somewhere you want to go.”
The reaction to Billy Mayo’s spiel, which touched on everything that rock n roll drove young people to do, from smoking dope and driving drunk to worshipping Satan and killing their parents, was decidedly mixed. Some students sat dazed, only half-listening. The more religious kids, of whom there were many, including Rusty, were whipped into a frenzy of fear. The smattering of black kids in mostly–white Bablyon Springs looked on in something like annoyed amusement at the folly of white folks. The handful of headbanger burnouts, mostly kids whose broken family lives had dragged them from Columbia or Augusta into the sand hill wastes of Bablyon Springs, snickered and rolled their eyes and made plans to meet behind the football bleachers to smoke whatever it was they smoked back there.
It was with these burnouts and their sneering derision that Spencer secretly identified. Or, more precisely, wanted to identify. Something was changing in him, something that went beyond sprouting hair around his pecker and zits on his face. Sometimes he still wanted to be the boy who’d made his mother so happy she’d cried actual tears of joy when he went to the altar and took Jesus into his soul just a couple of years before, but the truth was he almost didn’t believe any of that stuff anymore. Almost. He still believed a little, just enough to put a little spike of guilt in his guts, just enough to make him half-fascinated and half-scared shitless by the skulls and decay on the headbanger kids’ tee-shirts with the doom-y sounding band names spelled out in angular fonts. But with his turtlenecks and loafers and his honor roll grades and his fear of being singled out, Spencer was lumped in with the college prep crowd, which overlapped a great deal with the religious crowd, and it was there he was fated to remain.
Spencer had been uneasy sitting through Billy Mayo’s assembly, which had filled him with the same unnamed dread as did church sermons about the apocalypse, but the assembly and the week-long tent revival ended up being a real boon to him. Rusty, who’d inherited the box of metal cassette albums from his brother, had gotten caught up in the religious fervor and had been moved to burn the whole collection in one of Billy Mayo’s bonfires, lit expressly for the purpose of incinerating devil music. Rusty had agreed to the deal after negotiating a third Nintendo game and officially absolving himself of whatever effect the contents of the box might have on Spencer’s soul.
It had been quite a haul, and Spencer was still making his way through it, listening to the tapes on full blast before his mother came home from work and then surreptitiously on his Walkman headphones after he went to bed, studying the lyrics and the liner notes by flashlight, always careful to slip them back into their hiding places before he fell asleep. Alone in the dark in his bedroom, the lashing rhythms pumping adrenaline-tinged dread into his brain, he felt plugged into something vast and monolithic, at once bigger than himself and still somehow his alone. This is what he stood to lose if his mother peeked under his mattress, and he knew he could not let that happen. His plan was to slip away to his room under the guise of going to the bathroom as soon as they got home. There he would retrieve the tape covers from underneath his mattress and stow them away in some safer place (he was still working this part out) until his mother’s paranoia blew over.
But his plan was thwarted as soon as his mother left the churchyard and pulled out onto the highway. “I didn’t think the blamed thing was going to last that long,” she said after a moment, shuddering as if she was still trying to shake the presentation from her mind. “So I told your MawMaw and PawPaw you’d come by and cut the grass. Figured we’d better get out of there while it was still light outside. I’m going to drop you off there, and they’ll bring you home after supper.”
He pictured her snooping through his room while he was tooling around the yard with the mower, PawPaw barking instructions from the porch. By the time he’d eaten the string bean casserole that MawMaw had somehow gotten into her head that he loved so much she cooked it every time he came over, his mother would surely find the tape covers under the mattress. The fit she threw in response would be one for the ages, topping even the call-your-dad-and-explain-why-there-was-a-condom-in-your-trash-can histrionics. (The real reason was because Rusty had given him one he swiped from his brother’s room and he was curious to see if it fit, but he’d let his dad believe he might be on the verge of actual sex because that’s what he seemed to want).
“Can’t I just do it tomorrow?” Spencer asked. He tried to keep the worry out of his voice, but he flubbed it and pounced on the words. “I mean, it’s pretty much already getting dark.” Actually, he had plenty of time; the sun was still hanging on the horizon like a fat egg yolk and it took barely half an hour to run the push mower over his grandparents’ obsessively tidy lot.
“No,” she said. “You know how PawPaw is. You don’t come tonight, he’s liable to try to get out there and cut it himself.” PawPaw was recovering from what he kept reminding everybody the doctors had called a mild heart attack, stressing the mild as if he’d suffered nothing more serious than some kind of stomach bug.
There was no arguing with her.
“Listen,” she said when they’d ridden a few minutes in silence. “So what did you think about the thing at church?”
“I don’t know,” he said. Spencer had once been a very earnest boy, and the bitterest lesson he’d learned growing up was that there were few times in life when it was wise to tell anybody what he really thought about anything. This was especially true with his mother, who lived her life as a raw nerve, reacting to everything she saw or heard genuinely and without forethought.
“You don’t listen to that awful stuff, do you?” She gauged him with a glance so long that she nearly swerved off the highway.
“Nah,” he said when she returned her eyes to the road. When he lied to her, he normally felt like he was protecting her rather than deceiving her, because there was no telling how she might react, but this lie was different.
“Good. I just…” she began to cry, something she’d done at an alarming rate lately. “I’m sorry,” she said. She was always apologizing for her crying. “It’s just…we’ll talk about it later.”
Suddenly Spencer hit on a plan. “It’s too hot to cut grass in jeans,” he said, trying to adopt a casual air. “Can we swing by the house and I’ll change?” She frowned and considered his request. Spencer imagined two forces at work inside her mind, her dogged desire not to stray from a planned routine at war with her obsession to keep his school clothes clean and free of wear. “And these shoes…” he added, lifting his foot to display the clunky Nike high-tops he’d lobbied for, the ones that were so expensive his dad had tried to buy them in lieu of child support, prompting another of her legendary fits. She took a moment to consider his request, during which Spencer fought the sudden urge to open the door and tumble out onto the asphalt of the highway, fantasizing that he might roll and land on his feet, poised to run, if he timed it just right. In the end he just sat there, pinned to the seat, and finally she relented, turning onto the highway that led to their house on the outskirts of town with a wordless sigh.
When they finally reached the house, Spencer fairly bounded down the hall and into his room, slamming the door behind him. He slid a hand underneath the mattress and fished out the tape covers—South of Heaven, Holy Diver, a faded copy of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath that looked like it had spent too much time on the dash of Rusty’s brother’s Mustang in the sun. He looked around the room for somewhere to stash them and remembered the tiny attic door in the top of his closet. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? They would be safe there. He could even bring the whole box of tapes in and hoard them there as he listened his way through the whole stack.
But when he turned to open the closet, the bedroom door swung open and there stood his mother, smiling wanly as she often did in the afterglow of her crying jags. “Hey, Tater,” she said, giggling a little because it had been years since she’d called him Tater. “I didn’t mean to get all serious on you earlier. It’s just… never mind. I’ll shut up now before I get to crying again. I love you, is all.”
“Okay,” Spencer said, clutching the tape covers to his stomach, his breath locked in his chest..
“Well, anyway, hurry up so we can get on over there. You know how PawPaw is,” she said. Just then South of Heaven cover slipped a little and fell open, hanging down toward his crotch like a string of wallet photos. He felt as if he stood there naked in front of his mother and had just sprung a whopping erection.
“What you got there?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he said, but she was reaching for it, and there was nothing to do but hand it to her. She looked at it for a second, turning it over in her hands, her eyes widening in horror as she took in the cover art, the decaying skull and the pentagram she’d just been warned about as the mark of the devil worship. Her mouth opened and closed in aborted attempts to speak, and for the first time in his life, Spencer wished that she would cry, for as horrible as her crying fits could be, they were, at least, familiar territory. But the horrors she had seen on that tape cover transcended sadness and elevated her toward righteous anger.
“Where did you get this?” she demanded when she was finally able to speak. Spencer searched his mind for a lie. “And don’t lie to me, either,” she said.
“Rusty,” he said, unable to find an acceptable lie. He winced, not because he had sold out his friend, but because Rusty was soft and would surely squeal about the whole box of tapes if pressed.
She let out a little sigh as if she’d been stabbed. “And him here in my house, eating my food with this little two-faced mouth…”
“It’s not his fault,” Spencer interrupted, emboldened by an anger he had never felt toward her before, “He was scared of it. He wanted to burn it in that stupid fucking” here he stopped, stuttering over the word he’d never used in front of her. “That stupid fucking bonfire they had when that preacher came through town.”
She looked as if he’d stabbed her, and his anger began to droop like a flag with no wind. He felt the slap sting his cheek before he saw her hand coming, as if hurt traveled faster than light, faster than anything that could be seen. “Where is it?” she asked, picking the tape cover up from the floor and waving it in front of his face. “And those, too,” she added, gesturing to the ones still in his hand.
He retrieved the leather tape holder from his closet and sat beside her on the bed, his cheek still stinging, ridiculous tears brimming at his eyes. He would not cry. He promised himself that. He pulled out the Oak Ridge Boys cassette case in which he’d stashed the Slayer tape. The Oaks smiled wholesomely up at him on the cover as he opened the case and handed her the cassette inside. Without a word, she fished inside the cassette with a finger and gutted it, the shiny brown tape inside falling like a pile of Christmas tinsel to the floor, and then held her hand out to receive the other two.
When all three of the tapes lay in an eviscerated pile at her feet, he thought that she was done, her fury spent. But soon she rose and began to pace the room, launching into a fit that rivaled even her best, firing salvos of blame around the room, starting with Spencer’s father. “Just up and leaves his family!” she cried. “No wonder his son turns out like this with no man around! And that woman, Lord knows I don’t like you over there hanging around her, some hussy he met at a bar! A bar! And she’s not even a real nurse, either! I swear, working for a chiropractor and calling yourself a nurse! Gonna call him up and tell him you’re never going over there again, not while that woman is there, not while I’m still alive, because I don’t know what’s going on over there, but as for me and my house, we worship the Lord!”
When she was done excoriating his father, she moved on to Spencer himself, whom she’d raised better. Her voice rose to a righteous timbre as she shifted the blame from him to The State Of The World Today, a familiar scapegoat which had bourn the weight of her wrath many times before. She blamed the school, calling out the principal and every single one of his teachers by name, none of whom had written home to tell her that her son was listening to this garbage when surely they had to know. She blamed Spencer’s father again, this time for falling out of the church and setting such a sorry example of manhood. She blamed the devil, kicking at the pile of tape on the floor as if it were his vanquished body and reminding him he was not allowed in her house. In the end, she blamed herself, falling into a quiet puddle of guilt right there on the carpet in his bedroom.
When it was finally over, she made him promise that he would never bring anything like that into her home again, that he would not pollute his soul with such filth, to which he quickly agreed, desperate to do anything to escape from her sodden embrace. Then she announced that she was taking one of her nerve pills and going to bed. He gathered the tape spilling from the cassettes she’d left on the floor like the discarded shells of some loathsome creatures she’d exterminated and briefly wondered if they could be repaired, if he could splice them back together some way, but they were shredded and torn and quite hopeless.
Around midnight, when he was sure she was asleep, he retrieved a flashlight from the bathroom drawer, padded down the hall as silently as he could manage, eased the back door open, slowly so that the hinges did not creak, and made his way out into the dark. At the back of the lot, near the corner of the fence that had been sagging in disrepair ever since his father left, he entered the tool shed. Palmetto bugs scattered across the cement floor as lifted the tarp under which he’d hidden the box of tapes. He began to dig through them, some of them familiar, some mysterious, with names that sounded foreign and heavy on his tongue. Near the bottom of the stash, he found what he was looking for and pulled out Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break the Oath. He inspected it in the beam of the flashlight, a hollow-eyed devil reaching out to him from the yellow and orange flames of Hell. He slipped it into his pocket and walked back to the house, fighting the urge to run as the darkness of the night welled up inside of him.
Story by Joey R. Poole.
Joey R. Poole lives in Florence, South Carolina with his wife, step daughter, and young son. His work has previously appeared in print and online in places like Bull, Adirondack Review, Southeast Review, Molotov Cocktail Lit Zine, and elsewhere. He is currently looking for a publisher for I Have Always Been Here Before, a collection of stories that includes “South of Heaven.” He also recently completed a novel, Twenty Thousand Roads. He tweets about writing, reading, and the indignities of parenting: @ThePooleJ.