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A bargain that provides great rewards and apocalyptic consequences for one or more of the bargainers. In such a bargain, those participants can't escape the rewards or the consequences. Named after Doctor Faustus--a mythical figure from the Middle Ages who supposedly sold his soul to the devil for magical (and practical) knowledge.

Christopher Marlowe
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Act II Scene 1

Faustus

Then there's enough for a thousand souls.
Here, Mephistopheles, receive this scroll,
A deed of gift of body and of soul;
But yet conditionally that thou perform
All articles prescribed between us both.

Mephistopheles

Faustus, I swear by hell and Lucifer
To effect all promises between us made.

Faustus

Then hear me read them.
"On these conditions following:
First, that Faustus may be a spirit in form and substance.
Secondly, that Mephistopheles shall be his servant, and at his command.
Thirdly, that Mephistopheles shall do for him and bring him whatsoever he requireth.
Fourthly, that he shall be in his chamber or house invisible.
Lastly that he shall appear to the said John Faustus, at all times, in what form or shape soever he please.
I, John Faustus, of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister, Mephistopeles; and futhermore grant unto them, that twenty-four years being expired, the articles above written inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh, blood, or goods, into their habitation wheresoever. By me,

John Faustus."

Mephistopheles

Speak, Faustus, do you deliver this as your deed?

Faustus

Ay, take it, and the Devil give thee good on't.

This is the Faustian bargain according to Christopher Marlowe.

Faust goes on-line.

A student at the University of Washington recently struck his own Faustian bargain through the on-line auction service e-Bay. For a reported sum of $400, the 20-year-old Woodinville, Washington resident sold his soul, which he described on the site as “hardly used”, to a Des Moines, Iowa woman. Regarding the sum, the seller indicated that he was happy that the bidding went “past $7.50”.

Before you hurry to the site to get your monetary reward in this life, or to start your own collection, e-Bay reported that following the transaction, the student’s access to the site had been suspended. Said an e-Bay spokesman; "You have to have a piece of merchandise that a seller can deliver to a buyer."

All is not lost. For those in the market, a simple web search returns numerous results. One site, EvilPeople,INC.(tm), advertises that they are “always willing to add to the Unholy Might(tm) of the nether regions, and one of the ways that we can do this is to, well, buy your soul. Since most of you puny mortals have rather materialistic desires, EvilPeople,INC.(tm) is more than willing to provide you with them. And we just want one teensy-weensy little thing in return: YOUR IMMORTAL SOUL.”

The going price is not advertised. The process begins with:

“First, fill out this form.

We will mail you a confirmation notice with a "SoulCode".

You will then fill out the confirmation form and put your SoulCode where indicated and finish filling out what it is that you want in return for your soul.

We will submit this to our patented Soul Evaluation Software and return our decision on whether we want it or not.”

Happy hunting.

The Bargain

 

As he approached the bus stop on the morning that his life took a right angle turn, Joseph Camby cursed the dark skies that were spitting down rain on him. Then he cursed himself for not checking the weather forecast before he left home. Not that he much liked carrying an umbrella. You were certain to forget the damn thing somewhere, and then you’d have to go back for it only to find that some jerk who didn’t have his own had gone and taken it.

That sort of thing, lapse of memory, was happening with increasing regularity in the last few years, if Joe was willing to admit it, and he wasn’t. His wife frequently claimed that he was losing his recall as part of her general strategy to undercut him in their various arguments. To concede the fact, the alleged fact, that his memory was truly going would be to grant her a small victory gratis. And you don’t just give away points in the long-running battle that people politely referred to as marriage. No sir, points had to be earned and at some considerable cost to the opposing player. All part of the game.

He was early for the bus for once--on a rainy day, of course. The wind was blowing the gray sprinkle sideways and the bus stop’s scant little roof and Plexiglas sidewalls offered no real shelter from the elements. There was a Starbucks down the street that was open early (there was a Starbucks or two down any street these days) but he’d be sure to miss the bus if he tried to hold up there for a few minutes. And that would be just his luck too. He’d wind up being late for his doctor’s appointment, and they might just insist on rescheduling as they already had once before. Then the whole trip would be for naught. And he needed to hear the results of the test. They had refused to tell him over the phone and the tension had cost him a night’s sleep already. Nope, running over to Starbuck’s was right out.

The shop he was standing in front of was open, though, and before eight in the AM, which stuck him as a little odd. How much business could you really get this time of the morning with no foot traffic about at all? Funny, he’d never really noticed the place before. Its sign, painted in lime green with white outlining on the big, plate glass front window, was done all in Chinese characters. At least he thought they were Chinese. They were supposed to be pictures that communicated words. Logograms they called them. To him the first two characters there looked like a bear eating a TV antenna. Seriously, what the hell was that supposed to mean?

Through that same window, around the Chinese writing, he could see an odd collection of items inside. A fishing pole, an electric typewriter, some coats, a wicker basket full of men’s watches, a leaf blower--all used stuff it appeared. He supposed it was some kind of pawn shop. Jesus, who pawns a leaf-blower? That must have been a hell of a hard luck story there.

That last thought piqued his curiosity and he decided to nip inside out of the rain and look around. He could keep an eye out the window for the bus, due in about, oh, six minutes now. There was time. He tried the door and it was indeed open. He went in to the sound a bell jangling above the transom.

It was warm inside and that much was certainly nice. He felt his body begin to unclench. The place had that smell that’s unique to secondhand stores: the stale aroma of hundreds of lives layered on top of each other. Musty, dusty, a little acrid, with the fading memory of sweat and cigarettes and Swanson’s TV dinners all comingling uneasily. The air itself felt tired and heavy. If withered, old, dried up dreams had a smell, he thought, then this was surely it.

A youngish black man stood behind the counter neatly dressed in a dark suit and tie, and Joe immediately thought of a funeral. He was attending them at a pretty regular clip these days. Soon he’d be at one and not even know it. His own that is. That was your big prize in the Crackerjack box of life. You die, and everything you ever owned goes into a bunch of cardboard boxes that end up ... who the hell knows where? Some place like this perhaps.

The black man was smiling warmly and he met Joe’s eyes with a welcoming nod, but he said nothing by way of greeting. He was bald, and too young for that to be hair loss, so it must be that he shaved his head--something that had become fashionable these days for some reason. Joe had considered doing it briefly, but he’d grown accustomed to his comb over by now. And then too that was another battle he wasn’t quite ready to concede.

The man here must work for the owners, Joe figured. Unless there were Chinese blacks, like American blacks or Canadian blacks. Joe had seen a black German once talking on the news and it had thrown him for a second. That is, before he remembered that it was a different world now than the one he’d grown up in. Immigrants everywhere you turn. All of them scratching and fighting for a piece of a pie that was too damn small already.

The quiet had dragged on long enough to make Joe uncomfortable. He cleared his throat and said, “Miserable out,” with a jerk of his head toward the door.

“Miserable inside, miserable outside,” the man behind the counter replied, still smiling pleasantly.

Joe didn’t know what to make of that cryptic comment, since it was certainly a lot more dry and comfortable inside here than outside there. Whatever. Maybe it was some kind of ancient Chinese wisdom he’d picked up from the owner. And that thought brought to mind an old TV commercial for some laundry detergent or fabric softener or something.

“Calgon,” the man said without changing his expression.

“What?” Joe felt the hairs on the back of his neck suddenly stand up.

Calgon, the TV commercial,” the man said. “You know, the man at the cleaners says the laundry’s soft because of some ancient Chinese secret. But it’s just Calgon fabric softener.”

For just a second Joe wondered if he was dreaming. He shook the thought away and said, “How’d you know I was thinking about that old commercial, of all things?”

“Just a hunch.” The smile was still there, but it seemed to have a barb in it now.

“Huh. Anyway aren’t you a little young to remember that? What was that, the seventies? You couldn’t a been born yet.”

“I’m older than I look.”

“Are ya?” It was true of blacks in general, on account of the sun not aging their skin as much. This was something Joe had noticed but never said out loud.

Black don’t crack,” the man said.

Joe felt instantly uncomfortable, and glanced down. He saw that he’d dripped some water off his overcoat onto the black and white tiled floor and felt a pang of guilt and oddly of fear too. “Well, anyways, I just came in to get out of the rain, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, but are you sure that’s all you were looking for?” The man’s smile was gone now and it had been replaced by a look of care, like you might offer a child who had just informed you it was lost and couldn’t find its parents.

“Well, you could try to sell me,” Joe said, “and I could pretend to be interested until my bus comes, if you want to play that game. But honestly, I’m not looking for anything.”

“Not even happiness? Everyone’s looking for that.”

Joe snorted. “Do you have that there in one of your bins? Someone pawned their happiness for a quick buck, did they?”

“Oh, you’d be surprised how often that happens. But yes, if it’s happiness you want I can set you up, Joe.”

And Joe was his name, of course. Joseph Camby. But this guy didn’t know his name. True, his memory wasn’t the greatest anymore, but he would have remembered it if they’d met. The fellow was kind of odd--he’d have left an impression. And anyway how he had said it reminded Joe of the war, and the way the shopkeepers and whores in Korea used to call all the US serviceman “Joe.” Short for G.I. Joe. And that’s what had just happened here, surely. This guy just used “Joe” as a placeholder. That’s all.

The man was standing, had been the whole time, and now he placed both his palms on the counter and leaned forward. “So, are you interested, Joe? In happiness?”

Joe glanced at the door, then back at the man. “I don’t know what your game is, friend, but like I said, I’m just in out of the rain here if I’m being honest.”

“I could make you a very attractive offer. Ten years of happiness, say. Guaranteed.”

Joe tried to laugh it off, but what came out sounded like a dry cough. And he began to suspect the man behind the counter was serious. Nuts, of course, but serious. He should just turn around and exit the place without another word before it got any weirder. Maybe the rain had let up. He turned again and looked out the front window. If anything it was coming down harder. That’s when he decided to just humor the guy. Have a little fun. What could it hurt?

“Well, I’d be crazy not to ask,” Joe said. “What’ll it cost me, this ten years of guaranteed happiness?”

 “Well, the thing with an arrangement like this is that it’s zero sum, you see. That happiness has to come from somewhere. In this case it would be your wife.”

Joe nodded as if he were actually buying any of this. “I see. A trade off.”

“Yes, exactly.”

“So my being happy would make her miserable.” Joe smiled. “Well, that’s not much of a stretch.”

“So do we have a deal?”

Joe stalled. “Well, I’m not ready to sign anything today.”

“No need. A handshake will suffice.”

Joe glanced at his watch. The bus would be here any second. He could just turn and go. But instead he felt his feet carrying him to the counter. Not against his will, but more like it was all a movie he was watching. And when he reached the counter the man offered his hand.

And he took it. And shuddered. The other man’s hand felt wet, slick. He let go quickly. One pump. He immediately glanced down at his own hand and stroked his thumb across his fingertips. Bone dry.

“Your bus arrives in thirty seconds,” the man said.

Joe didn’t reply, he just nodded and turned away. The bell jangled again when he exited the shop. The cold drizzle actually felt good on his face now. Like it was waking him up from whatever had just happened or not happened in there.

About thirty seconds later the bus arrived.

The news at the doctor’s was good. The lump was benign. On the way home Joe debated with himself on how to tell the wife with maximum drama. She would shrug it off and say he had just worried for no reason. That of course it was nothing, because nothing of any importance ever happened to him and nothing ever would.

He found her on the floor in the kitchen. She was breathing, but what they called non-responsive in the TV medical shows.

The doctor said it was a brain hemorrhage. Sub arachnoid, he called it. Three of them, all at once. Miracle that she survived at all. She was going to need round the clock medical care for the rest of her days, which were indeterminate. The doctor said she could have another hemorrhage any time. Then he said something that made Joe shiver. That she could just as easily live another ten years. Ten miserable years, he thought.

The day Joe brought her home from the hospital, the Publisher’s Clearinghouse people came to the door. The wife would never know it, but they were rich.

 

* * *

 

It took him four weeks to get up the nerve but Joe finally went back to the little Chinese pawn shop. He half expected it to be gone when he pulled up in his new Cadillac XTS sedan. It was still there.

The man behind the counter seemed to recognize him the moment he entered.

“How?” Joe said without any pleasantries. “How is it possible?”

The other man looked confused. “I’m sorry?”

“Our deal. How did you do it?” Joe approached the counter and stopped about halfway there. He didn’t want to get any closer. “The happiness. The good thing. You made it happen. And ... the other thing too.”

The man smiled. “Oh, yes. So something happened did it? Are you actually happy now?”

Joe hesitated, but then he figured there was nothing to hide from this man, or whatever he was. “I don't know. I mean, the money is great and all, but I don’t really know what to do with it. I got a nice car. Then I sort of ran out of ideas. I don’t like to travel and we never had kids. And my wife...” He didn’t know what to say about her because the emotions were extremely mixed up when it came to that department, so he just repeated, “How did you do it?”

The man hesitated. “I shouldn’t tell you, really, but it’s a magic trick. Mentalism.”

That wasn’t at all what Joe had expected to hear and it took him a moment to process it. “What do you mean, a trick?”

“Just that. You see, I’ve made that little deal with hundreds and hundreds of people over the years. I do it to amuse myself. It gets pretty boring in here when business is slow. I figured if I told someone he’s going to be happy and his wife is going to be miserable, once in a while something great is going to happen to the guy by pure chance, and the wife too. It’s just the law of averages. Sooner or later for someone I talked to, someone who doesn’t know about all the others, it’s going to look like he made some kind of deal with the devil. A Faustian bargain. And that just tickles the hell out of me.”

“So you’re not ... you didn’t?”

The other man smiled that barbed smile that Joe remembered from before. “I didn’t do anything but show you a part of yourself that you knew was there, or should’ve known, but you never looked at it closely. Because, to be honest, who would want to? Right? And in case you’re wondering, it’s about fifty percent.”

Joe shook his head. “What is?”

“How often the husband takes the deal. Or the wife. I’ve played it both ways, of course. The more times I can do it, the more often pure chance is going to make something like this happen. Funny, isn’t it?”

Joe felt sick. And in a strange way naked. This fellow was just, well, he was just a man. A kind of a con man. Or what’d he call it? A mentalist. And he knew something about Joe now. Something truly horrible. That he was the sort of person who would trade his wife’s happiness for his own.

“I don’t believe you,” Joe said.

“Believe what you like,” the man replied. “But you’re wasting an opportunity here. You got analyzed for free. No charge. Why don’t you just accept the fact that you’re an awful person, and then start trying to make a change? You know, it doesn’t alter the facts that you know what they are--it just gives you a chance to do something about them.”

Joe had no reply, even to having just been called an awful person, and realizing that he turned to go.

It was raining again today, as it had been the day he’d first walked into this godawful place. As he reached for the door it opened outward, pulled by a frowning, middle-aged man holding his newspaper over his head like a hat.

“Miserable outside,” the man said as he passed Joe, shaking water off his paper.

“Miserable inside, miserable outside,” the man said from behind the counter.

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