"Asmodai in Portland" a story from New Mitzvah Stories for the Whole Family

by Gail A.R. Pasternak

Why did I come to Portland? I should have stayed in Los Angeles. There were plenty of Jews ripe for temptation there. You would think that I, Asmodai, King of Demons, would feel at home there. But I didn’t. It was the sunshine. That infernal sun keeps even the most downhearted hopeful. How depressing. Even the smog couldn’t cheer me up. So I left my henchmen in L.A. and made my way north to Portland, Oregon, the place they call the City of Roses. I must have been desperate; I hate roses.

            It was a weekday when I got there, so I cast an illusion over myself to give me the appearance of a businessman. After all, I wouldn’t be able to persuade people to go astray if I approached them in my true form—a magnificent charcoal-black, winged demon with a dashing goatee. However, Portland wasn’t like the other cities I had visited. I quickly realized I was overdressed for the place.

            Anyway, that wasn’t the worst thing about the city. It was way too clean—and green. Instead of litter and grime, the streets were lined with trees. How unnatural.

            I shook off my disgust and started searching for Jews. Finally, I saw a bagel store, so I dashed inside. And then I saw it: a display full of enormous hams and rounds of cheese—in a bagel shop! I walked out.

            True, many Jews don’t follow the kosher laws, and maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I needed to find pious Jews. After all, where was the challenge in tempting a person who already questioned the faith to abandon that faith entirely? But convincing a devout Jew to question the faith and go astray, now that would be a victory. And after failing so miserably in Los Angeles, I needed to prove myself. My followers respect me because I can tempt those whom no other demon can. And I couldn’t afford to lose that respect.

            Disheartened, I slogged through the puddles until I saw a cafe with a mezuzah on the doorpost and a sign advertising dairy-free items. Dairy-free. Surely, that must be a place for meat-loving Jews. Perfect! Pious Jews ripe for temptation. I licked my lips.

            I entered a high-ceilinged, rectangular space with paintings by local artists hanging on pumpkin-orange walls. A chalkboard menu listed egg dishes, vegetarian dishes, pastries, all sorts of coffee drinks, but no meat. No meat and dairy-free? How strange. Curious, I approached the counter and took my place at the end of the line.

            A slight, gray-haired woman stared at the pastries in the display case for what seemed like an eternity.

            “I’m allergic to dairy,” she finally said. “Which are dairy-free?”

            After the curly-haired teenage boy behind the counter indicated all of the pastries clearly marked dairy-free, she added, “And they’re gluten-free, too?”

            The teenage cashier smiled. “Everything here is gluten-free. My father is gluten intolerant.” He indicated an older gentleman cooking an omelet.

            The woman bit her lip. “Do you have anything without eggs?”

            I started drumming my claws on my leg.

            “Those are vegan.” The cashier pointed to several items.

            The woman stared at the pastries, taking her time. The other customers in line shuffled their feet, but no one said anything. The cashier waited patiently. He smiled when she ordered an apple-cinnamon muffin and ginger tea. As she sidled to a table across the room, I lifted my hand and pushed the air in her direction, causing her to trip and spill her tea. After all, she had made me wait.

            Finally, it was my turn. I ordered black coffee and found a seat by the window. I turned the chair to face the counter so I could watch the father and son work while I sipped my coffee. Several customers chatted with the father as he cooked. They whined about their allergies or preached environmental mumbo jumbo. He listened to them patiently, and even nodded enthusiastically from time to time. This man seemed too good to be true. I needed more information to be certain he was my ideal target. 

            The next day I brought a laptop, parked myself at a table at the cafe, and typed in the password for the cafe’s WiFi. I did a little research and discovered that the cafe owner, Joseph, had participated in an online discussion about how the ancient Jewish idea of eating conscientiously meant something different in the twenty-first century. He had said that today it also meant buying food from local farms that didn’t use pesticides and other such nonsense. It reminded me of that Dr. Seuss story...what is it called? The Lorax, right. Anyway, a number of people in the discussion had agreed with Joseph’s comments. This man was more than pious; he was influential. I couldn’t believe my luck.

            When the cafe closed, I left my laptop and walked out. I entered an alley next to the building and lingered in the shadows close to the cafe’s rear door. I waited for over an hour, growing more and more impatient. Eventually the boy emerged and hopped onto a bicycle with a cart attached to it.

            “Wait, Ben,” Joseph said as he stepped into the alley. “We also need mushrooms. And remember to bring back receipts. We have to track our expenses very carefully, especially now.”

            “I’ll try, but you know these farmers don’t always give receipts.”

            Joseph sighed. “Just try.” As his son took off down the alley, he whispered, “Go safely and return in peace.”

            Worry creased Joseph’s brow, and I suspected there was more bothering him than just the safety of his son. I followed him into the cafe. He entered a room that served as both pantry and office and sat at a desk at the rear. I hid behind shelves of coconut milk, rice flour, and other uncommon ingredients. Despite seeming to resemble human hands, my hands were really claws, so when I passed my sharp nails over the bag of rice flour, the bag split and flour trickled onto the floor. All right, it was petty, but it made me happy to see the waste.

            Joseph stared at his computer screen for a long time, flipped through a stack of papers, and stared at the computer again. Then he flipped through the papers over and over. Finally, he groaned and put his head in his hands.

            I stepped forward. “Money trouble?’

            Joseph jumped.

            “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. I knocked on the front door but no one seemed to hear, and when I tried the entrance from the alley, it was unlocked.” He seemed disturbed by this, so I gave him a sheepish grin. “Normally, I wouldn’t just come in, but I left my laptop here, on the table by the window. It’s not there now.”

            “My son found it. It’s behind the counter.”

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He led me into the cafe and grabbed the laptop from behind the counter.

            I took it from him. “What a relief! I’d be ruined if I lost this.”

            “What do you do?”

            “I’m a freelance accountant. I work out of cafes because it’s cheaper than renting an office. I need to keep my costs down.”

            Joseph sighed. From his expression, I knew I had hit a sympathetic chord. I leaned across the counter. “My name is Amos.”

            “Joseph.” He shook my hand.

            “Are you having financial problems?” I waited for him to nod, and said, “I owe you for saving my laptop. Let me look over your records and see what I can do to help.”

            His face lit up. “Sure.”

            I sat at his desk and looked over his accounts. I saw right away that his food costs were too high, and to make matters worse, his rent was going up soon. “You seem to be missing some receipts here, but from what I can tell, it looks like you get all of your food supplies from local farmers and artisans.”

            Joseph, who had just finished inventorying supplies in his walk-in refrigerator, closed the large metal door. “That’s right.”

            I leaned back in my chair. “That’s the problem. You should buy food from a discount restaurant supply warehouse. Get rid of all these organic products and fair trade coffee, and you’d save a ton of money, especially on coffee.”

            Joseph sat in a chair next to the desk where I sat.

“My coffee supplier is a little expensive, but his product is excellent and he only uses beans grown on environmentally friendly farms.”

            “Forget about the environment!” I leaned forward. “You need to worry about saving your business.”

            He ran his hands over his stained apron. “I just want to provide a place where people who have food allergies or feel as deeply as I do about protecting our earth can come, relax, and enjoy good food.”

            I focused my eyes on him, willing him to believe every word I uttered. “Nice ideals, but is it worth going bankrupt for them?”

            Joseph started into my hypnotic eyes but said nothing.

            “With such high costs...” I shook my head. “I don’t see how you can continue paying your bills—unless you raise your prices, and in this economy, you’ll lose customers and go out of business within a year.”

            Joseph’s eyes glazed over. “What should I do?”

            I knew I had him. I just needed to complete the deal.

“Forget about the environment,” I said. “Let others worry about that. If you stop buying food from local farmers and artisans, and buy from large, discount warehouses, you’ll be rolling in dough.”

            “Are you kidding! Our customers would have a fit.”

Ben had just entered the pantry and dumped bags of produce from the farmer’s market on the floor. I tried not to let Ben’s sudden entrance disturb me. He was just a youth.

“They wouldn’t have to know,” I said to Joseph.

            Ben stepped closer to me. “You’re going to lie?”

            Joseph’s shoulders sagged.

            I had underestimated Ben; I couldn’t just ignore him. I fixed my hypnotic eyes on the child. “His business is in danger. If your father doesn’t do what I say, he’ll go bankrupt.”

            Ben met my penetrating stare, but unlike most people, he seemed completely unfazed. He turned to his father.

“Who is this guy, and why are you listening to him?”

            “He’s an accountant. I asked for his help,” Joseph said in a monotone.

            Ben opened his mouth to speak again and stopped, looking curiously at the floor. He pointed to the spot where the rice flour had spilled.

“What’s this?”

            Joseph snapped out of his trance and walked over to his son. My heart sank. There were non-human prints in the flour made by my clawed feet.

            Joseph rubbed his forehead. “My grandmother used to tell me stories about demons. She said that you could detect demons by the bird-like prints they leave behind. I never believed her.” He faced me. “Amos, why don’t you walk over there. Let’s see what kind of footprints you leave.”

            “Why would I do something so ridiculous? Besides...” I showed him my feet, which appeared as human feet inside a pair of dress shoes. “I’d hate to get my shoes dirty.”

            “Take them off then.”

            Obviously I couldn’t take off my shoes.

“This is silly.”

I smiled at the son, hoping to get him to take my side.

            “Dad, you are talking kind of crazy.”

            “How else do you explain the footprints?”

            Ben examined the prints in the flour. “No idea.” He glared at me. “Though only a demon could convince my father to give up his ideals.”

            I could see the dread in Joseph’s eyes, but when he turned to his son he stood up straighter and squared his shoulders. “I can’t give in to him, even if he is as dangerous as I’ve heard demons can be. I’d rather face his wrath.” Joseph took several deep breaths before stepping closer to me. “I’ll figure out how to save my business without compromising my principles.”

            I was beat and I knew it. If only the son hadn’t returned so soon. I’d almost had the father. I dropped the illusion of human form and reverted to my true self. I relished the terror on their faces. Lifting my claws, I prepared to tear them apart, but then changed my mind. Instead, I flew through the window to the dark alley, breaking the glass in the process. At least I knew the family would have to pay to replace the window, a small price for embarrassing me.

            I don’t know why I let them off so easily. Maybe it was all the trees in Portland. They made me soft.   
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