It was dusk in San Francisco and I was enjoying the rare luxury of a taxicab from the airport, my window halfway open to the foggy cool as we merged onto Highway 101 toward the city. I closed my eyes for a moment, but was jolted awake by a passing siren. And then I saw him, sitting opposite of me, dressed too formally for the West Coast. "Happy almost 9/11," he said in a low rumble.
"Uh, you too," I whispered, glancing at the driver's face in the rear-view mirror.
"Don't worry, he hears nothing but that children's music." The local FM hits station was playing at a discreet volume, the driver's thumbs keeping the beat on the steering wheel.
"What brings you to … town? I always figured you were more of a Silicon Valley type."
"Let's talk about New York. It was a dozen years ago tomorrow, is that right? Tell me about the consequences."
"I'm sure you know—"
"Not really. I'm busy. You have no idea how many habitable planets there are, even in this rancid little curl of the galaxy. How are the religious wars going?"
"It didn't really go that way, despite the hopes of various nutcases," I said. He had begun a weird kind of chuckling but that came to a sudden stop.
"Didn't you people get bogged down in Central Asia and Iraq and North Africa and whatever they're doing next, Syria?"
"Yeah, but they're just plain old imperial wars, nothing particularly religious about them."
"Fundamentalist Islamic terrorists with U.S. visas attacked your Christian nation in a delightfully spectacular manner and you didn't have religious wars?" He seemed annoyed, and little wisps of steam rose from his head. "Is everyone on opium?"
"Lots of people on Oxycontin! And booze, and marijuana, and cocaine and Molly and Ambien and other stuff. But I don't know if that's the reason. An interesting development over these past 12 years is that religion is fading in America, of all places."
"Sure it is. You people are hardly beyond burial mounds and ritual human sacrifice, you're so religious. Without my help you'd still be a bunch of agrarian hillbillies like Jefferson wanted."
"People without religious affiliation are already 20 percent of the U.S. population. If these 'none of the aboves' keep growing at 1 percent a year like they have since 2007, there's not going to be any organized religion in America by the end of this century."
"Balls," the Devil said. "There will always be a few. Just like there's always 5 percent of you idiots who don't even know who's president." He chuckled. "How is President Palin, anyway?"
"Didn't happen," I said. "She burned out a long time ago. But your old boy McCain is still lurching around Washington, playing video games in the Senate."
"He was supposed to nuke the planet," the Devil said sadly. "Or she was, one of those clowns .... So the black man won after all. Was there a race war?"
"Nope. Not unless one gun slob in Florida getting away with shooting a black kid counts as a race war."
"It doesn't." He slumped in his seat.
"Things are still pretty terrible," I said. "The planet's heating up, four out of five Americans are poor, we get crazy death storms and hell fires all year round, Obama's some kind of terrible combination of Clinton and Nixon, and the only real shot at a revolution ran out of steam at a concrete parklet right between Wall Street and that new Freedom Tower."
"Freedom Tower?" He chuckled again. "You people are so reliably tacky. I should really get down here more often."
"There's been a bunch of mostly secular youth revolutions in the Islamic world, that's something you probably won't like."
"Eh, I'm sure the usual crooks cracked down and ended that nonsense."
"Not entirely! Egypt had two revolutions, the last one to kick out the Muslim Brotherhood. Then there's Turkey, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, whatever's going on in Syria. Iran even elected a new president who wished the world's Jews a happy Rosh Hashanah on Twitter."
"What is Twitter?" he said with contempt.
"It's a huge internet company on Market Street. People use it all over the world."
"Mostly for promoting themselves and being jerks, but it's something!"
"You know what was a good revolution? The French Revolution. Oh man, that was like Halloween and Mardi Gras with a little Black Death thrown in."
"Yeah, things are relatively tame now. Violent crime is about half what it used to be in the 1980s! It can be a little dull, but it's a lot more pleasant to live in a big city now."
"Big cities are supposed to be nightmares." He turned away and glared out the window at all the new construction around the gleaming waterfront ballpark. "So you just turned the cities into Disneylands and left the undesirables in Texas and the suburbs."
"I never claimed things were good, just that a few important things have changed. One interesting side effect of 9/11 is that a lot of people just walked away from religion all together, and the ones who still do it are mostly just performing for other religious people who don't really believe it, either. Unless you're an isolated tribe in the Amazon or the Amish or something, it's pretty hard to maintain belief in your particular god."
"This is not what 9/11 was supposed to be about. You people are sodomizing the very spirit of 9/11. Where are my smoking radiated craters? Where are the SUV highways built of human skeletons?"
"Oh, gay people can get married now," I said. "The Supreme Court OK'd it."
"Without any sort of violence or rioting, I suppose. Did what's his name replace all my justices?"
"Not really, they've just been on the losing side of things for a while. Still, it's about 50/50 if we're going to get through this century at all."
"I don't like those odds. Anyway, I just dropped by to freak you out, not to hear your boring opinions about religions you don't even believe in."
"I've always believed in the Devil. But I still can't figure out why you're in my taxi."
"Oh, I'm checking in with my dear old buddies, the warbloggers."
I cringed and looked out my window.
"Good to see you're ashamed of something. Now pay attention: There were 12 rings of 9/11 helper demons: Politicians, defense industry lobbyists, cable TV hosts, actual terrorists, dictators, Islamists, Islamophobes, anyone who listens to talk radio, Osama bin Laden, Dick Cheney, tour bus operators, and of course at the very bottom rung, you people with your blogs."
"What about George Bush?"
"What about him? I haven't dropped by. Cheney's holding up, though."
"So you really are keeping him alive?"
"Of course. His death would bring too much joy to you people." The Devil took out an ornate little knife and began grooming his fingernails. "He begs for death, you know. He's in tremendous pain. What a schmuck."
Ken Layne marks our nation's most important holidays for his American Almanac. And the very best holiday of all is coming in October!