"So Faust sells his soul to the devil," the stranger said, "and gets everything he wants: youth, knowledge, women, power -- soon he's flying all over the world, turning invisible and playing pranks on the Pope and the Turkish emperor."
"And in the end," Renzo said, "he repents and doesn't have to go to hell, right?"
"Oh, no," the stranger laughed. "No, no. He goes to hell all right. He goes to hell with sound and fury. He goes to hell , not in the proverbial handbasket, but with thunder and lightning and shrieks and thuds. The description is terrifying. His eyes in one corner, his teeth in another, blood all over the walls! Shocking. Leaves Steven King in the dust, let me tell you."
"Uh," Renzo grunted. "I thought he repented in the end and everything was okay. You know, the angels come, the devil slinks away. Anyway, that's how the movies always end. Somebody sells their soul to the devil, and they get what they want - to be rich, or forever young, or famous, or what have you -- and then they see that it's really a curse. They think they're lost and they despair, but then somehow" -- he gestured vaguely -- "they give it up, and they're humbled, and they turn into wonderful people and don't land in hell."
The stranger shook his head. "That's Hollywood, pure Hollywood. You can't go to hell in a Hollywood movie. It wouldn't sell. It just wouldn't sell!
"So, anyway, this is my obsession, this question: is it really possible?"
Renzo asked, "Is what really possible?"
"Selling one's soul to the devil!"
Renzo blew out a explosive sigh, but the stranger went on.
"Is there really a devil in the market of buying souls? If so, how does one contact him? How is the deal made? Is the soul really a worthwhile commodity to him? Have you thought about that? What is your soul worth?"
"My soul?" Renzo asked. "I wouldn't know."
"So would you sell it?"
"Oh, I don't know," Renzo replied, a little irritated by the stranger's insistence. "Nobody's made me an offer yet."
The stranger smiled slyly, nodded, and after a moment, when on: "Of course, the really interesting question is: what would your price be? What would you ask in exchange for your immortal soul? What price would you put? You realize it is a question you can only negotiate once, so you must be as sure as a man can be. You cannot make the least mistake, and you must set a price so high that you would never have any second thoughts.
"This question keeps me awake at nights, can you believe that?"
Renzo shook his head. "Well, I have never thought about it. Ever. In my entire the question never occurred to me!"
"Well, it's occurring now," the stranger insisted. "What would it be? Would you sell your soul to be fantastically rich?"
"No," Renzo replied.
"To be young, healthy, and fascinating?"
"No," Renzo said, smiling.
"No, no, of course not," the stranger laughed. "You already are those things. You don't need the devil to have women falling at your feet, and you feel that you can find riches yourself."
"Right," Renzo said.
"But you see the game? Do you catch the fun of it? Imagine that the devil walked in this minute-" he turned and looked at the door. A quiet man in his sixties was entering, leaning heavily on a cane. His face was framed by white hair and moustache, while a pair of glasses hid the rest of his face. The stranger gestured to him. "Say that he, that man there, is the devil, and that he comes and sits at our table. He buys us an aperitivo and says, 'Now tell me. I must have your souls at any price. What will you have?' You, my friend, would have to send him away and tell him to come back tomorrow, or a year from tomorrow, so you can have time to think. Or worse, he might take advantage of the fact that you're unprepared. He may have studied your weaknesses and acquainted himself with your most hidden desires -- desires that you keep secret even from yourself -- and he may, with all sorts of subtle psychological timing and demonic salesmanship, offer you some worthless bauble and take your soul off for a song!"
Renzo twisted his mouth for a moment. He wasn't used to being led. Usually he talked the most, ran the conversation, and directed the turns and topics, but this man was doing all that. Get to know your adversary, he told himself, so asked the stranger, "What would you sell for?"
The stranger didn't hesitate. "Power," he said.
"What sort of power? Political power? Power over people?"
"No, something of a different order entirely. Something more like a B movie, I'm afraid. Powers such as--" he gestured, as if trying to gather the words from the air "--telepathy, clairvoyance, invisibility, X-ray eyes, hypnotic powers, levitation, the whole nine yards." He smiled. "I would like to be able to stretch out my hand like this--" he put his right arm out with his hand wide open "--and by the force of my will cause a bottle of champagne to float from the bar and land in my hand." He closed his hand as if catching an invisible bottle. "Then I would uncork it with the force of my thought, and pour us both a glass. And no one in the bar would see any of it. That's what I want.
"Of course," he added after a pause, "I would want the usual deal thrown in: youth, health, money, brilliance, long life."
Renzo felt the flood of ideas dulling him. He blinked a few times. In spite of the coffee, the beer had made him sleepy. The sounds of conversation and noise seemed far away. He was hypnotized by the stranger's words and images, and nearly reached for the imaginary glass of champagne. Alarmed, he stopped himself before the movement was noticed. He shook himself, looked at his watch without understanding what he saw, and said in a wooden, stupid voice, "I have to go now. Sorry to run, nice to meet you, but I have to go. Thanks for lunch."
The stranger nodded, and Renzo swept out of the bar with a strange and uncomfortable sense of urgency.