The devil appeared to me when I was walking home from church one morning along route 108. If you’re not familiar with southern Rhode Island, 108 connects The University of Rhode Island to the communities of Wakefield and Narragansett where many students live, shop, and buy their burgers and beers. On this walk I was thinking about good and evil, because at church we had read and talked about the part of the bible where Jesus went up the mountain with his disciples and all manner of holy events unfolded. He began to glow with an internal light. He conversed with Moses and Elijah. A big cloud descended and god spoke from the cloud. In the middle of all of this, Peter seemed to get confused and agitated. Given the situation, this was understandable. Like many men in emotionally fraught circumstances, he wanted to do something, to spring into action. He said to Jesus, Hey I’m going to build some shrines to you and Moses and Elijah! There are many translations of what he actually wanted to build: tabernacles, tents, shelters, memorials, but he definitely wanted to put up some kind of edifice. However, before he could do anything, God’s voice boomed out of a cloud and said, This is my son. Do what he says. And Jesus, being Jesus, said, let’s get off the mountain and go back to work… and, look, don’t tell anybody about what happened up here. After descending from on high, the first thing he did was relieve the suffering of a boy who had seizures. That was generally what was in my mind as I walked along route 108, and I had the specific thought, “It may be that the devil resides in edifices that we construct to glorify god, instead of getting off the mountain and doing god’s work.”At that very moment, the devil appeared to me! He showed up in the form of a Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey nip. There he was in the weeds at my feet. I picked up the three inch plastic bottle and took a good look. He was beautifully drawn in bright red on a yellow label, bare assed and buff, spitting fire, and waving a big, serpentine tail. I put the bottle in my pocket and walked on, but I kept spotting the little red devil. Every few yards there’d be another and then another on the shoulder of the road. I pocketed six of them, but there were dozens on that four mile stretch of suburban road.I’m pretty sure the Fireball nips came into my awareness in order to confirm the thought I had been having: its not about the religiosity, its about doing the right thing. If it was pure coincidence that I was thinking about the devil and the devil appeared to me, it was a coincidence that put a smile on my face and kicked off a preoccupation with all things Fireball.I had never been aware of Fireball, nor tried it. Who drinks it, I wondered? Why is it so popular in between Kingston and Wakefield? Is it de rigueur to knock one back while driving and toss the empty out the window?The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon went to work on me. Also known as the frequency illusion, it is that psychological process by which, once you come across a word for the first time, you see and hear it everywhere. Likewise, as soon as you buy a new car, one you swear you have rarely seen anyone else driving, there is one parked next to you at the supermarket, one passing you on your commute to work, and two Tinder dates in a row show up driving one. The Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon fine tuned my focus and attention to the point that I can spot the red devil on the yellow label from a hundred feet away even when it is half concealed by leaves and weeds. Having learned to see discarded Fireball nips, I can no longer not see them.Clearly, the character on the Fireball label is the devil and this is as good as confirmed by the liquor’s motto, “Tastes like heaven. Burns like hell.” However, the company seems to be hedging its bets. The word “devil” doesn’t appear on their website, rather they make reference to a “dragon.” Come on now! That ain’t no dragon and you know it. Dragons have wings and are decidedly reptilian. This guy is pure devil, diablo, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan, Mephistopheles, Prince of Darkness, etc. Here is my guess about what is going on: Fireball wants to use the devil to market their whisky, but they want to be able to deny that this is what they are doing. The first market they targeted was Nashville. They sent in “bar ambassadors” who spread out and gave away free shots. A fair number of good old boys in Nashville party on Saturday night and go to evangelical churches on Sunday morning. These guys needed to be able to greet the preacher with their breath smelling like cinnamon and still say with a straight face, “Lord, no. I don’t hold no truck with the devil.” Similarly, if some fundamentalist came looking for the Fireball bar ambassador and said, “Looky here, have you joined forces with the prince of darkness to turn a profit?” They could say, “Whatever do you mean? Our mascot is a dragon!” The devil, of course, plays along with this. The devil invented deniability.Whatever they are up to, from a capitalist point of view, the Sazerac Company, the owners of the Fireball brand, are doing something right. The cinnamon whisky went from almost total obscurity to massive popularity in just a few years’ time. In 2013 they made thirty-two times as much in sales as they had just two years earlier. The rise of Fireball to the top of the spirits industry was so meteoric, that a Google search will show you dozens of articles analyzing the success story. None of these articles mention the possibility that somebody made a deal with the devil, but don’t you have to wonder if there was some soul selling involved? In any case, the ascendancy of the brand has meant that along every highway in the USA the devil lies in wait, the most ubiquitous of roadside rubbish, and for those who choose to think of it this way, a readily available reminder that the devil is always with us. The devil fades quickly from the labels of discarded Fireball nips. The logical explanation is that the red ink he is printed with is more easily bleached out by sun or dissolved by rain and snow than the other colors of ink. Long after the devil is a mere shadow of his former self the label retains its yellow background color and the black letters that spell out Fireball are clearly legible. To explain this, there is an alternative explanation to the inferior red ink theory. Some people believe, and I am open to considering this possibility, that once the nip has been tossed aside the devil’s work is essentially finished and it is time to move on, to exert his influence in other spheres. It may be, at least in some cases, that as the devil on the label fades out, he fades in somewhere else. As he becomes just a pink stain on the Fireball nip in the weeds in Rhode Island, he begins to reappear as the outline of a tattoo on the neck of a narcotraficante in Juarez, or as a silk screened design on a camouflage jacket worn by a white supremacist in Pocatello, or as stenciled graffiti sprayed on a wall in the Ukraine. And there he sits issuing subtle invitations, dangling temptations, suggesting short cuts, and proffering excuses until someone gives in to their worse instincts. Here is a short, short story: At about 10:00 PM, after he finished washing dishes at Crazy Burger, Randy was driving on route 108 on his way to see his girlfriend, Leila, in her dorm at URI. On the passenger seat next to him were a large pepperoni pizza he had just picked up and a half dozen Fireball nips. Since he was only eighteen, the mini bottles of booze were courtesy of his cousin Joey who cooked at the same restaurant where he washed dishes. Randy was thinking about sex. Of course he was. He was eighteen. He was pretty new at it. There arose in him a combination of excitement and nervousness that tightened his chest. He reached for one of the Fireball nips, unscrewed the red cap and downed the liquor in one gulp. The passenger side window was open and he flung the bottle backhand into the weeds. To Randy, “tastes like heaven” was questionable. However, he totally agreed with “burns like hell.” The burn quickly became a warm glow that he sensed mainly right in the middle of his chest. He took a second shot and the bottle hit the dirt no more than a quarter mile down the road from the first. He thought about having a third, but decided to save the last four to share with Leila. He remembered that once she kissed him and said, “Your breath smells like Fireball.” He replied, “You know the nonalcoholic refer to that scent as cinnamon.” “As if you’d know,” Liela said. “You better have saved some for me.” Randy drives on. He is not drunk, but he has a renewed sense of confidence that feels like intoxication. He speaks out loud, maybe to the four little red devils scattered on the seat beside him, “Well a little liquid courage never hurt anybody. Right?”If I could talk to Randy like a grandfather talking to his grandson – and there is no reason why I can’t since I made him up and I actually have grandsons his age to whom I freely dispense advice – I’d say something like this: When you’re a man, even a young man, you got to deal with the devil everyday. He’s always there to tempt you to do what you know ain’t right. It’s OK to shoot craps with him at the crossroads, high five him, buy him a beer, put an arm around his shoulder, but then just walk away. Now in this situation with you and the Fireball nips, in the long run, anesthetizing your social anxiety isn’t going to serve you well, and please reconsider drinking and driving because it is always a mistake, and, dude, that littering is just intolerable.
John Kotula is a writer and artist who lives and works in Rhode Island. He continues to pick up Fireball litter whenever he comes across it. Follow him on Instagram @johnkotula.