A committed slacker enlists the help of his best friend (who may or may not be the devil) to get his act together in this “timelessly true to life” (Booklist) novel filled with humor, awkwardness, and honesty, ideal for fans of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Leon Harris isn’t exceptional and he isn’t popular. He’s the kind of guy that peaked in middle school, when once upon a time he was in the “gifted” program and on the fast track to Ivy League glory.
Now, a high school senior, he’s a complete slacker who spends his time hanging out in a third-rate ice cream parlor with his best friend, Stan, a guy who (jokingly, Leon thinks) claims to be Satan. Committed to his sloth, Leon panics when he finds out that Anna, the love of his life aka middle school girlfriend, might be moving back to town.
Determined to get his act together, Leon asks Stan for help. Stan gives him a few seemingly random and mysterious assignments. Date a popular girl. Listen to Moby-Dick, the audiobook. Find the elusive white grape slushee. Join the yearbook committee.
As each task brings Leon one step away from slacker city and one step closer to Anna, he starts to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t have promised Stan his soul after all…
Play Me Backwards 1. MEAT There are times when Satan really gets on my nerves. Like, he’s been saying for years that he wants to buy my soul, but every time he gets enough cash saved he decides to get his car windows tinted or something instead. He can be a real dick like that.
And on Valentine’s Day, a day when I was going to really need him and his evil powers, he was late for his shift at the ice cream place where the two of us worked. I had to hold off the morning rush, such as it was, alone. He finally strolled in an hour after he was scheduled, hands in his pockets and whistling a riff from a Misfits song, like he didn’t have a care in the world.
“You’re late,” I said.
He stopped in his tracks and walked over to me.
“Let’s do the list,” he said. “World Wars I and II. The Black Death. That earthquake in South America last month. The Phantom Menace. Algebra. The decision to make Alpha-Bits a healthy cereal, instead of a sugary one. All me. And you’re mad at me for being late to work at an ice cream place that has three customers a day?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Priorities, man,” he said. “Big picture.”
And he disappeared into the back room.
I suppose most geniuses can be dicks when they feel like it. Thomas Edison once electrocuted an elephant just to prove a point.
I first met the dark lord when I was nine. My mother is a Realtor, and now and then she’d take me along on house calls when she met with people who were thinking of listing their house. My job was to play with any kids who happened to be present in order keep them out of her way. It was a living, but not an easy one. The boys often wanted me to play sports that I wasn’t any good at. Girls occasionally wanted to give me makeovers. Really little kids would make me play horsey or watch Dora the Explorer. Real estate is a tough business.
When we showed up at this one house, there was a pointy-faced kid with glasses standing in the doorway behind his mother, eyeing me like you’d eye a piece of furniture you weren’t quite sure fit in your basement.
“Hi,” said Mom. “You must be Stan.”
He nodded and Mom put her hand on my shoulder.
“This is Leon,” she said. “He’s about your age. Go play.”
The kid led me into his room, and we started playing video games on a boxy old TV that got the colors wrong. His room smelled weird. Other people’s rooms always do, but this one didn’t smell like anything I’d ever smelled before. Years later Dustin Eddlebeck and I tried to figure out what Stan’s place smelled like and ended up on “grilled cheese, old people, and freshly spray-painted ass.”
“You don’t have to call me Stan,” he said. “My name is actually Satan. My parents just leave out the first A so I can go to St. Pius.”
Man, I thought, I sure meet the weirdos on this job.
Stan/Satan didn’t try to beat me up or anything, and he didn’t hit the reset button on the video game every five seconds just to mess with me, like some asshole kids did, but while we played, he told me that he used to be God’s favorite angel until he grew too proud and got kicked out of Heaven and became the devil. Obviously he was lying, but he wasn’t chuckling or using an “evil” voice or anything. He talked about going to Hell to reign over demons as casually as other kids talked about going to Omaha to visit their aunts.
He was just telling me how he was planning to have a tornado wreck a small town that spring when some kid with a bowl cut stuck his face into the window.
Stan gave him a tiny nod. “Hello, Josh.”
“You wanna come over?”
Stan shrugged, thought for a second, then said, “Do you have any meat at your house?”
“Got some ham in the fridge, I think,” said Josh.
“How much?” asked Stan.
“About three pounds.”
Stan pursed his lips, like he was considering the offer, then he shook his head and said, “Nah.”
Josh didn’t argue; he just nodded and took off, like it was generally known and accepted in the neighborhood that if you wanted to hang out with Stan, you needed to have an ample supply of meat at your house.
Later on I tried to make sense of the whole exchange. How could three pounds of ham not be enough? Would Stan have gone if there had been a fourth pound? Or if it was honey-roasted turkey? And what about Josh? What kind of kid even knew how many pounds of ham were in his fridge to start with? I couldn’t have possibly told you what was in my own refrigerator. I only kept track of what kinds of cereal we had in stock.
Now that I know that Stan is a genius, one possessed of dark powers that have saved my ass from certain doom on occasions too numerous to mention, I realize that he might not have been planning to eat the meat at all. He might have had some fantastic project in mind that required at least five pounds of fresh ham. I’ve asked him about it, but he says he doesn’t remember that day at all, and that he never even knew a kid named Josh. I’m pretty sure he’s lying, but you never can tell with Stan.
He was a year ahead of me in school, and he went to St. Pius Elementary and Dowling High, the local Catholic schools (yes, I know), so I didn’t see him again until my sophomore year of high school, when he and I both ended up working at Penguin Foot Creamery, one of those awful ice cream shops where the employees have to sing songs and ring bells and shit every time someone orders a large sundae. This was where I learned that he may have been a weirdo, but he was the kind of weirdo who could be destined to lead nations.
He was still going around saying he was the devil, but he didn’t seem particularly evil or mean or anything. In fact he had a pretty sunny disposition for a guy who claimed to be the prince of darkness. And his skills at messing with customers made the job a lot more tolerable.
In one of his most inspired moments he got the idea that instead of up-selling drinks or T-shirts to go with people’s ice cream, like we were supposed to, we could make extra money by up-selling stuff that we stole out of the manager’s office. When somebody ordered a dish of ice cream and mix-ins, we’d say, “Would you like a stapler with that?” Or, “You know what would go great with that sundae? Some envelopes!” If anyone said yes, we’d grab whatever we’d just sold them out of the office and charge them an extra buck or two. We almost sold the printer once.
Half the people just thought it was part of the store’s shtick, but we still got in a ton of trouble when Jane, the manager, realized she wasn’t just losing her staplers all the time. She was ready to fire us on the spot, but Stan talked her out of it with a brilliant defense that would have done any lawyer proud. In his genius brain, he was always three moves ahead of everyone else.
Then, one afternoon, a bearded guy in a pink shirt and red pants came in to give out brochures about how you’ll end up in Hell with cartoon devils poking your butt with pitchforks if you don’t start praying to cartoon God. Stan took one look at the picture of Jesus on the cover and said, “Oh, I remember that guy. He came into my place one time. Said he’d just been crucified.”
The man in the pink shirt looked confused.
“Your place?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Stan. “I was like, ‘Welcome to Hell, my name is Satan, hand me that pitchfork’ and all that, but he was all, ‘Look, is there any way I can be out of here on the third day?’ ’Cause I got a thing on Sunday.’ ”
I played along, as usual.
“What did you tell him, Mr. Satan, sir?” I asked.
“Well,” said Stan, “I told him he’d be there forever, so there was no way he could be out that soon, but then he was like, ‘Do you know who my dad is?’ And well . . . you’ve got the brochures, man. You know.”
The man stared at us some more, like he was too shocked at our insolence to say anything. Maybe he was new to this whole “evangelizing” thing, and thought everyone who saw the cover of the pamphlet would instantly become filled with love or something. His salt-and-pepper beard began to twitch.
“Oh, sorry,” said Stan. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m the angel formerly known as Lucifer. Lord of the Flies, Father of Lies, et cetera. You can just call me Satan, though.” He bowed, then pointed at me and said, “This is Leon, one of my minions.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” I said.
“I’ll probably be putting Leon in charge of you when you get to Hell,” said Stan, “so I’d tip well if I were you.”
“I’m not going to Hell,” the guy said.
Stan smiled and wiped down a spot on the counter.
“That ain’t what God told me,” he said.
That’s when the guy got mad.
Now, normally when we messed with customers, they actually seemed like they could take a joke, if they realized we were messing with them at all (which was fairly rare; most of the customers were a little slow on the uptake). But this guy decided to raise a bit of Hell of his own. He threw such a fit that there was practically smoke coming out of his ears. There are probably still tiny bits of spittle and pink shirt lint in every sundae they serve at that place.
Even Stan couldn’t save our jobs after that one.
But getting fired turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us, because he got us both jobs at the Ice Cave, the B-list ice cream parlor in the old part of town, nestled away in the old Venture Street triangle near Sip Coffee and Earthways, the new age store.
The Ice Cave was nothing like Penguin Foot Creamery. For one thing, there weren’t many customers to deal with. And George, the owner, wouldn’t have dreamed of making us sing songs about ice cream while we worked. He’d owned the place forever, and it had never been a moneymaker on its own—honestly, I was pretty sure it was just a front that he used to launder meth money or something. He only ever stopped in to see if there was some beer in the walk-in cooler, and if he found us sitting on the couch in the back instead of mopping something, he didn’t write us up. He didn’t worry much about inventory, and didn’t have a problem with employees wearing name tags that said SATAN and MINION, or with us helping ourselves to all the mix-in candy we could eat. After he graduated, Stan got himself promoted to manager, which meant that Satan was officially my master during my senior year of high school.
To call what we did at the Ice Cave “work” at all would be a stretch. The back room, which contained a couch, some folding chairs, and a little desk with a computer, served as the office, the storage area, and the break room. We spent most of our time at work holed up back there, listening to old-school metal and helping ourselves to the Reese’s Pieces and gummy bears that were stored in big plastic barrels along the wall. Over time it became a sort of a haven for the dredges of teenage suburbia—the headbangers, the minor criminals, the stoners, and assorted lost souls and hangers-on. Some days—a lot of days—we’d get more people coming into the store just to hang around in the back than we’d get coming in for ice cream.
I felt like I had found my calling. It was the kind of job you’d think you had to sell your soul to get, and I imagined myself growing old in that back room. I mean, I could go to college, but what for? To get some crappier job that I didn’t like as much? When you get a job you like, you should lock it down.
Now, that Stan is a genius cannot be restated too many times. Stories of his unholy powers are numerous and legendary. Like, for instance, there’s the story of the time Dustin Eddlebeck drank enough vanilla syrup to kill a wampa.
On that day Stan, Dustin, and I were hanging around in the back room, just killing time during a slow day. There hadn’t been a customer in about an hour, which was not unusual. Stan was eating Cheez Whiz right out of the spray can. At some point, Dustin noticed that the big vanilla syrup containers listed “alcohol” among the ingredients.
“Bet we could get drunk off that stuff,” he said.
“I doubt it,” I said. “You’d probably have to drink a ton of it.”
“It’s worth a shot,” said Dustin. “Let me open one.”
We could have easily acquired some regular booze—there was probably even some hidden in the cooler someplace. But I guess Dustin was bored and in the mood to experiment that day.
Stan got some paper cups, and we all had a swig of the thick vanilla gunk. It tasted about like maple syrup, only sweeter, and with a hint of something that tasted like engine oil. It was thicker than most maple syrup too. You literally had to choke it down.
Stan and I quit after one chug, but Dustin kept going. Over the course of the afternoon and most of the evening, in between several trips to the bathroom, he drank about half a gallon.
Let me just repeat that: The man drank half a gallon of vanilla syrup.
He said he was drunk, and I believe him, but I think he was too sick to enjoy it. After he drank his last shot, he wandered around looking dizzy for a minute, then collapsed on the couch in the fetal position.
“Kill me,” he groaned. “Either turn down the music or kill me.”
“Headache?” Stan asked.
“I feel like The Slime that Ate Cleveland is on my frontal lobe.”
“Don’t worry,” said the dark lord. “I know how to handle this.”
And he went up to the front and came back with a glass of something that he forced Dustin to drink. Dustin downed the whole glass without taking a breath, then shivered for a second before hopping up onto his feet and shouting, “Holy shit!”
“How do you feel?” Stan asked.
“Like I could pull the ears off a gundark,” said Dustin. “Damn.”
“What did you put in that?” I asked.
“Trade secret,” said Stan. “I got the recipe from Sinatra when he came into my place.”
“He went to Hell?” I asked.
“Oh, I got just about the whole Rat Pack,” said Stan. “All of them except for Sammy Davis Jr. But I let him come hang out sometimes. The parties are better at my place.”
Stan always makes it sound like people in hell have a pretty good time when they aren’t being stabbed in the ass with pitchforks. It seems believable enough, because in addition to his mastery of hangover cures and retail managers, Stan is a bit of wizard when it comes to planning parties. He is probably the only person alive who can make a heavy metal vomit party seem authentically Christmasy.
Dustin shook his head, like he couldn’t believe what had just happened, and looked over at Stan with all due reverence. “Should I, like, sacrifice a goat to you or something now?”
“Nah,” said Stan. “It’s cool.”
“I’ll be damned,” said Dustin.
“Just be careful when you come to Hell,” said Stan. “That last step’s a doozy.”
* * *
So, yeah. The guy is a genius. I don’t know how I ever managed to get through life without him. Obviously, I knew intellectually that Stan was not really a supernatural entity, but sometimes it was hard not to believe it. Any cop at a Mothers Against Drunk Driving assembly will tell you that the only thing that can actually sober you up is time. The concoctions Stan whipped up defied all known laws of biology.
But he did get on my nerves from time to time, which brings us to the day he showed up late for work on Valentine’s Day. A day when I really needed some help.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle what passed for a rush at the Ice Cave alone, or that I actually needed supervision from a manager, but I didn’t want to be by myself if any couples came in. I couldn’t deal with being around couples that day.
Also, there was a pounding in my head that I was pretty sure meant that I was hungover and needed one of his miracle cures.
The day before, February 13, had been the “unofficial” Valentine’s Day at school. I had sort of hoped that having Valentine’s Day fall on a Saturday would mean I’d be spared watching all the couples at school having balloons and flowers and shit sent to each other, but I guess I was just being an idiot. Girls weren’t about to give up the chance to have someone deliver them a giant thing of flowers in class just because the real Valentine’s Day wasn’t until the next day—people just did all that crap on the thirteenth instead. Between classes you’d see girls walking around with teddy bears bigger than they were, and couples were making out everywhere you turned. Every couple was trying to outdo each other for the gold medal in PDA. I was generally happy with my life as a perpetually single retail bum, and just about content to resign myself to that sort of status for life, but watching all the happy couples rubbing it in my face just made me feel lonely as hell.
Whoever made the laws about underage drinking clearly never had to get through a high school Valentine’s Day. I’d rarely had more than a sip or two even in the back room of the Cave, where drinking stuff stronger than vanilla syrup was not exactly unheard of, but on Valentine’s Day eve, alone in my room, I’d broken my own drinking record by a decent margin. And now, at work, I was feeling the results.
Stan emerged from the back room wearing his apron.
“Sorry I was late,” he said. “I didn’t think there’d be anything you couldn’t handle alone.”
“There wasn’t,” I said. “But can you mix me up a glass of that hangover concoction of yours?”
He smiled. “Rough night last night?”
“You could say that.”
“Coming up,” he said.
And he got to work mixing stuff from the soda machine, the cabinets, and some mysterious Tupperware containers from his backpack.
Meanwhile, I looked down at my phone to reread the e-mail I’d gotten the night before. Far more than the Valentine’s couples it was the e-mail that had pushed me over the edge and into my dad’s liquor cabinet.
Hey, Leon! My parents were talking about coming back to Iowa the other night; maybe even moving. Not definitely, but maybe. It’d be good to see you (and the rest of the “gifted pool” hooligans) again, so I’ll keep you posted. Happy Valentine’s Day.
Anna B. Like I’d ever think it was some other Anna. It was the most I’d heard from her in almost three years.
Adam Selzer lived in Des Moines back before it was cool, then tried out a series of small Georgia towns that will probably never be cool before settling in Chicago. In addition to several books on Chicago history and ghostlore, he’s the author of several young adult and middle grade novels, including Play Me Backwards, How To Get Suspended and Influence People (which is part of the ALA’s Banned Books Week packet), I Kissed a Zombie and I liked It, and Sparks (under the name SJ Adams, a Stonewall Honor book for 2013). He has seen Bob Dylan in concert more than forty times, holds a world record for “Most Richard Nixon jokes in a Children’s Book,” and often performs music, both solo and with various bands, at science fiction conventions. Visit him online at AdamSelzer.com.
"It’s a mordantly funny story of a teenager bumbling headlong into love and sex while caught in high-school limbo, waiting for life to kick into gear."
– Publishers Weekly
"An engaging, character-driven piece."
– Kirkus Reviews
"Leon is a likable narrator full of real-world worries and flaws."
– School Library Journal
"Timelessly true to life...A diabolically funny, slacker-makes-good coming-of-age story in the tradition of Rob Thomas's Rats Saw God(1996)."
* "This coming-of-age story is hilariously subversive but also tender and poignant as Leon learns to have faith in himself again...This will be just the right book for those senior high students who love Seth McFarlane."
– VOYA Reviews, STARRED review
"Play Me Backwards is the funniest, oh man...it is so freaking great.” - Josh Berk
– Josh Berk, author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin