You should read the story called True Believers before you read this.
I should have called Sparks before I went to New Orleans. Why? Because he’s one of those guys who just knows things. If it’s strange, unexpected, out of place, forgotten, or downtrodden, Sparks knows about it. I should have called him. I should have.
Instead I went to the French Quarter, down St. Ann street, through the little green door and back down that alley. But Bayou John’s voodoo shop was gone. The door was locked and there was a for rent sign in the window. I cupped my hands over my eyes and leaned into the glass. Carl’s counter was at the back of the store. A mug and a can of Diet Coke lying on its side were on top of it. There were a couple of cardboard boxes on the floor along with a chair and a mop.
I stepped back and looked at the door, hoping there might be a note or some clue about where they went. But of course there was nothing. I knew there wouldn’t be. Carl doesn’t leave forwarding addresses, and Bayou John isn’t concerned with anything that’s not happening in the present moment and right in front of him.
It took me a month to find them, and that would be a whole story itself if I had time to tell it. The short version is I talked to all my marginal friends. People living on the ragged edges around the boundaries of various spiritual and philosophical systems. No one knew anything. I finally got a clue from an old chatroom I used to frequent with Sparks. They call themselves “The Pirates.” They said Carl was in Waco somewhere south of the Baylor campus.
Well, dammit. He was just three hours north of me and I went all the way to New Orleans.
I graduated from Baylor, so I know the lay of the land around the campus. Or at least the way the land lay back in the ‘80s. As you move south of the university there is an old neighborhood with sagging, wooden houses from the ‘30s and ‘40s. Some Baylor students live there along with an assorted collection of people hanging onto their deteriorating neighborhood. I drove up and down the streets but didn’t see anything obvious, so I started exploring the alleys.
I found them in a little BBQ stand with an open window facing an alley. What caught my eye was how terrible the location was – if you really wanted to sell BBQ – and the sign, which sported a fascinating combination of misspelled words, grammatical oddities, and haphazard combinations of upper and lower case letters. One word was even in Spanish.
Bbq y RiBs
World bEst SERLON BugerS
I stopped my car and turned off the engine. I read the sign three or four times, chuckling, then got out and looked right and left before crossing the alley, as if there might be traffic, which I knew there wouldn’t be so I don’t know why I looked. Maybe just a reflection of my mood. I was feeling kind of jumpy.
The shack was old but appeared to be solid. About ten feet long, I’d say. Maybe six feet wide. It was inside someone’s backyard but right up against a waist-high chain link fence. I walked up to the window and looked inside. There was a door on the back wall. I saw some shelves over to the right with file folders in them. Some trunks and boxes were piled up against the wall in a corner. Next to the window was a card table. On it was a stack of paper plates, a coffee can with a variety of plastic utensils sticking out of it, and a mason jar filled with Mardi Gras beads and some money, mostly crumpled bills. Bayou John was leaning back in a chair against the wall across from the window with his hands on his knees. A cigarette was stuck to his lower lip and dangled precariously with a long strand of ash on the end of it. He leaned forward and the chair’s front legs hit the floor with a thud, knocking the ash off his cigarette and into his lap. He pulled his sunglasses down his nose and looked at me over the top of them.
Look who’s back. The lost man. Maybe come back lookin’ for what you left behind?
He got up and moved to the window.
Lemme see your hands.
I stuck them through the window, palms up. He felt them and turned over and back a couple of times, squinting at them through his cigarette smoke. Then he looked right into my eyes. I stared back, feeling completely at ease. I focused on his right eye, then his left.
You’ve been to the shadow places, he said. The low places. The deep and dark places. The heavy and wet places of the earth and the body. This is good. You are not as lost as you once were. But you are still a man of the high places. The light and dry places. The places of the sky and the heavens and the mind. You need to see Carl, not me.
I never know what the hell Bayou John is talking about.
He grunted, dropped my hands, and returned to his seat.
He’s out back.
I went around the corner of the shack and found a gate in the fence. I walked through it into someone’s backyard.
I wondered what sort of people would let Carl and Bayou John run a BBQ stand out of their yard, but I decided it was probably complicated and, in any case, not something I needed to know. I found Carl tending some meat in a large black barbecue pit. He was wearing a commercial white apron and was pushing ribs and pieces of chicken around with a long spatula. An orange extension cord trailed out of the shack to a hot plate sitting on top of an iron bucket turned upside down. There was a pot of beans bubbling on it. By the door was an open white cooler with an assortment of bottles and cans jutting up out of the ice.
I walked over and stood beside Carl. He glanced at me, then looked back down at the meat. He hung the spatula on a hook, grabbed a set of tongs and prodded a beautiful, dark brisket that was on an upper rack. He squinted into the heat, pulled a brush out of a coffee can, and painted some sauce onto a rack of ribs.
You’re hard to find, I said.
That’s the idea. You didn’t go to New Orleans, did you?
He turned toward me with an incredulous look on his face.
Went all the way down that damn alley and saw the empty store.
Oh shit, man. Sorry about that.
My fault. I knew you moved around a lot. I should have checked into it before going.
We fell into silence, both of us staring into the heat. Carl poked at the meat with a fork. A couple of minutes went by.
Can’t believe you fuckin’ went to New Orleans, dude.
I know. You got any Diet Coke in that cooler?
I walked to the cooler and pulled out a can. Then I went back and stood by the grill again.
So how did you find me?
First I asked all my weird freaky friends. None of them knew where you were. Sparks didn’t know either, which surprised me. He usually knows about weird shit like this. Then I found a woman – calls herself Spidey – in an old chatroom. She said you were in Waco somewhere south of the campus.
I lifted my can like I was making a toast, waved it lazily in the direction of the houses nearby, and said, I drove around all these streets. When I saw the shack and that sign, I knew I’d found you.
Carl grunted. He lifted a piece of chicken with his tongs and peeked under it.
So what’s your pleasure, Gordon? You a brisket man? Sausage? Ribs? Chicken?
Brisket and sausage for me.
Okay. Let’s get you a plate.
Carl picked up a heavy-duty paper plate with divided sections. He dumped some brisket and sausage into the biggest section. He dropped a slice of white bread onto another section and put some onion and jalapeño slices on top of it. While he made himself a plate I ladled some beans into the remaining section of mine. Bayou John came out and handed us some utensils, loaded up a plate, and went back inside. Carl motioned to a couple of lawn chairs. We sat down and started eating. We didn’t say much until we were about halfway through the meal.
How long’s it been since we saw you in New Orleans? Year? Year and half?
Time flies. Been in the wilderness that long, huh?
Whadja come back for? You wanna pick up your old narrative? You want to live in it again?
I poked through my beans with my fork then stabbed a piece of brisket and lifted it to my mouth. I chewed on it, thinking. Carl picked up a rib and pulled some meat off it with his teeth.
I swallowed and then spoke.
I don’t think I can go back to it. That way is closed to me. I don’t know much anymore, but that seems clear enough. I would like to look at it though. The person I was back then seems unfamiliar to me now. I can’t remember how it was to be that person.
Carl got up and went into the shack. He came out and handed me a large envelope. I sat my plate on the ground between our chairs and unwound a string from around a button on the envelope. My narrative folder was inside. I pulled it out and sat it in my lap.
Oh yeah. I remember this. Wow. I laid my palm flat on the cover of the folder and moved it around. I opened it and flipped through the pages. It’s strange, Carl. I remember making this. I recognize the words. I remember doing the lettering. I remember making the bindings and grafts. But for the life of me I can’t remember what it was like to be the man who put this together.
Carl nodded solemnly. Yeah, you really can’t go back to a narrative once you’ve abandoned it. Some people need to try though, so I wasn’t going to say anything in case you wanted to go that route. But it’s a waste of time. You’re right. That way is closed to you now.
I nodded. Still, it’s beautiful isn’t it? Lovely to look at.
Oh yeah. It’s a work of art. Absolutely. It’s the original art form, in fact, you might say – human myths. And the source of later forms of art. Unique only to you. The record of who a man was, what forces shaped him, and the myths that both created and upheld him.
I put the folder back in the envelope and wound the string around the button again. I handed it back to Carl. Can I keep it here with you? In your collection or whatever you call it? I know I’m not going back to it, but I sense it has some role to play in my journey going forward.
Sure. You bet. Carl took the folder into the shack and emerged after a few seconds with a bottle of whiskey and two tulip glasses. I recognized the bottle.
Is that Bunnahabhain?
It is indeed. You want some?
Hell yes, I said.
Carl poured a dram in each glass and handed one to me. He held his glass up and said Slanjuh. I clinked my glass against his.
I closed my eyes and took a sip. I tasted the smokey complexity and held it for a second on my tongue. Then I swallowed and felt the gentle burst of heat and warmth.
Damn, that is fine scotch, I said.
Carl nodded. Agreed.
I looked down at my plate on the ground to see if there was anything of interest left on it. I leaned over, speared a last chunk of sausage with my fork, and popped it into my mouth. I saw Carl picking up his plate and heading for a trash can. I held mine up and he took it and threw them both away. We settled back into our chairs and sipped our scotch in silence for a few minutes.
It was nice to see the old narrative, but I came to talk with you, if that’s okay.
As long as I’ve got custody of your narrative – he pointed at me – and full rights to it in the unfortunate event of your passing – I nodded solemnly and held up my glass – then you can have all the conversation you like, provided you can find me of course.
Pilgrimages to Carl, I said. I might have to write about that someday.
A short burst of laughter came from Bayou John in the shack. We both turned and looked at the door, then turned back and looked at each other. Carl shrugged. I drank the last of my scotch, which for some reason hit me kind of sour, and I grimaced as I swallowed it.
I’m living in a paradox I can’t figure out since I left you in New Orleans. Since you cast me out into the Negev, as you put it. As we’ve both noted, there is no going back to my old narrative. There seems to be an angel with a flaming sword guarding that way.
Carl swirled the last of his scotch in his glass, sniffed it, and said, Yeah, you can’t go back to the garden.
Exactly. So I’m caught in the paradox. Can’t go back to the old myth. Don’t have enough time left in my life to develop and grow any sort of custom narrative to maturity.
Nope. Neither of those ways are open to you.
Thing is though, I’m feeling pretty good. I have almost no anxiety. Very few people have their hooks in me now. Mostly just Jeanene and the three sisters. My obligations have diminished greatly and continue to do so.
You’re kind of liking the Negev, are you?
Yeah. It’s peaceful out here, once you stop thrashing about. Thing is, you said when I was cast out that I’d be wandering the earth in a kind of twilight state. An observer of humanity but not a participant. But I gotta tell you, after two years I feel like I’m the one walking in the light and most of the people I see are wandering around in darkness. They’re so lost in their narratives they don’t even realize they have them.
Carl nodded. Well, they’re mostly unconscious. They’re no more conscious of their myths than the fish are of the water they swim in.
I held out my glass. Can I have another shot of that Bunnahabhain?
Of course. I keep the Bunny and the Diet Coke on hand just for you. When Sparks comes around it’s water with lemon or ginger beer. Another one of my guys likes Longmorn 16 and cigars. Everyone gets what they need.
I squinted and scratched my beard. I wasn’t sure how to say what I wanted to say. So I just came out with it.
Also I’ve been having dreams and I guess what you’d call visions. Kind of a lot of them. I’ve been writing them down. Not sure what to make of them.
The Negev will do that to a person. You’re in a state of mythic deprivation. The psyche needs a container for meaning and a way to hold onto archetypes that rise from below. Why do you think the mystics went to the desert?
I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned toward the shack. Bayou John had come out and was sitting on the ground cross-legged, listening. He had his sunglasses on and smoke from his cigarette floated around his head like a cloud.
Lost man. Tell us your dream, he said.
I’ve had a lot of them.
Pick one. Just one. And don’t think about it. First one that comes to you.
I closed my eyes for a moment and started talking.
In my dream I went outside at night and looked up at Mars. I could see it clearly without a telescope. And I could see its moon, Phobos, in orbit around it. But the orbit was unstable, and then Phobos fell toward Mars and collapsed into the planet. The collision broke Mars out of its orbit around the sun and sent it careening toward Earth. It grew in the night sky until it filled most of it. And then, as I watched, Mars exploded. Debris rained down upon the earth. I ran around picking up what had fallen from Mars, for a strong wind arose and was blowing the debris away, and I felt the artifacts of Mars should be saved. There was a fine blue dust, small blue pebbles, and chips of blue glass, formed in the heat of the explosion. I put some of each into the top tray of a small toolbox. Then I found chunks of black obsidian, also formed in the heat of the explosion. I put these into the lower compartment of the toolbox, hidden beneath the other things. Then the wind blew what remained away. Only I had evidence of the death of Mars.
I told some people that Mars had been destroyed. They didn’t believe me. I opened my box and showed them the evidence. I pointed to the empty place in the sky where Mars once was. The revelation caused a general panic, and people ran about screaming. So I put my artifacts away. Then everyone calmed down and went about their business. I decided most people weren’t ready to know about the destruction of Mars.
I found three or four people who were able to know the truth. I showed them the relics I now carried. We marveled at the death of our sister planet and wondered what might happen to Earth.
Carl sat chewing on his thumb.
Bayou John took a long, final drag on his cigarette, looked at the stub left in his fingers, then flicked it away. After a moment, two jets of smoke exited his nostrils, caught the wind, and drifted off. He took off his sunglasses and looked at me. Big change coming. Painful. Hard. Not everyone can see it. Those with eyes to see carry the burden. And the obligation of that knowledge.
That dream was not just for you, Carl said. It’s bigger than you.
At that moment, a large bird with a black body, a white neck, and a black cap of feathers that looked like hair, floated over the house and landed in the yard. It had a curved, orange beak. It hopped toward us then turned its head this way and that, looking at us out of one eye and then the other. It made a strange sound, something like static or like an old dot matrix printer. Then it grabbed a chunk of meat from the ground, took a few hops, and rose into the air. It circled the yard three times, then disappeared.
The three of us watched the bird in silence. I said, That’s a Northern Caracara. It’s weird cause I saw one a couple of weeks ago when I was driving to La Vernia. It was just outside China Grove. I’d never seen one before so I looked it up. I guess that’s a synchronicity, huh?
Bayou John put his sunglasses back on and spoke to Carl. Something new is coming. Something big.
Car nodded and said, Uh huh.
Bayou John looked at me and smiled. Something is coming all right. Big thing. New.