An edited (and somewhat sanitized) version of this story was published by the Christian Century in 2017 with the title: “A story about finding a new story.”
I could tell you the story of how I found Carl in New Orleans, but it wouldn’t do you any good. Carl moves his shop whenever the mood strikes him. During a stretch of time in 2008 he operated out of the back of a van. If you need Carl you’ll have to find him in your own way.
In my case, after some years of asking around, I ended up headed for New Orleans with some sketchy directions scribbled onto a scrap of paper in my wallet. I was supposed to look for a green door in a wall that led to an alley on St. Ann Street between Bourbon and the river. No address. Carl doesn’t really do addresses.
The French Quarter looked pretty much like it does in the movies. Narrow streets with wrought iron balconies on the second floors. I walked up and down St. Ann a few times, cursing when I noticed that almost every door is green. Eventually I found it. A narrow wooden door that looked like it was a hundred years old. So many layers of paint that the edges of the boards and even the hinges looked soft. Behind the door an alley twisted back between buildings and turned to the right. Around the corner was a dimly lit shop called Bayou John’s Voodoo Supplies.
The Voodoo shops on the main streets in the Quarter are campy and mostly for tourists. They’re typically filled with giggling girls buying love potions to take back to their sorority sisters. Bayou John’s is not that kind of shop. It is purposefully out of the way. This is an establishment for true believers. The man behind the counter looked old. He had dark skin and white hair. He was working a crossword puzzle and smoking a cigarette that looked like it was rolled out of butcher paper. He squinted at me through the smoke. I spoke to him in an attempt to be friendly.
“You must be Bayou John.”
As if he knew I couldn’t possibly have anything to do with his world, he said nothing. After a moment he bent his head back to his puzzle, exhaling twin jets of smoke through his nostrils that hit the paper and curled around it.
I spotted Carl at the back of the store. He had apparently sublet a portion of Bayou John’s and had his own counter. I brushed aside some dangling beads and walked past a glass case that was filled with ancient bottles and other things reminiscent of a 19th century apothecary. I moved my face closer to get a better look.
“Is that a real skull?” I called back to Bayou John.
He ignored me.
The contrast between Carl’s corner and the rest of the store was striking. Carl’s part looked more like a doctor’s office. There was a well-lit formica counter. Behind it were shelves that held rows of manila folders with colored tabs on them. Everything was clean and tidy. Carl was leaning on the counter, his face smushed into his palm, reading a comic book. He lifted his cheek out of his hand and straightened up when he saw me coming.
“You must be Gordon.”
“Sparks said you might be coming by.”
“Sparks! How is he?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met him in person. But if he ever wants to sell that crazy narrative of his, I’ll be the first dealer in line to buy it.”
“I guess his story is rather unique.”
“Uh, yeah. I’d say so. So what have you got for me?”
I’ve got a custom narrative. I’ve been working pretty hard on it since about ’77, give or take. Sparks said you deal in customized world-views and such.
“Yeah, well everyone that comes in here says they’ve got a custom narrative. Everybody’s their own guru these days. But keep in mind I do NOT consider a standard narrative package with a couple of store-bought modules snapped onto the side to be a custom deal. Let me see what you’ve got.”
I slid my folder over to him. He whistled.
“Nice. This is a classic ‘70s cover. Is this all original work?”
“Yep. I did the lettering myself. I’ve got a couple of summary pages inside for a quick overview. I was planning on continued custom work until I was maybe in my 70s. I figured after that I’d just settle down and live in it, you know?”
“I like the script you were using in the ‘80s. You’d have been twenty-something back then, right?
“I was. Yes.”
“Such hopeful lettering. I can see the doubt creeping in during the 90s.”
He ran his finger a few lines down the summary page and tapped it twice.
“Yeah, I see the breaking point right here. Based on a quick and cursory handwriting analysis, I’d say you were pretty well fucked by 2007.”
He turned past the summary pages and began scanning the contents. He flipped through all the pages to the end, rubbed the sheets between his thumb and forefinger, smelled the paper, then went back to the beginning and read the first couple of pages.
“Classic. A Texas Baptist starter package. Golden years, too. Pre-79. That whole thing turned to complete shit after 1980.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“Were your parents true believers or just in it for shits and giggles?”
“No. True believers. Check their numbers.”
“Holy shit! Your dad scored a 94?”
“I know. That’s a legit score too. No bullshit. I saw the numbers. And he’s clergy.”
Carl looked up at me and smiled, then dropped his eyes back to the folder. He shook his head and grunted.
“A clerical true believer!”
He flipped through a few more pages.
“Such a loving father. And strict. Please tell me he still believes.”
“Oh yeah. In his 70s. Married. Still in love with mom. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world. Showers of blessing all around. Never wavered. Never will.”
“I get some clergy narratives sometimes from true believers. But if you dig around you’ll generally find a pragmatic base. Like a false bottom. They wouldn’t score anywhere near a 94.”
Carl closed the folder and looked at me over the counter.
“So, full childhood immersion in an organic faith narrative bequeathed by true believers. I’m looking forward to seeing what you did with this and what makes you want to abandon it. It’s gonna take some time. Leave it with me and come back in a week. Don’t worry. It’s perfectly safe here. No one comes down this alley. That’s why I’m in this location. The lookie loos or people hoping to flip a freak narrative won’t make it past Bayou John. He’s a junkyard dog.”
“Okay. I’ll come back in a week. And you’ll be able to tell me what it’s worth? Or what I could get for it on a trade in?”
Carl didn’t look up. He kept skimming through the pages.
“I’ll tell you what I think you need to be told.”
I was feeling pretty good when I left. Feeling kind of proud about the work I’d done on my narrative. Feeling like I might get enough for it to get me started with a whole new story. And a fresh start has always been an enticing thought for me. I’ve got no problem leaving things behind.
I passed Bayou John on the way out and said, “See you next week.”
He moved his hand slowly to his mouth, pulled his cigarette out and held it a couple of inches from his lips.
“Listen here. I rent part of my shop to Carl cause I need the money. But I ain’t got nuthin to do with ya’ll suckin sugar teats and jerkin each other off at the back of my goddam store, you understand?”
I looked back at Carl. He closed his eyes and shook his head. I got the message. Best not to say all that much to Bayou John.
My old college roommate is from New Orleans. He has a guest room over his garage and was okay with me staying there for a few days. I spent the week wandering around the city, smoking cigars, drinking Bourbon, and watching people. It was one of the best weeks of my life.
When I returned to the Voodoo shop, I tiptoed past Bayou John. He looked at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke but didn’t say anything. Carl came out from around his counter. He was smiling and held out his hand. I shook it and he put his left hand on the top of my shoulder.
“Gordon, welcome back. Good to see you. Let’s go into my office.”
He led me around his counter and through a dark green velvet curtain into a small room. There was a round table with three chairs around it. My narrative folder was sitting on the table. Along the wall there was a counter with a sink, a microwave, and a coffee maker. Next to the counter was an old refrigerator with rounded corners and an old-fashioned metal latch. It looked like it was from the ’50s.
Carl motioned to the table, so I sat down. He opened the fridge and pointed inside.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“You got Diet Coke.”
He pulled two Diet Cokes out of the fridge, sat them on the table, then sat down across from me. I popped open my soda and took a swig. Carl opened my folder and flipped a couple of pages back and forth.
“So. Gordon Atkinson. This is a very interesting narrative you have here. I’ve got a few questions, as you might imagine.”
“I’ll cut to the chase. You’re basically an agnostic.”
“And while you love metaphysical discussions about God and the meaning of life, at your core, you’re an empiricist.
“I think that’s right.”
“You talk a lot about faith and trust and spirituality, but if I put you under stress, you’re going to trust what you see with your eyes.”
“So you’re an agnostic empiricist.”
“I am. Yes.”
Carl stared into my eyes for about ten seconds. I didn’t look away. He looked down at the folder and turned a couple of pages. He spoke again without looking up.
“And a Baptist preacher.”
“Well, was a Baptist preacher. I left that gig 4 years ago.”
“But you were an agnostic empirical Baptist preacher for 20 years.”
“Yes. I was.”
Carl tapped his index finger a few times on the folder.
“This narrative is a work of art. It’s your grafts that fascinate me the most. You’ve got a good knife and sharp. Good bark and binding work. Several strong philosophical scions budded beautifully into your family’s Baptist stock. Your bindings are secure as hell too. These are righteous joinings. But how did they last for 20 years? I’ve seen some lies and con jobs last that long, but never an honest graft. How’d you keep from going crazy?”
“Are you referring to Jung’s first law?”
“Check the footnotes and the index for my inclusion of Jung and Campbell entering the story in the late ‘90s. See how that dovetail supports the central narrative?”
“Ah yes, the hard-drinking, country Baptist prophet himself.”
Carl ran his finger down to the footnote, flipped two pages, read a bit, then flipped back. He shook his head.
“Nice. That’s a nice fit. So you get Campbell’s strong social conscience running through there. That’s basically a sustaining ritual. Hell, that’s as good as a secondary graft.”
I nodded. “Yeah. I kind of lucked into it. Didn’t know what I was doing. But anyway, it held together.
Carl closed the folder.
“It did. For a time. But you and I both know there’s no way around Jung’s First Law of the True Believer.”
“Yeah. But I found a most unexpected loophole. I think it gave me maybe 5 extra years.”
“I owned it. Publicly. The agnosticism, the doubts, the anger. Hell let’s admit it, the heresy. I started a blog.”
“Why didn’t the church fire you?”
“Love. They loved me. And I loved them. I’d been there a long time. I think they saw the writing as personal therapy or at least something I needed for reasons they didn’t have to understand. And I’m sure there was a little denial on their part and mine too.”
“Fascinating. And very rare. You stayed pretty healthy too. There was that bout of depression in 06, but that could have been anything.
“It all held pretty well until about 2008. By 2009 I knew it was over. I was so tired. I didn’t have anything left.”
“That’s what Jung postulated. Eventually you run out of gas. You can play all the tricks you want, but you can’t get around the First Law. Clerics who are not true believers will either be charlatans or will become emotionally unstable.”
“He was right. So I left in 2010 on good terms, before I went crazy. I found another job and have never looked back.”
“Have you considered the classic Baptist to Anglican move? Like Claypool? They certainly have room for your agnosticism. And the ritual plays well with your Jungian themes.”
“As a matter of fact, I was confirmed into the Episcopal Church in 2012. But I don’t know. Lately the whole idea of American Christianity is wearing thin. I don’t have the patience. I can’t hear anything. Church talk is unintelligible to me now. Like they’re speaking another language. So I was thinking maybe just chuck the whole thing and find something new.”
“That’s why I came to you. I’m hoping to sell this narrative and get enough to buy a new story. Just start over.”
Carl was silent for a long time. I started getting fidgety and leaned over the table toward him.
“My story’s not worth that much, is it? I wouldn’t get enough for it to get me into something new?”
“Oh hell no. This is a very, very nice narrative. I know several collectors who would pay top dollar for it just to get a peek at your quirky structures, your grafts and bindings. And I think you’ve stumbled upon a bona fide Tertium Quid with your clerical confession of doubt. I mean you can’t get around the First Law, but hell you definitely found a third way and bought yourself some time. No, I could sell it. That’s not the problem.”
“Then what is the problem?”
“You’re the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“How old are you?”
“Well that’s pretty old to be starting with a new narrative, don’t you think? Look, even the standard worldview packages take a good 20 years to break them in. And I’m pretty damn sure you aren’t going to be happy with a standard package. So then we’re talking about customizing. Do the math. I just don’t think you’ve got the time. And even if you do work out something cool for yourself, at your age it won’t really take root. It’s just gonna be a kind of mythic costume you walk around in. You sure you want that?”
“I guess I thought maybe I’d buy someone else’s custom narrative. Maybe a cool Christian Buddhist like Merton or a social activist Quaker who’s an amazing bowler and lives in a small town where he’s the only liberal but people love him anyway. Something like that.”
“You don’t understand. Collectors buy these narratives. Not people hoping to use them. You can’t just move into someone else’s story like a hermit crab switching shells. Custom narratives are like used shoes. They look comfortable as hell, but when you put them on they don’t fit your feet.”
“Well what do people like me do when they trade in their narratives?”
“They don’t trade them in, okay? I get these from dead people. After they’re done with them. I buy them from families of the deceased or at estate sales. I sell them to collectors or sometimes to writers who use them to develop characters. That’s how this business works. I could sell you one of the custom narratives I’ve got in stock. But I’d just be taking your money. You aren’t going to be able to use it.”
“Okay. Shit. Then I guess just give me one of your standard narrative packages. What have you got?”
Carl looked at me for a few moments. He started to say something but didn’t. Then he shrugged and left the room through the curtain. He came back with a notebook computer that he put on the table and opened. The light from the screen lit up his face. He tapped on the keys a few times and pushed his finger around on the track pad.
“I keep a selection of these on hand. You can pick them up pretty much anywhere. They’re money makers. What can I say? People swap them out all the time. Most of them come with pre-loaded geographic settings. We just plug in your zip code and the software makes all the adjustments.”
He clicked a few more times on the keyboard.
“I’ve got some typical right-leaning, evangelical, small town, married with kids narratives. Bowling league, friends for life, with an assortment of hobbies and weekend entertainment modules already installed. Got a number of those.”
“Got some Granola packages. Pretty much what you’d expect. Over-educated, politically correct, vegetarian or vegan, cause-oriented crusader packages. Again, the specific causes and some of the details depend on your zip code.”
“I’ve got some bandana wearing, weekend motorcycle riding, generic American godism narratives. Slogan-oriented patriotism modules as add-ons. These come in both right and left wing political versions.”
“If you’re hoping to maximize your civic standing, you might want to look into one of the religious patriot packages that are all the rage these days. Your god and government are the good guys. Your enemies’ gods and governments cast as agents of Satan. What’s cool about these packages is they come as stand-alone mythic narratives or you can treat them as modules. You can snap them on the side of pretty much any standard package. Then you can tear around town not doing shit for god or country but making a helluva lot of noise. These are especially nice if you’re hoping to run for office.”
We stared at each other across the table for a few seconds. Carl shrugged. I looked over at the microwave then down at the table. I scratched the tabletop with my fingernail.
“I don’t want to hear any more.”
Carl closed his computer.
“Well, you got the general idea. I’ve got probably a hundred like that in stock. There’s a couple thousand more in various catalogs that you can order.”
“They sound horrible.”
“Look man, they’re basic starter packages, okay? It’s what we all begin with. It’s what you began with. Where do you think that 1960s Southern Baptist package your parents gave you came from? Don’t knock the standard packages. They’ve all been tested and approved for our culture. You get a nice selection of emotional, intellectual, and social benefits with all of them that are pretty much guaranteed unless you totally fuck this shit up and shoot yourself in the foot. But even if you do, you know, you’ve still got a place in society. Most of these narratives need a fuck-up character in them, so it’s all good, in a larger sense anyway.”
I slowly pulled my glasses off and set them carefully on the table. I leaned forward and placed my face in my hands and ground the base of my palms into my eyes. Then I slipped my palms up to my temples and rubbed them in circles.
Carl didn’t say anything.
“So what you’re saying is I can’t use someone else’s custom narrative. So my choice is to keep the one I have or start new with one of these horrible culturally friendly starter packages. Those are my choices.”
“Yes. Those are the only two choices. Well, the only two choices that make sense to most people. But sometimes, when it seems there are only two ways to go and things are getting desperate, a third way opens itself to our awareness. Your old narrative showed that you were open to that kind of thing. The Tertium Quid.”
“Have you got one in mind?”
“As a matter of fact I do. I’m not going to buy your narrative, and I’m not going to sell you one either. I’ll take your narrative and keep it here for you. I won’t sell it. It will be here in case you come back someday to reclaim it.”
“I know you really believe that, and maybe it’s true. That’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to buy your narrative. And since it’s not mine I can’t sell it. It will just be here. Waiting.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“I’m casting you out into the Negev. Like Abram you will journey by stages into the wilderness. You will have no narrative. You will believe no myths. No story will be your story. You will be an observer of humanity but will exist yourself in a kind of twilight state. You will walk in this third way, this Tertium Quid, until you find truth or until the end of your days.”
“My punishment is more than I can bear.”
“Oh, stop it. It’s not the mark of fucking Cain. It’s not a punishment. It’s an extended Lenten period. For goodness sakes, Jesus did it. He went into the wilderness. And in spite of your current attitude toward your old story, I have to think you still have a soft spot in your heart for Jesus.”
I started crying. Hard. Emotion rolled over me. There was no stopping it. I felt ashamed and put my face in my hands. Carl got a box of kleenex from the top of the fridge and handed them to me. After a few minutes I got myself under control and blew my nose.
“Where should I go? How should I get started? Are there others like me out there?”
Carl didn’t say anything. He gathered up my folder and slid it into a fat manila envelope and sealed it with one of those little strings that wraps around a button. Then he left through the green curtain. He didn’t come back. I went out and he was talking on the phone to someone. I stood there waiting. He glanced at me and then turned very deliberately away. I knew it was time for me to leave.
I walked through the shop toward the door. Bayou John was not in his usual place. I found him outside sitting on a stump with a cat in his arms, smoking a pipe. I stood in the doorway, wondering which way to go.
“Let me see your eyes,” Bayou John said.
I looked at him. He focussed first on my right eye and then slid his view across my nose to my left eye.
“Give me your hands.”
I held my hands out. He grabbed them and turned them palm upwards. He looked carefully at them for a few moments.
“Did he cast you out?”
He grunted and puffed on his pipe. After a few moments I said, “I thought you didn’t like me. You certainly weren’t that friendly the last time I was here.”
“That time your story was not my story. Now you are a man with no story. You might end up anywhere. Even back here with me.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Voodoo is hot and wet. I think maybe you are a cold and dry man in your soul.”
I thought about what he said but couldn’t make sense of it. After a moment I said, “I don’t know where to start, which way to go.”
“That’s easy. You leave here and go down to the river. Every journey starts at the river. Every good thing comes to you when you find the deep waters.”