It can be very dull living with oneself. I have trouble imagining a condition more tedious than always knowing the exact plan for each and every day is centered around an inescapable form and character—your own---around God's chaining us forever only, inconsolably to ourselves. It cannot be easy being anybody, surely. For instance, you always know just what you are going to say, even if it's only in terms of fractional seconds, and there is a very good chance that you will behave as pretentiously as possible at all times, fearful that others may recognize and dislike the horrible honesties always brewing inside of you, and so disguising them. I refer simply to the eternal pretense of the mind's sleepless view of itself: its reflexivity, its judgments and its many fears relative to other people and our own need to be loved, acknowledged, respected. "I don't care what other people think" is a mantra for the self-delusional, as well as the truly free.
The mind, it's said, is the enemy of existence. A quite disturbed but brilliant man once told me while we rode mass transit that "the Truth exists but it is independent of the mind." Thankfully we have each other to help temper some of this dreadful existential tedium, to needle and gather good stories from. Friends are often cynically compared to sounding boards, but they are just as useful as black holes into which we can totally disappear. That beings as crude and self-obsessed as we are can forget ourselves is a necessary blessing.
I've found that cab drivers are vaults of especially insightful, even esoteric knowledge. You just need to prod them a bit and show how you're a nice person and they will probably give you a good shot for the brief time you know them. Several times they've reminded me of the lunacy in being anything less than pleased about living, that life is not necessarily captivating, but interesting at least.
And I'm gonna tell you
It was before the time when we all had cell phones and the Africans had generously agreed to supply us with cheap Coltan so that we could run around burbling all day into the little tumor factories, before the inexhaustions of the Global War on Terror. I asked the waitress at Lucille's to call me a cab and needed to get to work in twenty minutes or so. She was a nice-looking lady of an indistinct age and it was sad leaving her. She wore black and little, but there's nothing special about this, in that line of work. It seemed that she was thirty or more but she was also a girl with spry hot blood and a young cannibal spirit, as suggested by her style of dress, her smirk, and prominent ankle tattoo. The smirk was a queer workplace enchantment: it couldn't be suppressed or guessed at, and probably deterred thirty drunken suitors every night, even as it attracted them. The cab arrived and I was watching the Knicks game. I hurried out and saw a sleepy heavy black man in the driver's seat. I got in next to him. He was very heavy indeed. There was an exchange of coordinates and he drove a ways while I thought of how to approach talking to him. I relied on a dependable venture.
"How have your fares been tonight, man?" I nearly resisted the use of the strained soulful familiarity. That ease which white folks like myself have in relaxing their normal speech patterns around black people has always aggravated me, and to address a man this way when he is your elder by far is disrespectful. I felt slightly off on the wrong foot, but as usual, this self-doubt owed more to neurosis than reality. Southern black folks, after all, are used to centuries of white foolishness.
"A Roadmaster," he said with some flourish in a sarcastic but appreciative way. Apparently he spoke of his automobile. He had misheard me.
"…How have your fares been?"
Without looking at me he said, "Oh. I've had a couple of doozies tonight. Had a lady who wanted to smoke in here. She asked if she could smoke and I told her 'No, ma'am this is a no-smoking cab,' and she said she was gonna smoke anyway."
"So what did you do, let her smoke?"
"Well, no. I called up my boss. My boss is a woman. So I told her there's a woman in here who says she's gonna have a cigarette and I let them talk. Figured it was a woman thing."
This guy wasn't looking at me too much. He was about fifty with a massive belly and expressive, slightly popping eyes and big lovely nostrils. He wore a sparkling garish ring and a matching blinding watch. He was extremely likable.
"You know how women are," he insisted.
"So was she able to convince her not to smoke?"
"Nope. She told her not to but the lady lit it up anyway. She was very intoxicated. I picked her up from Lucille's. She was with two guys,. They were all pretty drunk."
"Yeah, I was at that bar. Of course. I saw her and their party. They spoke at a…very loud level."
"Yeah, she was pretty loud." He seemed reticent, as if he was withholding judgment or just didn't want to recount the other coarse behaviors they had brought into his coach.
"But you said you had a couple of doozies? Who else did you have in here?" I knew this man might agree to tell me something interesting. I hoped he'd treat me to a good story.
"No. Not really, I was talking about those people-"
Car 5, what's your 20? Got one for central.
I looked at the radio and waited to see if that was for him. He turned it down low and said he hated talking over that thing. At this point there was a small dead spot in the conversation so I hastened to ply him with my prized ghost story.
"Well I've got the crazy cab fare story to trump your story. This guy picked me up on ....Gay Street.... once. We talked a bit and he told me about picking up a guy on ....Cumberland.... at Rocky Top, who told him to take him out west, to Sequoiyah or something. So he starts driving and he starts to hear noises coming from behind him,-"
…and I gestured behind us with some jerky flapping motions…
"-like snarling and slobbering and whipping around shit like he was a wild animal. Now this man, this cabdriver seemed like a rational science-grounded guy, we had talked and he seemed well-read and smart. He told me that he was a skeptic and a rationalist and if he didn't know better he would have to say it was demonic possession. He said he wouldn't believe it himself if someone had told him. And the guy was scared he might die and he looks in the rearview mirror to see cause he was scared to turn around, and he sees the dude, like… transforming into some beast with a muzzle protruding out and tongue all flapping around and his head's whipping around- (here I added some more theatrical wagging.) -So he keeps driving straight on until he gets there, petrified, and then when he gets there the guy is normal and gets out and gives him his money." As I usually did, I was getting excited about telling the story.
"Do you believe in ghosts and all that?" And this was what I really enjoyed asking strangers who might have had a lot of experience with other strangers. It's what I like asking cabbies and often they have something wild to say on the matter.
"Hoo," the driver said. "Yes. I've seen demonic possession. I've seen some crazy things, man. I'll tell you about one thing. My brother, he's a little guy, like you, and extremely good-lookin. Small guy, really good-lookin. But he always gets my girlfriend scraps, mean, he always just gets my girlfriends after, you know, I'm done seein them. So I had this friend Arnell Davidson and he was tryin to hook me up with this girl, Kathy Roberts, he said she was very pretty. So he set us up and she was gonna cook me dinner over at her house. So I went over there, you know. And she's really fine now, really pretty with a really fine build and all. This is the first time I've ever seen her, met her, anything. And we're in the kitchen and she's goin around cookin and we're talkin and I hear this noise. Like comin from the back room back there-"
The driver was looking at me more now: ask and ye shall receive. He was clearly an apt spinner of tales, and I took him to be absolutely serious. There was never a question of my belief, anyway. He was lively and I was embraced by this story that seemed to be swelling towards something fine and grim and outrageous. Periodically I would offer the small blasphemous words that indicate interest and attention paid.
"-and I ask her what was the noise and she tells me "Oh, it's just Mildred." I just assume that Mildred is her roommate, just livin back there. But now, I thought the noises were like people fightin-"
We had come to where I work and I was not interested in working yet, so I told him to keep going. "And a while later I hear the noise again. I ask her again and ask… you know when she met Mildred and stuff. She said when she moved in, she was movin stuff into her back bedroom and Mildred just walked out of the wall. So that was it with me and her. Got the hell outta there. I didn't see her again."
Holy shit, I said.
"Well my brother ends up telling me…"(and in a tough little raspy voice that immediately set me grinning and that he would use again to imitate his brother…)
"…Man, I got a good piece last night. Her name is Kathy Roberts….
"And I said, oh man! So he starts going out with her and he's with her for a while. They go out one night and they get drunk and he gets angry and he hits her. Knocks her around some. They're back in bed at her house and they're still fightin. He said he reached over to backhand her and hit her and soon's he does something grabs holda his balls with Two hands and won't let go. Squeezes the shit out of them, hard. So hard he is like cryin and screamin. And it just keeps squeezin. He said it was squeezin so hard he bled out his nose."
Oh my God, I testified. My body had stiffened a bit when he told me this business about phantom retribution. Here and there skin tightened and individual hairs asserted themselves. Things like this unnerve and delight me.
"So it was light, the lights were on?" I asked.
"So he could see it wasn't her, Kathy?"
"He was looking at her. She had to beg the thing to let go a him. She said, please stop, Mildred, please let him go he won't do it again."
"Damn. I can't believe that. But I do, I bel…"
"Oh, I'm not done. And I'm gonna tell you. He stays with her and moves in with her. Musta really liked that scary sex. But one night he comes to my house and says man, I think she got a spell on me or somethin. He would be out playin pool with some friends or about to get with a girl, cause you know they weren't married he was just livin with her, and he would just…stop; he wouldn't do it. He'd just stop and go home-"
Holy shit, I said. The implication was that his body would rebel and he was compelled by something inside of him to leave.
"So he asked me he said brother I need you to help me. I need to stay here tonight and I want you to make sure I stay here no matter what I say or what I do. So I said, yeah, man. Alright. You're staying here. So we were all hangin out, my girlfriend was livin with me. We watched a movie, you know, smoked a couple joints, and it gets late, around ..midnight.., and he starts getting fidgety. You know he just starts moving around, getting fidgety. So he says--
'lemme go to the bathroom.'
–and I said alright. The bathroom was toward the back of the house, through a door, by the back door. As soon as I heard that door close I knew he was makin a run for it. He was headed for the door and my girlfriend's able to tackle him. Now I couldn't move as fast as they were movin, I weighed 450 pounds at the time (I've lost a lotta weight) but she got him down and that gave me enough time to get over there and try and hold him. Like I said he's a little guy, like you, and I was tryin to hold him and couldn't. He had superhuman strength. And he was all talkin out of his head. I could not hold him and you know I was pretty big. He was gonna get away so I had to just kinda bring him down and get on him with my full weight. And he was still cussin and fightin, sayin crazy shit and his eyes were bright red-"
bright red? I said. Fangoria, this shit was incredible.
"-That's right. Bright red. He had no pupils. No pupils at all. Just inflamed red, like, have you ever seen a drunk that's been on a bender for a week, with their eyes completely red?"
yeah, yeah, I said, though I wasn't sure—Bush hadn't been elected president yet, but I felt I knew what this would look like from horror movies.
"But what got me, man,"- the driver reached over and touched my hand briefly. - "Was...I'm real close to my brother and always have been since we was little. I'm his big brother and I help take care of him, you know. We always been very close. But I'm right on him and he turned his face to me…"
And the driver turned his fist to point directly in his eyes an inch from his face,
"…and he growled. He said,
'errrrrrr. I hate you, motherfucker.'
…And I looked right back and I said 'I hate you too, motherfucker,' just like that. Something was inside of him, truly. And that was when, I don't know where I brought this up from out of my psyche, but I told my girlfriend, I said 'get a Bible.' And she went and got one and opened it up and we put it flat on his chest…and he screamed and cried like a baby. And I still had him in this bear-hug and he was still fightin and so for about twenty minutes, she read from the Bible. I don't know which part of it we read but after a while he was calmer. He was just crying like, just like when he was a little kid. I said man, Tony, you don't know how you was actin. You were crazy. I know man, he told me, 'I told you she's got some power over me.'"
This was simply one of the best stories I had ever heard and I told him to drive up on the hill by the science buildings and just park there for a while, even though I was twenty minutes late. He hinted that shit, there was much more. Up on the hill he continued.
"That same night we all decided he was gonna get his things from her house. He was gonna move out-"
I was incredulous. "That same night?" I said.
"-Yeah, and my sister came with us. My sister is a fighter now. Man, she will throw down, she will fight the red-eyed devil-"
It's a good thing, I mumbled.
"-And my brother said that Kathy wasn't gonna let him just leave her like that. My sister said shit, that bitch better not do shit or she was gonna really have to get rough. So we got there and they had words and they got into it. And my sister really dogged her out. Whipped her ass around the yard a bit. So my brother started movin his stuff. We were in the driveway and he was gettin the last of his things and Kathy came to the door, all calm and collected. She stood there in the door and said right to him,
'You'll be back. You'll be back. I got you,' like that.
And my sister was mad as hell and said,
'No he won't be back, bitch,' and all that. But no, man. He went back to her, after a while he just left work one day and went back to her and didn't say anything to any of us."
"Damn, that's crazy," I confirmed.
"Well that ain't all. He was with her for a while again and he found a jar while she was gone, that she had kept hidden. A little jar that had a picture of him…some of his hair…and some personal belongings of his. Like some voodoo spell." He was very matter-of-fact.
"oh man-" I think I said, and again felt a kind of constriction in my chest and a tingling along my tender scalp.
"Around that time, we had all, my girlfriend and some other friends of mine had been saved. And I guess Kathy wanted to be part of that, cause she was with my brother or something. So she volunteered to go meet Reverend Burnham and be saved, quit all that voodoo shit and the shit with Mildred. Have the spirit cast out and all. But I wondered, you know, I thought it might be a scam-"
And then there was a good long sidetrack and I heard about a mighty seer, the sooty-skinned middle-Tennessee oracle of God, the Reverend Burnham.
"Now Reverend Burnham, this man. This man was an Apostle. Everybody thinks Apostles, they just lived back in the old times, but some of them are around today. Reverend Burnham could just pick you apart. He could look you in the eyes for the first time and tell you who you lost your virginity with, who your first girlfriend was. Who was your third grade teacher. Man, CBS came down and wanted to do a thing on him and he wouldn't take money for what he did-"
"Really? Damn." Incredulous again.
"He was black, black. I mean coal-black, as far as the color of his skin, you know?-" He wanted to clarify and paused.
"Yeah, I know."
"And when this man got to feelin God in him (and everybody knew he could feel God in him cause everybody had seen it) his eyes would turn clear crystal blue. Just his whole pupils turned beautiful crystal blue. It was just beautiful to see. The man was amazing…Well Reverend Burnham agreed to see her and try and cast this spirit out. And we all went over to his house together and from the minute this woman went in the door to when she got in there, she hit the floor and wriggled like a snake all the way-"
And he moved his hand in the universal slippery motion of the snake. This gesture and those words were as unsettling as any he had laid on me until then. I could only murmur something inane, asked if the Reverend had been used to that sort of thing. My friend said that he was, and described the man's renowned ability to remove demons and such from people. Now the subject of the Reverend was deep in my mystical courier and he wanted to tell me something else about the holy man.
"Man, let me tell you somethin else about Reverend Burnham. There was this lady that lived over by me with her husband in this old house. And she was upstairs makin a bed one night and she was lifted up as if by four men or somethin and put on the bed. She could feel…like two sets of hands holdin her arms down, and some other hands movin down her body here…she could see her skin being touched, it was like, being rippled like someone was touchin her. Fondlin her breasts. But she was able to get away. Well she asked the Reverend to come and pray at the house. Well you know, he had done that sort of thing, cast out all kind of spirits before. So I drove him over there and as soon as we pulled in the driveway…he took a look at the house and he stopped. Didn't even want to get out of the car. His eyes got all blue and he turned to me and said,
'If you could see, if you could see into the spirit world like I do, you would be scared out of your mind right now. The things I am seeing are horrible. Tell them if they don't leave this house soon their marriage will not last.'
"…What had happened there was, you know the Trail of Tears? Well that went right through there and the house was a stop for the Indians to stay and rest. One night when they were all camped out there some white soldiers and some other men came and raped a bunch of women and killed some people. Those spirits were still there. And about a few months later, those two divorced and moved. But the next woman who lived there got it worse. She said she actually felt penetration."
"Oh, man," I said. "Do you think those spirits were just the vengeful spirits of the Indians, or were some of the soldiers killed, too, and they're still around?"
"I think that was probably it."
"And even this Reverend was a little scared?"
"Mm-hm. And Reverend was used to this kind of thing. He seen the devil. He saw the devil around all the time, hangin around here and there. He would see him in church and stuff. Most people think the devil would look all horrible, but he said he's just a little guy-"
And he indicated with his hands that the devil was a small fellow, less than two feet tall.
"Yeah, he's a little guy, but he acts big."
It took me a minute to come to grips with this news about the actual and metaphysical size of Satan, and it remains some of the most important information I ever heard, but I was getting pretty late and wanted the man to finish.
"But what about Kathy and the exorcism and all that?"
"Yeah. Well one of the things he does durin these exorcisms is have you repeat scripture. I guess he thinks if you say certain things over and over that's a way you can cast out these demons. So what was one of the things he kept sayin to her and she was sayin over and over? 'Jesus is Lord,' that was it. And 'He is my God and protector,' and things like that. So I was in the other room just sittin, just waitin there. And they went on like this for a long time and they finally thought she was saved. She was goin to the bathroom and she had to walk by me there. So she turned to me while she walked by and looked at me with this mean smile in her eyes and said-
He whispered this just as a person thoroughly or even irretrievably corrupted by evil might.
"So she went in and I went back to them all and they said she was saved. And I said she is not saved, ya'll. I told them what she had said and they went through it all some more. They finished again and they felt like she was finally saved, but you know I just can't really believe it. My brother isn't with her anymore."
"Where does she live now?" I asked, hoping that she had not moved to ....Knoxville...., along with Mildred.
"I think she lives in ....Knoxville.... now."
"Alright. man, That's some crazy shit. And you have…an amazing skill at telling stories-"
"Oh man, that's not even anything. That's not half of it. I'm from the country. There is some wild spirit shit going on from way back out there. I could tell you plenty more."
"Well I'd like to hear some more. Can I get your number? I 'd like to give you a call."
"Car 10. I got a fare for Shannondale, you copy?" interrupted the woman's clipped rugged voice, the voice of a dispatcher dedicated to smoking.
"Yes, I copy."
"It's out West, you know where Shannondale is?"....
"No, I don't, but if you could tell me I'm sure I could find it."
"You're gonna have to get you a map by Friday or Saturday. You gotta have a map in there."....
"I bought a map but it was too small. I couldn't read it. My eyes are funny and I couldn't make that small stuff out."
"They sell big maps you can read. It gets real busy on the weekends and we can't be looking up everything all the time for you."
"Alright. I guess I'll get a big map."
"Yeyp. They sell 'em at the Rocky Top store there. Bigger maps. You head out towards Farmborough, get off there." ....
"Well, sir, it's good to meet you, I'm Nat Prosser. I'll call you and we can talk some more if you don't mind. I'd like to write about this…it's kind of what I like to do. Thank you very much." I gave him a good tip.
"It's good to meet you, I'm Rick Gillespie. Call me. I know more stories like that. Call me."
We shook hands after I got his number, and I headed off to work at something more than a jog. I had a strange energy in my stride, as if suddenly I knew how to run comfortably without being chased or trying to score. I always prefer walking and think joggers are masochistic. Of all the queer and original stories I have been lucky to hear in my life, I thought, how highly this one about voodoo-Kathy ranked. And it was occurring to me that sometimes life manages to be compelling, when it allows you a glimpse of the arcane, of the mysteries that shroud death and love; it gives one reasons to wonder and not just go through our days muttering about television and shuffling through the other ephemera we must secretly regard as unimportant. Knowing I had a unique tale to tell my coworker, I got to the computer galley and came in 35 minutes late, thinking about the otherworld, about demons shifting between there and here, and how near these things are…depending on where you happen to be sleeping, how deep your certainties go, and when and where you catch a cab. Some people regard maps more importantly than others.