As he drove on, he thought about the boss and the Mechanic and the Engineer. He never did say goodbye to Earl—brave guy, a true badass. Frankie had the envelope for the boss’s friend in New Orleans and an address; that was all he knew. He’d never been to the Big Easy. He had no idea what to expect.
Rolling into New Orleans was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. He expected this small city he’d seen in pictures during Mardi Gras. What he was presented with instead was a big city, full of tall buildings and parks. It looked like any other big American city. Frankie pulled up to a hotel and found a place to park the tractor, then he went inside to get a room and find out about a rental car. The desk clerk was a beautiful Cajun girl. She explained to him that the address he was looking for and the city he expected to find were located in the French Quarter. That he’d have no need for a car. A bus or trolley was all he needed. He’d understand when he got down there. He signed for his room and headed to the bar.
Frankie wanted to get severely drunk and pass out for a while. It had been many months since he’d been in a bar. He looked like Hell and smelled worse. He’d grab a couple of maintenance drinks and then go get cleaned up. That was the plan, anyway. It was a nice hotel and had about six floors, clean, new and modern. The bar was clean and white and pretty and filled with clean, white, pretty people. Frankie knew he was not in his element. He liked dark, smoky, dangerous bars. Guys planning crimes, girls doing business, cheap booze served quickly. He needed to get to the real New Orleans and out of this whitewashed nightmare.
Frankie went to his room and took a shower and put some clean denim on. He realized he might need to change his style. It was hot in New Orleans. He walked out of the front door, got a ride to the French Quarter and never went back to the hotel. When he hopped off the last step of the streetcar, Frankie felt for a moment that he had found his new home. There was a vibe to New Orleans like no other city he’d ever seen. Everything was alive and bright. For a moment, he forgot he was tortured and sick. He had the envelope for the woman, the boss’s friend, tucked deep inside his pants pocket. He wanted to go there first, but there was so much to see and do.
This place was the drunkard’s dream—a bar and a jazz club on every corner, the greasy smell of the city, cobblestone and filth. People walking around with glasses of booze, walking from bar to bar. Jackson Square—human mannequins, gardens, the Cafe du Monde, the Mississippi River.
The place looked like one huge and continuous party, but he sensed right under the surface, not far beneath and ready to break through at any second, was a very real and tangible danger. This town was real and dirty and edgy. It felt perfect to Frankie.
Frankie pulled the envelope from his back pocket and memorized the address. He walked into the first bar he passed and ordered shots of vodka and beers. He stayed a few hours. He had to find a scheme here in this town; he had to find a way to stay here. As he drank heavily that night, he wondered where the demon had gone. For the first time in what seemed, possibly, his entire life, Frankie felt calm and relaxed. In a way, it was like that day in the cemetery with Sammy when the world made sense. He also knew not to trust this feeling. It wouldn’t last. The demon needed to be fed. He would be back.
New Orleans seemed to be his kind of town. He walked out of the bar and found St. Peter’s Street. Walking slowly up the street, Frankie passed a voodoo shop. Voodoo? He had to go in. The moment he walked in, he realized this place was no joke. He picked up a feeling very similar to the one he that came over him when he met Katrina in the House of Horrors, back in Jersey.
He walked out of the voodoo shop and was drawn back. He hesitated at the door. Frankie’s life was confused enough without adding voodoo. He walked in through the open front doors and stared around in complete stunned silence; it was like nothing he’d ever seen before. A woman came toward him from around the corner. Frankie was completely honest with her. He was enthralled. He couldn’t even think of all the things he wanted to ask. He didn’t want to insult her, but he was not quite scared and not quite comfortable.
The woman explained Louisiana Voodoo was her religion, and not to be taken lightly. The word “religion” sent a chill down Frankie’s spine and he walked slowly back toward the door. “What are you afraid of?” she asked in a kind, caring voice, not at all confrontational. “This is not what people think it is at all, zombies and voodoo dolls. It’s much more than that. We worship Bondye, a distant, unknowable god. We have many beliefs. Someday, when you are ready—you are not ready now; you are a sick man—when you are ready, I will guide you and teach you. This is the ancient culture of my people. Its origins are thousands of years old, from Western Africa. Come to me when you’re ready.” The woman added, “Go now, my friend. Go. There are many things here you need to learn. Go now. You have someone you need to meet. It was decided long ago. You’ll come back, but not today, not while you are sick.” With that said, she motioned him out door.
He walked across the sticky and dirty street. The building diagonally across from the voodoo shop was the address on the envelope from the boss. As he approached the stairs, another guy stood outside. Frankie watched him climb the stairs before him. He watched as this perfect woman, a blonde, opened the door at the top. She was pretty, then suddenly she became over-the-top beautiful. Something almost primal, guttural, attracted her to him. At that very second and for the rest of
his time in New Orleans, Frankie felt completely spellbound, as if at that moment of first seeing her, he had surrendered all control.
He laughed at this notion as he later sat in the bar and pondered this woman. Any controls that Frankie may have had on his life had gone completely haywire long before he met this woman. Something about her struck and terrified him. He stood there, paralyzed, and stared as she held the door for that guy. She smiled at him, and gave a strange look down the stairway toward Frankie, making eye contact for the first time. He stood there for a full five minutes, confused. I don’t even like blondes that much, he said to himself.
He finally turned and walked away. He would come back another day to deliver the package from the boss. Frankie could not understand, but he knew at that moment that this woman was going to change things. He could not know when or how, but this one was different. This one was going make a difference. He could not tell if it would be good or bad, or maybe this one would kill him, but it didn’t matter. It sounded stupid, even to him, but this woman he’d not even met, that he’d only seen from the bottom of the stairs, was going to somehow change his life.
He made his way back down St. Peter’s Street to Jackson Square and walked into a bar. It was a dark and ugly little bar, a place not that different than Turfs. There was no atmosphere. It was simply a place to get drunk. It worked for Frankie. He sat down and a strange-looking guy came up and sat next to him. He looked at Frankie for a few minutes as Frankie poured back shots of vodka and beer.
The guy sat next to him in silence. Finally, Frankie said, “I know you. I’ve seen you.”
The strange man answered, “Landry, we met in Canada. I’m a friend of Alexandrine. She told me you were headed to New Orleans. She told me to look for you”
Frankie looked at him as if he’d just seen a ghost. He let out a long breath. “Fuuuuck. How did you find me?”
Landry said, “Alex sent me. She said it was your time.”
“My time. What the fuck does she mean, ‘my time’?” Frankie stared at the bar, getting angrier. He suddenly lost his love for his new-found home. He looked around at the ugliness of the bar. He looked at Landry like he wanted to fight him. He picked up his beer bottle ready to slam it against Landry’s head. Landry, however, was sober and alert and was much faster. He grabbed Frankie’s hand as it came at him.
He said, “Just stop it; we didn’t come this far to fight.” Frankie stared at him. He felt something that was akin to defeat. As he looked out the corner of his eye, he saw the demon. The demon smiled. Frankie’s head hurt. It throbbed as he started to hear the voices again. It was as if someone had flipped a switch. He motioned for the bartender to bring beers and vodka for himself and Landry.
For the first time, he looked in the huge mirror behind the cash register, covered with an ornate scrolling pattern along the sides, as if it was a huge picture in a frame. He stopped for a second to ponder the lives in that picture at that moment. It was a slice of time, never to be repeated. For a brief flash, Frankie was aware of his own mortality, and for a moment it scared him. Normally such thoughts were like the wind. They just disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, like flashes of light. Now, for a reason he could not know or did not care to know, it stayed with him, as if for the first time he realized there had to be an end to this ride and it would and could come when he least expected it. The demon changed in that moment to a reaper. Frankie found a comfort in this. Maybe all of this was about to finally wind down to a final and dirty and brutal ending.
Frankie looked at Landry, stared him hard in the eye and said, “Does the pain subside when you die? When my soulless spirit is finally free to walk forever as the ghost I saw in the dream, will there still be pain?”
Landry finished his drinks and told Frankie they had to go. There was another place to see, other people to meet. Frankie stood firm. “Tell me.”
Landry looked back at him as he motioned to pay the bartender. “Do you think you’ll be free from your pain that easily? You’ll never be free, Frankie. You have to deal with each and every stone you carry, whether in this life or dead. You’d be well advised to work some of this out now. Come with me tonight. We’ll go to a place few have seen, and fewer understand. I’ll take you there, but you need to trust me and follow me. You have taken this dirty and dangerous path; what used to be fun has become a sad dance between reality and insanity. You dance daily with the Devil. He is your constant companion. That’s not your personal demon, you pious ass. That’s the one you’ve always sought and now he’s your God. You claim to be godless and yet here he sits, right here at this bar looking at you and laughing. Do you think something as simple as death can free you, Frankie? I am your last chance.”
They walked out of the bar and into Landry’s old car, a sixtysomething Chevy-something, with fenders and doors and even tires of different colors. Inside, it smelled like what Frankie imagined only Hell could smell like, something like road kill on a hot summer day. He looked around for the source of the stench. It seemed to be the car itself. He finally saw a dead snake on the floor, behind the driver’s seat. Frankie told Landry they had to throw it out. Landry angrily said to not bother with things he did not and could not understand. Landry started the car. It shook and smoke poured out from the underside. Frankie would be shocked if the car even ran.
Frankie wanted a drink. Landry said tonight wasn’t for that. He asked about Alex—what was their connection? Landry said they were children together in the swamps, in the Bayou. That’s where they were headed now, to the swamps. Frankie began to protest, but even in that moment he felt he’d lost and had given up all control. Landry said, “This night will cure you of your sins and demons, Frankie. Tonight, you will be free.”
Frankie looked out the window. The glass was missing and he listened to the very frightening noises made by the tires. He was sure they were cue ball bald, but he couldn’t bring himself to care if he lived or died or if they made it there or not.
As the lights of the city faded behind them, he decided he needed to trust this guy as he trusted Alexandrine. The darkness seemed to come to them in waves. Light escaped and was replaced by darker and darker nothingness. Frankie finally realized they were deep in the swamp. Bald cypress trees surrounded them as they drove the dangerously narrow road. Frankie asked Landry, point blank, “Are you planning to kill me and leave me for the alligators?”
Landry grew angry. “You idiot, I’m here to show you the way, to give you your last chance.” They drove on in silence. Finally, in the distance they noticed a light. It was a fire, a huge glowing bonfire. Frankie began to make out shapes of people. He could see people dancing around the fire. As he and Landry approach in the car, he could hear voices, strange sounds, and noises, growling sounds, guttural sounds.
For no reason he could fathom at this moment, Frankie thought of the perfect blonde girl from the brothel. He thought about when he’d see her again. What would he say? How would he act? Could he clean himself up to possibly make himself attractive to her?
Landry commented, “You think when you saw her that she showed you your future. She’s another illusion, another witch woman, another distraction to keep you from God, another great fake like your demon. You don’t see him now, do you? You don’t see him because we are in the presence of the one true God.” Frankie’s blood ran cold. He was terrified. They pulled up to the fire. People danced, fully clothed and perfectly dressed, and other people danced totally nude and sweated in the firelight.
A man stood on a pile of boxes, wooden crates, on this tiny spit of land in the middle of this vast and dark swamp, his back to the water, and spoke in a language Frankie could not understand. Frankie slowly climbed out of the car. Then Landry pulled Frankie into the light of the fire. What he saw now was even more terrifying than what he’d seen as they drove up: people—men, women, even children—danced and sang and spoke in tongues, some while they held snakes, big, thick, deadly Canebrake rattlesnakes.
Landry, dancing now, told Frankie to let go, feel the spirit, join the dance. The air was electrified, filled with screaming and moaning. Some very old men played guitars and shook tambourines. Everyone danced to no particular rhythm. It was as if fifty or sixty men, women, and children were all listening to the same music but dancing to their own individual songs. No two dancers moved alike. The scene was just thrashing bodies and near ear-shattering noise. A box was opened near the man on top of the pile of crates. The man pulled out an enormous rattler and held it high over his head. He began to speak in tongues, louder and in a higher-pitched voice so that he could be heard over the din.
With his two hands holding the snake, the man pushed it forward. As Frankie watched, the head of the deadly snake slowly moved from side to side. The man on the box started screaming, “Testify! Testify! Testify!”
Landry started to chant, “Testify! Testify! Testify!” Then others started the chant. Soon it became a loud chorus of people, all chanting, “TESTIFY! TESTIFY! TESTIFY!”
Landry grabbed Frankie’s arm and started to drag him closer to the fire. Frankie could feel the intense heat on his body as the flames licked his chest. Still dancing, Landry reached in and pulled out another snake. He brought it to Frankie, who managed to just barely dodge him, running backward and stumbling before he fell backward onto the ground. Landry came toward him, still holding the snake. Frankie got up partway and pushed backward on his feet and hands, away from Landry and the snake, screaming, “Get the fuck away from me!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Frankie saw the demon, who now appeared fully as the reaper. That unto itself was terrifying; this show, this ceremony, this fervent ritual, seemed to have no impact on the demon or on his power and strength. In fact, he seemed somehow stronger and more in his element. The demon smiled and looked in the direction of Landry and the other snake handlers and his eyes glowed with a fire Frankie had never seen before. Suddenly, simultaneously, all the rattlers opened their mouth wide, exposing glistening fangs. At the exact same second, the great Canebrakes plunged those fangs deep into the skin of their handlers and lingered, with fangs deep in the human flesh, pumping their poison under the skin.
The demon laughed out loud. Frankie stood up and watched as each man fell to the ground and each snake slithered off into the dirt and disappeared into the swamp. He walked over to Landry and tried to pull him up off the ground. Landry looked up into Frankie’s eyes and said:
“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.”
Frankie recalled those words from the Bible. He had heard the old woman say them. Landry reached out his left hand—the right side of his body appeared paralyzed—and put it on Frankie’s shoulder. Those were Landry’s last words. He watched as the others who were snake bitten also died before his eyes. Frankie looked to the demon, and he said, “These are not on me! You cannot put these on me! You cannot make me take ownership of these poor, dead fools!” He ran to Landry’s car, opened the door and jumped inside.
He looked back at the fire. The ones who remained, who had not been bitten, just kept dancing and singing behind him. Frankie started the engine and turned around on the narrow road and drove as fast as that destroyed old car could take him. He suddenly remembered something and stopped the car. He went around to the back seat, grabbed the dead, decaying snake from the floor, and threw it into the swamp. Frankie thought, Whatever the reason for keeping that mess died with Landry. The car smelled better, but only marginally.
It was now very late that night, or very early the next morning. Off to the east, the first hints of daylight were starting to appear. He drove Landry’s car back to the French Quarter. Frankie had learned one thing about nights in the Big Easy—the appearance of sunrise did not mean the end of the party. He drove to the first open bar he saw, parked the car, looked at it, and said, “Someone should give this thing a decent burial.”
He made a mental note to call Alex later in the morning. He had to tell her about her friend and his spirit guide. He walked into the bar, a brightly lit place, its walls a golden yellow pine. Photos of men on motorcycles and other photos of men lined the walls. No ugly neon beer signs. No calendars of half-naked women, either. Only pictures of men. A few men were still inside, all dressed in leather.
Most of the men looked up when Frankie walked through those doors, but just as quickly looked back down once they saw him. The bartender looked tired, but friendly. He asked what Frankie wanted, and he replied simply, “Reds, anything to stop my mind.”
The bartender commented, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Frankie kind of laughed and said, “Many.”
The bartender told him to go into the bathroom. He’d find reds in there. All he wanted. Frankie ordered, guzzled a beer, and walked into the bathroom on the other side of the bar. He opened the door and it was immediately apparent that there were men in the stalls, fucking each other. This did nothing for Frankie one way or another. He saw a huge, burly guy sitting at a small table by the window. His sleeve was rolled up. He had a rubber strap wrapped around his bicep. He looked up at Frankie as he pierced his skin with the needle. Of all the things Frankie had ever done, all the drugs, all the crimes, of all of these memories of his life, watching a man put a needle in his arm seemed to Frankie the most desperate and lonely act he had ever witnessed. He watched as the big man dropped the needle and passed out.
Another guy came up behind him. He asked Frankie directly, “Do you want to try?”
Frankie just mumbled, “Seconal, reds, that’s all for now.”
This guy reached in his pocket and showed Frankie a baggie full of pills. Frankie pulled a wad of cash out of his pocket and the deal was struck. He kept looking back at the big man at the table who was completely passed out. Slight slits of his eyes were open and there was some eye movement under the lids. This was the only indication that the man was still alive. From every other indicator, he appeared to be dead. The entire scene was morbid and desperate to Frankie. Of all of the truly fucked-up things he had ever witnessed, a needle in a vein was without question the worst.
He walked back out to the bar, ordered a couple of beers and shots and took them over to a booth. The booths were dark-stained mahogany wood with high backs and thick, deep red leather cushions. Frankie popped a couple of his beloved Seconal, drank the beers and shots, and slowly watched as the veil of consciousness closed around him. He passed out, his face on the table; so ended his first day and night in the city of New Orleans.
The sun was pretty high in the sky when he pulled his face off the table, painfully opened his eyes and looked around. The bartender came back with coffee and a bottle of whiskey. He’d gone home and left Frankie locked in. They sat there, drinking the delicious mix of coffee from Cafe du Monde and good Irish whiskey.
Frankie finally started to talk. “Last night, I was out in the swamps with this guy. I’ve known of him for about year; I could never tell if he was real or a ghost. He told me there were many and vast things to learn from him, out there in that swamp. I saw nothing but insanity there. People dancing with snakes, crazed, speaking some bizarre language I couldn’t understand. It was like they were in a trance. Dancing around a fire
and holding snakes as they danced. What is there to learn from that?”
The bartender, who had introduced himself as David, said, “These people, these Cajun people, people of the swamps, the voodoo people, the witches of southern Louisiana, they live and abide by a deep and mysterious faith. They live with an abundance of faith in their God, their understanding of God. I cannot begin to try to explain it. I am a gay man and you’re a drunk. I have my faith; it may be a little more important to me, because so many good church people, the good Christian people, they call me a sinner, a
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