Voodoo Dolls

(short fiction originally published in Splash of Red, Fall 2009)

Joey used to compare the two of them to starlings – ruckus birds from a distance, but up close, creatures of imaginative beauty – their meandering rain kissed flecks of white against purple iridescent wings like stars along a dark shoreline.

Post punk, post goth, post coital, Joey and Amanda’s connection had merged into one mostly of friendship.  Previously, though, it had traversed a muddy ascent —  turbulent nights and long, wandering mornings – tangles in the same mess of sheets, their moist fingers tracing one another’s tattoos – Amanda’s ankle-twisted viper and the star and moon welting the small of her back, Joey’s nighthawk wings stenciled along his shoulder blades, blue feathers nested in a spiral stream towards his wrist.  They woke in soft murmurs in each other’s arms, always feeling as though they had fallen a thousand miles from sky, gravity pooling in their fists and emptying through the seams of their laced fingers.

In truth, their romantic love was too much for either of them to bear.  So much alike, they resembled twins of one another, their dark, lilting hair, smoldered eyes, studs and rings through ears, cheeks and lips, the slow shuffle they each made toward new things, the nonplussed look they seemed to perfect, disheveled and wavering, and the slow rhythm of their hearts, falling in syncopated cadence in the same tentative hold of attention, the simple things that lighted against and bruised them in soft, permanent marks.  They were too much alike to merge romantically permanently.  It was as if they risked melting into a single being, one becoming the shadow behind the other, shadows stretching farther into the distance as the sun receded.  By keeping each other whole, they instead settled on friendship. 

Lately, their friendship revolved around the simple goal of keeping Amanda’s heart afloat following the sudden crush of a more recent romantic entanglement.  Joey was well aware of Amanda’s heartbreak, the smart she clutched deep, the cadence of storms that muted her spirit in soft, stretching whispers, blue mornings that lasted and spilled across her floor and pulled on her sleeve and weighed her down until mid-afternoon.

Donnie was a musician Amanda met a few months after she and Joey had broken up, and he had quickly had moved in with her.  He was a drummer who said little, slept as late as Amanda did, liked drawing faces in the yokes of eggs as they sputtered across a frying pan, and he disappeared after five months of being with Amanda – leaving a wound, for some reason, that sunk her lower than she had sunk ever in her past.

“These things are utterly conquerable,” offered Joey.  “And I’ve a plan as simple as the sputter of a star falling through sky.  Just as pretty.  Just as simple.  As simple as rain.”

Joey steeped black tea in Amanda’s kitchenette while she lay in crumpled sheets, her bent knee exposed and extended over the rim of mattress.  Her eyes were pools of mascara.  She watched Joey and held a half smoked cigarette in her lips, her eyes partly hoisted lids.

“What you need…what we both need is a field trip.”  Joey rescued the bleeding tea bags from steaming mugs.  “I’m buying us train tickets to New Orleans.  Around the corner of Bourbon Street is a place we can buy voodoo dolls – real live voodoo dolls with stitched teeth and soft hair.  And with a simple, twisting of pins, we’ll weigh down the curtains of this heartbreak of yours.”

“Voodoo dolls?” Amanda questioned.

 “This thing has you by the ears like Lucifer,” said Joey.  In two soft, wet landings, he dropped the tea bags into Amanda’s sink and walked the tea mugs to her bed.  “Take a long look at Amanda Carmichael.  Her eyes are a raccoon’s.  She’s tangled in her sheets until 2 pm every day and drowning in fourteen hours of daily sleep.  Whatever the depth of this ghost, we’ll go find something that will ride it soundly out of town – your own personal voodoo lynch mob.  My feeling is it’s worth a shot.” 

“I’m starving,” said Amanda, rooting for a new cigarette through her bedside collection of magazines and half-read novels folded like clamshells on the floor.  “I feel like eggs.  Eggs smothered in sour cream and tobasco.”

 “Tobasco hails from Louisiana,” said Joey, tossing her a Lucky Strike.  “See.  You crave the Dixie south.  Your heart is crawfish stew waiting for Creole sauce, a perfect rue.”

Amanda inhaled huge gulps of smoke and exhaled long, stretching ghosts.  “I’m afraid of the way you are always searching for solutions,” she said.  “Sometimes things just are followed by what will be.”  She tucked her knees into her chest and pressed her head into the deep pit of pillows, her eyelids heavy and dark, two inching guillotines, as she stared at the growing ash at the end of her lit cigarette.

Joey filtered through her closet and withdrew an old, leather suitcase.  He set it on the floor and popped the latches.  He pulled free a twisted leather whip, a handful of garters and a pair of handcuffs.  “Ooh, la, la,” he said.  “Me and you, we gonna have some fun on the bayou.”  He stretched the whip out beneath his chin and grinned the teeth of Chesire Cat.

Amanda, wordless, pushed the smoldered cigarette between her lips and inhaled all the life yet buried within it before stabbing it against the floor.

“It’s a simple vacation, Amanda,” said Joey.  “One long overdue.  And there might be something to this Cajun black magic, some funky spell fueled by Dixieland jazz, accordion zydeco and Creole hassenfras…your eyes have been clenched shut forever and it’s leaving a permanent hurt across the arc of your life.  I’m tired of seeing you so sad, your heart full of mope; let’s just try this.”

With a sharp flick of the wrist, he snapped the whip across the room and brought a lamp down with a halting crash. Hunks of porcelain danced across her floor like chiclets.  “Sorry about that. I’ll be by this afternoon to whisk us to the train station.  Be ready,” he said on his way out the door.

 

Joey drove an ice-cream truck in the summers.  It was his uncle’s franchise, and he drove slowly enough through parks and near public pools and clustered housing projects, tinkling, spry music seeping past the speaker bolted to the van’s roof as he pulled over to huddled groupings of anxious children with sweaty dollar bills clenched in their fists.  Joey grinned while handing out neon green, purple and yellow popsicles, ice cream sandwiches and frozen dipped cones sprinkled with chopped walnuts.

With his tattooed shoulders and arms, shaggy, tangled hair and studs through cheeks and lips, children seemed to embrace him as sort of a cartoon character.  The transition was easier for them than it was for their parents and Joey’s sales improved dramatically when the children approached him unchaperoned.  More than a few occasions, Joey observed a child being yanked from line for fear, he imagined, he was pushing more than frozen cream, juice and custard to neighborhood youth.

Lately, Joey had been taking liberties with his sales territory, speeding through his normal route and then looping past a municipal park and wading pool across town.  He pooled the additional sales commission into his travel fund for New Orleans – a destination Joey had in mind for some time.  The end of August, Joey gunned the engine and pushed bomb pops and push-ups as though they were metemphetamines, hoping to swell as much additional pocket money as he could before labor day and the official close of his circuitous summer career. 

Joey’s push of ambition was tempered by his continual and inherent need to pause.  As often as he drove himself to exceed his daily sales, he would also give whole sunny afternoons away, the contents of his van giving into melt, a soup of cream and popsicle dew, as he lay yards away, his back against soft summer grass.  He stared up into the leafy oaks, watching gray squirrels leap from limb to limb and scramble through leaf clusters, the squirrels’ white bellies exposed to him below.  Joey was especially fond of this past-time as the summer wore on and the first rash of acorns bloomed – he loved watching the squirrels pounce on new acorn bouquets, loved watching them sit on their haunches and twist acorns from acorn caps and gnaw on them while others hailed to the earth where they were later retrieved and furiously pushed into the soft soil for winter with hunched squirrel shoulders.

The scramble of squirrels in acorns held the same virtue for Joey as a rocked cradle for an infant – momentary rests beneath fluttering oaks became whole afternoon naps while the shadows of the tree limbs and butterflies stretched longer and longer across his still body and the warm lawn.

 

Amanda was barely awake as their Amtrak car sped over the rail through Iowa.  She had not yet completely bought into the reason behind the voyage, having little faith in the supernatural when it came to matters of the heart, but had given into a “what the fuck” when Joey packed her bag and pushed her into a taxi cab outside her apartment.  She had gotten used to letting Joey take the lead some time ago.  His was often the stronger voice.

As their tv screen-like train window filled with stretching, open field, rolling green hills and swaying corn stalks, Amanda lit a cigarette with the smoldering butt end of another while Joey sat hypnotized by the rhythmic, unified sway of passenger heads.

“He had a heart of gold and feet of clay,” she said, exhaling a long stream of menthol.

Joey looked at her.

“Donnie,” she answered.

Joey nodded, familiar with her need to analyze her most recent former lover – the vandal of her broken heart.

“Stellar intentions.  Horrible carry through.”

“In defense of Donnie,” said Joey.  “Relationships are dives we take into beautiful pools of water.  Once in the heart of the pool, sometimes we panic and head back toward the concrete perimeter.”

“So you’re saying panic is the primary reason Donnie screwed up my heart?”

“The reasons for leaving a relationship are probably as random as stars and sand.  Pretty much always, panic figures into the ending somewhere.   Or the opposite of panic, which is pretty much worse for all parties involved.”

Amanda tangled her arms like snakes and craned her head into the aisle.  “Check out that fat kid’s head up there,” she said, and she and Joey smiled as they watched the child’s wide head nod and wave in sync with the swaying train’s hurry over rail.

“I’ll be more at ease when I stop assessing the girth of a child against how many bomb pops they might consume,” said Joey.

Later, as Joey was returning from the dining car with sandwiches for himself and Amanda, deviled ham and turkey and swiss, two sandwiches made with perfectly square bread slices and wrapped so tightly in cellophane, Joey felt he could bounce them off the floor, he paused in the windy channel connecting two cars and stared at the speeding gravel and rock he spied through a seam in the channel.  Soft, cool streams of wind puckered his t-shirt and tousled his hair and Joey imagined he could smell the warmth of the soil.  The rush of train hurdling through pasture and open field thrilled him.  He felt himself leaning into the sweet, stretching promise of journey and later that night, as Amanda softly snored, her mouth parted and eyelids soft blue, Joey stared at the burning stars and speeding purple terrain and felt as close as ever to the warm opening of tears.

 

Sometimes, on the hottest days of summer, days of unclouded sun and ninety plus degrees, Joey would take a break from his route and wander over to the perimeter of the public pool and dip his legs into the water.  Often he would stand poolside, staring at the pattern of snake-like ribbon waves and ripples slithering across the concrete floor and at the soft bodies of children in bright red, gold and blue swimsuits, their shoulders glistening, their movements terse and sudden while their parents, a line of mothers reclining in chairs, their expressions hidden by sunglasses and sunblock, ruled the perimeter.  Joey thought the pool a beautiful cache of promise, the children untold ingots, and he found his gaze moving from child to child, observing each expression and wondering the story their lives might unfold. 

He would sit and immerse his legs into the water, feeling the cool from the bend of the knees down, and he’d wiggle his toes and imagine himself diving headfirst, his arms extended, past the kicking short legs and soft bones of children, deep into the bluest depth of pool, swimming toward remove with the arcing grace of a bird in flight. 

 

The marble-topped tables outside Café du Monde were slick from morning drizzle.  What looked to be the morning manager was busy toweling off chairs and the tables and Joey and Amanda found a dry set and placed their chicory coffee and beignets on the table and sat.  Weary, still, from their train journey, their eyelids as heavy as tree limbs, they hadn’t yet fully realized their place in the heart of New Orleans.

Amanda fell instantly in love with her beignet, a piping hot wedge of nutmeggy doughnut dusted with powered sugar.  She dunked it into her au lait and gobbed the sweet, soggy mass.

“What now?” asked Amanda.  “Dixieland jazz at Preservation Hall?  Crawfish gumbo and zydeco?  Should I walk down Bourbon Street shirtless and collect a wheelbarrow of beads?”  She lodged a hunk of au lait-soaked beignet into her mouth; a dribble of coffee ran the length of her chin.

“Sounds like the right itinerary,” said Joey.  “But first we need to find a cheap hotel and set up base camp.”

A mime, a short man in black stretch pants, striped shirt and white face and black lips approached their table and began a strange, sad-faced routine, pulling imaginary rope, climbing imaginary stairs and running in place in slow motion, each of his moves pronounced and drawn, and Joey politely attempted to shoe him away, motioning silently with his hands, realizing, mid-motion, he was miming his own communication.

The mime was inspired by Joey’s attempt to thwart his act and began a mock crying fit, a silent, pained expression with his clenched fists beneath his eyes followed by kneeling and begging for reversed judgment.  When this attempt was greeted by solitary cold stares, the mime leapt to his feet and mocked a fighting pose, raising his clenched, white Mickey Mouse gloves and circling Joey and Amanda’s table with flitting, Charlie Chaplin feet.

Joey waited for this scene to end.  And when it didn’t, he stood and soundly punched the mute so hard the street entertainer was authentically silent a long while after his body hit the concrete beneath his black ballet slipper shoes. 

 

Amanda waited patiently in the New Orleans police station lobby, her body scrunched in a corner of a wood bench while she chewed blackjack chewing gum and listened to the colorful accents of the flurry of characters parading past her while the police staff processed Joey’s paperwork and settled the charges.

“You pummeled Mick the Mute,” said the processing officer as Joey leaned his chest against the counter, his hands cuffed behind him, hands joined like a bird’s wings.  “Not twenty minutes in town and already you’ve pummeled one of our mimes.”

“I’m really sorry about that,” said Joey.  “I wish I hadn’t.”

Of course, Joey also felt hesitation in admitting the incident was completely his fault and muttered something about “public harassment self defense” which was greeted with a roll of the eyes from Officer Pinsonat.  But, too, Joey in his lean, 140 pound wiry frame hardly seemed like a general public threat.

Mick watched Joey’s arraignment through the glass window of a separate retaining room.  As Joey and the arresting officers turned their heads toward him, Mick mimed his own recovery – a short routine that began with him touching his jaw and moving it back and forth as if to see if it were in one piece and culminated with a strange, flickering pattern he made above his head with fluttering fingers that Joey could only imagine was meant to resemble post-trauma stars.

“What the hell,” said the officer.  “I probably would have decked him, too.”

Lucky for Joey, his slate was clean – no priors.  He was held for several hours while checks were run.  The officers barely looked amused when Joey offered to make up for his transgressions by donating money to the underprivileged mime fund.  “There must be some charity for those mimes who can’t keep silent or get out of the imaginary boxes they create.”

Despite the failures at wit, Mick the Mime dropped all charges, an ultimate act of mime graciousness, and Joey was free to leave with nothing more than a verbal warning.

“Make the remainder of your visit here unremarkable,” offered Officer Pinsonat as Joey’s cuffs were released.  Amanda smiled at Joey broadly as he rubbed his wrists, her lips and tongue tinged black from the licorice chewing gum, her eyes glistening.

“Now what do we get to do for fun?” she asked.  “The bones of those seventy year old musicians at Preservation Hall are as brittle as popsicle sticks.  Want to kick some Dixieland butt?”

“Please tell me these comments aren’t going to percolate through our entire vacation.”

“Yep,” confirmed Amanda.  “This fish is a keeper.”

Joey smiled, joyful at seeing Amanda fully woken and engaged for the first time in some while, her luminous smile easily transcending the humility following satire.

 

Leaning into the dark wood barstools at Pat O’s on Bourbon Street, devouring the soft, earthy hours of afternoon, quieting the ennui of being tourists, Joey decided “the hurricane” was a drink appropriately named – the sweet, frozen concoction of sugar, rum and ice.  Like their namesake, the hurricane’s initial introduction is pretty and soundly leads to ruinous terrain.  Joey and Amanda slogged down a series of hurricanes, wrapping napkins around them and setting empty glasses in a line.

“Being in a new city does have its happier advantages,” said Amanda.  “Distraction is the main thing – I’m hardly thinking about my own personal web of trials anymore.”

Joey ran his tongue over his cold lips – they felt like smooth rubber.  “Just don’t forget the main purpose of this trip is exorcism.  We’re gonna get us some of that old black magic and pummel your ghosts good and sound.”

“You actually believe in that solution, don’t you?”

 “Voodoo dolls,” said Joey.  “They make ‘em good here.  The spirit of the bayou swarms up and tangles our hair.  But first we gotta get ourselves into a trans-like state so the magic is less intimidated to pour into our souls.  One more hurricane and we lift the storm warning.”

They wended down Bourbon Street like paired buoys in a windy bay, bouncing into one another, leaning and lurching.  They pointed into a Cajun nightclub where the whirling accordion sound of zydeco permeated in arcs and gashes.  They pointed into strip clubs where fully naked women stretched across countertops with mirrors above them, a display not unlike the butcher counter at the corner grocery.  They stopped into a tattoo parlor and Amanda plunked down thirty-five dollars on the counter and chose a bluebird in a ball of flame and had it stenciled on her calf as she and Joey slowly gained momentum towards sobriety.

Weary still from the hurricane/tattoo combination, Joey and Amanda wandered into the Acme Oyster House and ordered a plate of shucked oysters, quickly learning the trick of tipping the oyster shucker prior to their order and getting the larger prospects in return – gray, cold and wet on half shells.  They dotted each oyster with tobasco before gulping them down whole and silently considering their next move as the world seemed to get prettier by the inch.

Amanda leaned into Joey with a sudden sense of urgency.  “I’m not sure if the alcohol or oysters are good for the tattoo.  Or maybe the tattoo isn’t so embracing the oysters and alcohol.  Either way,” said Amanda.  “I have this butterflies in my stomach top of the double ferris wheel feeling that there’s not much below me but a huge, impending fall.”

Joey hurried his attempts to unlock the door at the small cabin he had rented, a six by eight foot thirty-five dollar a night dwelling at the St. Charles Guest House on Prytania Street in the lower Garden District.  “Our humble chateau,” he said, ushering Amanda and her bags in.  She weaved her way to the bed, collapsed, overwhelmed by travel, hurricanes, tattoos and oysters in scattered order.

Joey helped her remove her shoes and sundress.  With a long, smooth pull, he stripped off her chartreuse tights and tucked her beneath a pile of worn, chenille blankets.  He brought her a glass of water, lifted her head to the glass and made her drink the entire contents.  She smacked her lips and scrunched her pillows.  In a moment, she was asleep; her eyes were like stitches.

Joey watched Amanda sleeping a while – observing the slow rise and fall of her chest, the pulse along her pale, soft neck.  In the silence, he felt more alone and closer to sadness.  He pushed the front door slightly ajar and peered up at the stars and listened to the traffic.  In a moment, he was wandering the Garden District, following Washington Avenue South, through the Irish Channel and all the way to the wharves.  He stood for a long while just staring at the wide, dark brown Mississippi, muddy in the low yellow moon.  He skipped stones, distorting the moon on water and began to feel the miles between where he stood and home like slow moving clouds.

Joey wandered the streets, paying no attention to direction or where he was heading.  He ended up at the Ponchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue and wandered into the Bayou Bar, an earthen room of brick, wildlife canvas murals and wood as dark as steeped black tea. Taking a tip from the menu card, Joey ordered a sazerac – a local drink mixed with rye, bitters, lemon and ice – all stirred together in a glass rinsed with aniseed liquor.  After he downed his first, he began to line the empty glasses the length of his sleeve.

“Sazerac is a poet,” he told the well-dressed, distinguished patron to his right.

“You’ll never guess who’s throwing a party on the twelfth floor,” said the stranger.

“Sazerac?”

“Merv Griffin.” 

“No kidding.”  Joey half remembered the physical appearance of Merv Griffin from the man’s days as a celebrity talkshow host – a young, gray haired man with colorfully lined sports coats and who sang cute songs like “My What a Lovely Pair of Cocoanuts” or something close.  Drawn to the idea of mingling with celebrities, Joey held his half consumed glass of sazerac like an eagle clutches a snake – an unthwarted commitment against letting go – and he headed toward the elevator and the twelfth floor.  There, he wandered the hall until he heard the dull rumble of a party, waited outside until the door parted, and he merged himself amongst the clattering throng of party guests, each clutching a beverage, many looking windswept as partygoers look near dawn.

As he had learned since childhood, Joey blended so successfully into the background, he failed to receive notice.  Famished, he saddled up alongside a disheveled buffet – scattered deviled eggs, luke cold rumaki, oysters on the half shell, and he helped himself to a cheese blintz, the shape of a new moon.  It was smooth and sweet and creamy and went down in a single swallow.

“You must try the raspberry tart,” urged a deep voice behind him.

“I must.  I must,” answered Joey, hiding momentarily behind the last gulp of his sazerac.  “Another poet murdered,” he mumbled.

Pretty much then, Joey felt himself sinking beneath the salty surface of the present.  He half remembered finding a soft armchair in the dark corner of the room.  And he half remembered an image from the woods, a distant memory from his childhood in northern Wisconsin, a memory alien from this huddled, murmuring gather of strangers in Louisiana.  In memory, Joey had been hiking through the woods, trying to catch up to his brother who had dashed off ahead of him, his brother’s red boots flickering through sugar maples and balsam as he ran.  Out of breath, Joey stopped.  With a thunder through the leaves, an eight point deer cut past Joey, not eight feet from where Joey stood.  The buck’s eyes were wet saucers as he caught sight and scent of Joey – Joey had never seen so much exposed white in another living creature’s pair of eyes. 

The deer’s breathing was loud, raspy.  Joey remembered the surging sound of the deer’s lungs and then the fast galloping steps of the deer receding into the distance.

As the memory faded, Joey became hypnotized by the silky, billowing balcony curtains at the corner of the party.  He remembered licking the sweet tailings of blintz at the corners of his mouth as he watched the curtains part and dance like ghosts.  He thought of nothing else. 

When Joey woke, his head throbbed.  He found himself tucked into smooth linens of a bed in a small room at the Pontchartrain Hotel, the location given away by the stationary found in the night table drawer.  The orange morning crept through the parted curtains like a lithe cat, its feet moving softly over window ledge. 

Joey showered and dried his hair with a towel while stuffing the pretty bottles of complimentary shampoo, mouthwash and body lotion into his jeans pocket.  He discovered a handwritten note on the coffee table:  “Thank you for attending my party.  And thank you, in advance, for checking yourself out of this complimentary room by 11 a.m. – M.G.”

Joey tucked the crisp, white note into his pocket and made his way back into the streets of the Garden District.  The emerging sun, streaming past the spiraling Spanish moss – ragged, gray streamers that hung from leaning oaks, felt good against his face and neck.

When he found his original hotel cabin, he wasn’t surprised to discover Amanda sleeping soundly, her usual refusal to emerge from the covers prior to noon.  He slipped into the warm bedsheets and held her and with the momentum borne from some newfound sadness, he slowly removed her tank top and underwear and he and Amanda wordlessly began a slow, soft merging into one another as the gold sunlight inched carefully across their room.

Their hands clasping hot, steaming paper cups of café au lait from Café du Monde, Joey and Amanda wandered along the riverfront promenade named Moonwalk, passing iron benches and gazing out at the Mississippi River Bridge and at the seagulls that dove like stones into the chocolate, swirling river eddies, emerging with writhing catfish in their beaks, awkwardly breaking into flight in dips and sharp angles.

“I slept like a dog last night,” said Amanda.

“Log, I think, Mandie.”

“?”

“It’s work like a dog, sleep like a log….Sleep like a dog means you turned in circles all night, chasing your tail.”

She whispered a long line of steam across her coffee.  “I slept like a loggy dog.”

Joey thought of telling Amanda of his midnight adventure romping through the party thrown by a world famous talkshow host, but instead remained silent on the issue.

“I’m feeling better,” said Amanda.  “Clouds lifting.  You were right about taking me here.  Something about pooling of new miles erasing the old ones.  I feel less worse about Donnie here.”

They watched the river silently, the swirling gulls and pitching, eddied current.

They held hands as they walked up St. Ann Street, past Jackson Square framed by the St. Louis Cathedral and its tall steeples, the cavalier Andrew Jackson statue in the foreground – the general astride a rearing horse, hoofing at clouds.

“The Union must and shall be preserved,” said Joey, reading the statue inscription aloud.  “I’d like to say the same about my head.”

They strolled past St. Anthony’s Garden and the marble Sacred Heart of Jesus statue.  They passed huddled brick, plaster and stucco buildings with tiled roofs, some that looked as though they were built in Spain, some in France and some in the Caribbean and transported by hurricane, a jumble of odd shapes and contrasting sizes, steep pitched roofs and tall dormer windows, louvered shutters and wrought iron balconies, filigree fences and fluted columns.

At Bourbon Street, they veered right and the usually swarming sidewalks, the daiquiri stalls and “French styled” entertainment halls, were quiet in the daylight.  Around the corner, at Dumaine and Bourbon, Amanda and Joey paused in front of the Historic Voodoo Museum.  “This is the reason for our entire, misguided journey,” said Joey.

They entered the odd building slowly, drumming and chanting murmuring from speakers, a fifteen foot python curled in the corner of a large plexiglass tank and cluttered shelves of ceremonial objects, mysterious potions called gris-gris, stark, folk art paintings and witchcraft knick-knacks and polliwogs.  Snatching a brochure, Joey read Amanda the museum’s list of tours:  “French Quarter cemetery and voodoo tours, nightly undead tours and van trips to haunted swamps and plantations… Hey, these people don’t kid around.”

“I forget whether we’re here to purchase dolls or potions,” said Amanda as she plucked a bag of gris-gris, a packet of roots, oils and herbs, all authenticated by voodoo practitioners, the ol’ black magic seal of approval.

“Voodoo dolls, Mandie,” answered Joey.  He pulled her toward the shelves of colorful dolls.  “This is your message from Garcia, your holy grail and holy ghost, your secret map to sunken treasure…this is your hidden seam behind the stars.”

“You believe in this stuff?”

“I believe it’s time to pounce the Donnie Logerston blues, ceremoniously or otherwise.  If this hocus pocus helped elevate African slaves above the fierce injustice of the plantation, it ought to have a shot at kneecapping this broken hold Donnie has over you.”

Amanda perused the cluttered line of moss dolls, clay faced dolls, juju dolls covered in colorful beads, dolls made of straw, dressed in little felt suits and skeleton headed dolls wearing top hats.  Her favorite was the “No Mo’ Blues Man Doll,” a small, happy looking figure in a blue felt suit said to help chase the blues away.  But she settled on the “Mister Man Doll,” a white cloth doll with mismatched button eyes, stitched mouth and an obvious endowment, marked with a red “x” and accentuated by dark thread pubic hair and two red fuzz balls.

Joey surmised immediately where Amanda aimed to settle the first pins.

“That’ll work,” said Joey, sifting two ten dollar bills from his wallet.

 With Donnie doll in hand and urged by the advice of the voodoo specialist behind the museum counter, Joey and Amanda wandered St. Louis Cemetary Number One, north of the museum, a cluttered, world worn cemetery of sloping marble mausolea.  They paused at Marie Laveau’s tomb, the tomb of a woman described at the museum as the “voodoo queen,” a woman of the 1800’s who prepared gris-gris for wealthy Creoles, Americans and Africans.  Marked by a myriad of brick-dust crosses engraved against the crumbling tomb, surrounded by candles, plastic flowers, color beads and rum bottles, Joey commented, “She must be the Jim Morrison of voodoo or something,” and they wandered through the Italian Benevolent Society mausoleum, a massive, circular, marble structure, adorned with a cross and angels and a headless Statue of Charity said to have been decapitated by an LSD-marred Dennis Hopper during the filming of “Easy Rider.”

“Another sacrifice of art for the sake of cinema,” said Joey while the two of them stared at the headless torso.  “Method acting takes its toll.”

They wandered silently through the cluttered field of leaning crosses and worn gravestones.  Exhausted from their walking and the endless reminder of mortality, Joey and Amanda knelt and then sat, leaning their backs against the bulging tomb of Charles Everett Metairie, 1809-1834.  The sun bled low through the trees and cast long shadows of leaning graves.  The wind was soft.

“Do you ever feel like you’re not paying attention?” asked Amanda, turning her head toward Joey, her voodoo doll clutched on her lap.

“Always,” said Joey, gazing at the stretching shadows and the graves, awkwardly spaced and leaning like bad teeth.

“Or wonder if you should be?” she added.

“Sometimes simple truth can radiate like a sonofabitch,” answered Joey.  “No one really wants to spend their days staring mortality in the teeth.  Maybe that’s why Hopper decapitated the statue back there…better to behead than to become the beheaded.”

Amanda lifted her voodoo doll and ran her fingertips over its stitched teeth.  “Where do I stick the god damned pins?” she asked, removing them from their packet.

“I think you just follow your instincts on this, Mandie,” said Joey.

One after the other, Amanda inserted every last pin into the doll, including the extra packets of pins she had covertly pocketed.  In mere moments, Amanda’s Donnie voodoo doll had transformed into a silver porcupine, punctured in each region of his body, nearly every open space.  She lifted him with her slightly bloodied hand, wounded from a few more motivated pushes of pins, and set him near the leaning grave tablet of Charles Everett Metairie.  Tears ran the length of her face, and when she set the doll against the earth, she smiled and exhaled a laugh, a tiny snot bubble swiftly blooming from her nostril, and she wiped it away, sniffling.

“I think that pretty soundly touches all bases,” said Joey, softly rubbing his own shoulders.  “God rest his soul.”

“Yep,” said Amanda.  She rested her head in Joey’s lap.  Joey ran his fingers through her hair and caressed her neck.  The wind tousled the leaves of crepe myrtle trees at the perimeter of the graveyard.

“Do you feel any different?” asked Joey.

“I feel tired,” she said.  “I feel like my heart and body are creeping over the horizon line like a lead moon and there’s not enough sleep in the world to fill my body and breathe it back to life.  I feel like each consecutive breath begs the question: ‘why?’.  And the twisting, starry milky way above our heads is its permanent question mark.”

Joey smiled.  “Keep in mind, Amanda.  You are continually mourning a man who admitted until he reached adulthood, he believed peaches to be mammals.”  He ran the tips of his fingers over her lips and felt her mouth curve into a tight smile, her cheeks swelling.

“Do you know what I really think, Amanda?  I think you’re smarter than this.  I think you have a world of energy inside you, an untapped, endless supply and you’ve fallen against a momentary glitch of heartbreak as an excuse to pretend it’s not there.”

She grabbed his hand and kissed it.  “Don’t sully my well-worn reputation,” she said.

Joey stood and wandered a few steps between grave markers.  He turned to her and said, “Come here,” and  Amanda followed him through the worn paths of the yard, toward a framing hill.  Joey took Amanda’s hand and drew her toward him, backing her against his chest, and he locked her in his arms.  They stared out at the sloping graveyard peppered with crumbling and leaning markers, a swirl of clouds in the distance and a tight-knit pull of birds – painted buntings – swarming the farthest corner of the yard, some popping through branches of trees.

“If you pulled each of the buried souls from their earthen perches and crowded them all into a room and asked the single question, I’m guessing not one of them would answer they wished for less time on earth to settle their scores, reach toward new things or dive into new love, risking heartbreak, and muck around.  Not one.”

 “Point taken,” said Amanda.

 Joey thought about telling Amanda he was thinking of not joining her on the train ride back to Milwaukee, how he had begun to wonder about his own heart, its inability to light against anything close to purpose.  He wondered if he forced himself to stay in a place as foreign and new to him as New Orleans or if he forced himself to continue his journey along the coast to somewhere new, Biloxi or Mobile or Tallahassee, maybe then he’d be able to follow his own advice and find himself lost and reaching toward something new.

 “The truth is, Amanda, you’ve only been sidetracked by a temporary wound.  You’ll pull yourself out of this and find yourself facing a whole new set of heartbreaks in no time.”

Amanda laced her fingers tighter around Joey’s arm and leaned her head against his chest.

Joey wondered if it was true one could exercise demons symbolically, pins in a doll, letters burned into ashes, and he thought about all he held within him he wished he could as easily run out of town, the wide, nomadic trail his heart ever led him down, the failure at attachment, resonance, anything good lasting.  Sometimes he merely wished he would learn to want something fiercely enough he’d be clear about what that one true thing was and it’d come to him like morning sunlight through trees, gold and reaching, enveloping him in warmth and purpose, the promise that certain disparate points merge and move forward as one.

He thought about the geese he fell in love with as a child, how his father would dress him in rubber hip waders in the blue bruise of autumn dawn and how the two of them would drive silently through the soft, leaning wheat fields north of Sheboygan off Highway 57 to marshland near the reservoir and how the sky would begin to lift in soft oranges and warm his face just slightly and how he and his father would sit in duck blinds, dug, earthen pits reinforced with 4×6 treated posts, only their two heads puncturing the soft blue horizon line.

They’d sit wordlessly, staring out over the reservoir, listening for the collected chatter of pre-flight geese and silently noticing the soft whispers of their own clothes shifting each movement they made, each deep breath.  They would hear the slow percolating collected sound of the geese, their voices gaining strength and pitch, rising into the sound of urgency and then quieting, if only slightly, as the geese spilled into flight, their beautiful, dark and long necks pointing forward and their soft, gray bodies cascading through sky in twos and threes, their sporadic, individual honking and the swoosh of their wings the only sound as they passed overhead.

Joey remembered being drawn and moved by the passing geese, low in October skies, and he forgot all the world around him, his awkwardness at tasks, his shyness around others, the sadness that stretched for miles past each terse conversation and argument his parents shared.  During those early morning moments alongside his father in the fields, all there was were geese against sky. 

He watched them gather into the distance, as they passed, arcing into patterns, v’s and serrated combs, and he wanted more than anything to be one of them, to know sky and understand the strength of what must be.  Geese were clear on their direction, clear on the meaning of flight.  Joey imagined how their hearts must fill, warmth spreading across their breasts when they lifted into the morning and, above the rolling hills and soft wheat, shaped their way into place.

Joey and his father’s silent walk back to the pick-up truck, the geese vanished in the distance, always filled Joey with a genuine sense of loss, as if the last fragments of blue dawn seeped into his skin, blood and marrow, as though he had just come across a secret well and discovered nothing there but the deepest, faintest echo.

As Joey stood next to Amanda at the perimeter of the cemetery, his life fell past him like the slow, spiral of fall leaves.  Memories came to him in glimpses and soft, reverberating images, saturated colors of old ektachrome slides and super 8mm film, blues and reds and the golden, incandescent glow of sun on skin.  The wavering, swimming images emerging of a shy child, red mittens hanging by yarn from his wrists, a boy used to peering at the world from behind his parents’ legs; the fast, ecstatic runs across dewy, summer lawns; the eleven year old who became overwhelmed and distracted by the cold woods and fields his father dragged him into, the blue silence that seeped into his skin and bones when he stood in the shadows of trees; the same boy who carefully walked on newly frozen ponds all the way across until the ice split and ran schisms from his boots; the young and angry teenager who bolted shut his bedroom door, drove safety pins through his own skin, painted his fingernails black, fell asleep in the corner of his room, a set of headphones sifting the muted, fast reverberations of punk rock through dawn; the young man who dropped out of art school midway through the first semester, dropping his etch pads, charcoals and pastels into the swirling river beneath the bridge from campus; the same young man stooped over thick travel books in the public library, books about Asia, Africa, Antarctica, Alaska, Prague, Constantinople, but who had never journeyed past the confines of Wisconsin until his train trip to New Orleans at twenty-four years.  And his inability to draw a direct line between his earliest youth and the place he now stood with any promise of points forward made Joey feel deeply lost, the swirl of images of his life emptying like stars over the wide, dark sea.       

Joey ran his hand softly down Amanda’s back.  He wanted to fold himself into her sweet, accepting warmth, her undeterred commitment to their friendship – no matter its direction.  He wanted to hide inside something larger than himself – something that stayed past dawn.  Instead, he told her:  “This whole hope to shape our lives into something healed or certain pretty much sucks.  Where do you even start when the answer is a hundred miles from resounding?”

“I don’t know,” answered Amanda, caressing her pinpricked palm with her thumb.

 Joey held Amanda and inhaled her sweet warmth, like jasmine tea, and wondered about how it would feel not to have her directly in his life awhile, how they’d both fair and how long before he’d find her again to share it.  He pulled her into his arms, his eyelids softly fading the image of St. Louis Cemetery Number One, its twisting nexus of square tablets and pitched crosses and the colorful mix of swooping and flitting painted buntings, some green with yellow bellies, some dusky brown with blue patchy heads, some with purple hoods and bright red breasts – many darting through trees and tombs, and many, still, circling Amanda’s voodoo doll, tugging moss and button eyes and stitched teeth with long pulls of beak before, like an airborne New Orleans jazz funeral, they lifted the frayed doll in circular reaches toward sky.

© Kipp Wessel, 2011.

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