Bright, bright, almost emerald green, underscored by the sprawling tendrils of relentless kudzu and the sensation of perpetual rot. Humidity, the kind that gives the air weight, the type, which would make you suggest it lay off the late-night Twinkies. Even on a clear day, the sky seems murky. The brilliant blue I got used to where I’ve been living the last seven years seems like a myth here, where a thin cobweb of mist seems to cover everything always.
These are the things the road to Blacksnake are made of. I try to reconcile the change in climate from where I’m coming from to where I’m going as a reminder of what I lived with until I moved away, right after my twenty-fourth birthday and this being training wheels for when I finally make it to Borneo. These reconciliations are probably nothing more than lies. Rationalizations to keep me from turning around and heading back to what I’ve been calling home. Back to my life as a cook and used bookstore clerk and my friends and all those other things I do that have made my memories of Blacksnake into my Boogieman that hides in my closet and jumps out of shadows late at night to scare the ever living shit out of me.
I remember once Rio, when more than a little intoxicated, tried to explain to me how she saw time as river, full of strange currents and eddies and branching off streams and springs. It kind of made sense, but I’d been drinking a little too. It was after midnight, after all. However, I’ve often found music to much more river-like. This flowing thing carving out pathways through my thoughts and moods, often affecting my understanding of time. The Paul Simon song playing takes me back to driving away seven years ago;
“I am following the river
down the highway,
Through the cradle of the civil war…”
down the highway,
Through the cradle of the civil war…”
The river that occasionally appears near the road I follow is not the mighty Mississippi, nor am I going anywhere near Graceland, but I know the Blue and the Gray had at least a skirmish or two along the road to Blacksnake. At least that’s what the old-timers would have you believe, and they all still thought Jefferson Davis was the President. As old as they were, you could almost forgive them for the delusion.
A bittersweet smile crosses my face as near the railroad tracks. Along the roadside is the memorial to accident that killed my parents. Ironically, as the Paul Simon song ends, the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour starts up. How fitting. The god I stopped believing in a long time ago must be laughing his sick ass off. I catch myself chuckling softly to unintentional joke as light up a hand-rolled. I’ve been smoking far more than usual since I hit the road, but I’m only scarcely aware of it or willing to make any effort to curtail it.
My memory’s still back at Café Nairobi, that day Tammy woke me up. Kisshandra was good to her word in showing up within a half hour of me getting hold of her. What shocked me was how within a half hour of her appearance Rio and Jazz-Cat Johnny Hobbs showed up. Neither of them is given to being up so early unless they’ve not gone to sleep yet. Apparently, Kisshandra texted the both of them to let them know something was up.
“You might be a Lynyrd Skynyrd redneck, Stormy, but you’re our friend,” Hobbs quipped when I expressed amazement that he could be bothered to roll out of bed so early to be at Café Nairobi.
“I reckon I didn’t expect you to take time out of masturbating to Rush to come down,” I shot back.
“After that remark, I’m beginning to reconsider, you know, eh?”
And we had a nice time over large mugs of coffee. Well, the best time we could have given how early it was and the circumstances that had brought us all together. Carmen, who I’d left sleeping at my place with a quickly scribbled note, showed up a little later. Although her presence added to the nice time we were having, the walk back to my place was a little tense.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” She asked.
“It wasn’t even six yet and we were up rather late,” I said. “I didn’t wanna be rude.”
“But it was perfectly okay to ring up Kisshandra?” There was an edge in her voice I hadn’t heard before. It got me to shoot her a glare.
“Yes, it was, honeychild,” I snarled. “There are only two other people who know me as well as Kisshandra Norbu. One I barely talk to, except for maybe Christmas, and her calling me got us all up so fucking early, and the other’s brain is so like wormwood she can barely remember her own name, let alone what year it is, or who anyone around her is.”
“It just seems kind of unfair,” Carmen protested.
“Look! You keep this up about who and why I contact first when I have a family crisis I’m gonna forget what my daddy used to say about hitting girls,” I snapped. She started to say something. “Just close your mouth and save your teeth.”
The look I was given straddled the line between fear and resentment. Maybe we were having our first fight, but I didn’t really care. Any more than I really cared whether she was right or if I was. Nobody, especially not some splittail, was going to get after me about Kisshandra. Period.
It was within a few days I was able to get everything in line to leave for Blacksnake. Maybe I thought the sooner I left, the better. I hoped not to be gone long. Carmen and I managed to regain a modicum of civility toward each other, although there was this new sense of tension that had not been there before. Apparently, it was obvious to everyone.
“I just hope you guys can work past it,” Kisshandra said on the day I left. I was having her look after my bonsai trees. “I like her hanging around with us. It would be a shame if she disappeared.”
“I reckon we’ll see,” I said. “I just didn’t like the way she suddenly got about you.”
“At least it’s about me and not about Borneo,” Kisshandra mused. She got that sad look in her eyes again. It was the first time Borneo between us had been brought up since that night at Juke.
“What if I asked you to come with me?”
“Down south?” Kisshandra seemed confused. “I thought you told me with my Afro-Himalayan heritage it would be a bad idea.”
“I mean to Borneo,” I said.
“Joshua…?” It wasn’t surprising to see her looking gobsmacked.
“I’d take you in a cold minute, Kiss,” I said. “Swear on a stack of Bibles.”
And she just stared at me. I guess I couldn’t blame her. What I was asking her was pretty serious. Although she once told me the thought was heartbreaking, it seemed a given that figured we’d be done and over forever, amen, once I finally achieved my goal of Borneo.
“Tell you what,” I said with a wink. “You think about it and let me know.”
It’s almost a full day I’ve been on the road to Blacksnake, and I haven’t heard a peep for her. This is unusual. Most often we call or text something at least once. Her answer will dictate how serious my question was. I think it’s the best thing I can do. As I think about Kisshandra and Carmen and all that, another musical irony occurs; Sex and Violence from the Exploited.
And then I come upon the sign;
Welcome to Blacksnake, Alabama, Pop 668
I’ve been alive for thirty-one years and that sign’s never, ever changed. In high school, some of the metal kids I hung out with, the ones who said they worshiped Satan to frighten and anger their families, would joke we were the neighbors of the Beast, two doors down. We all knew there had been births and deaths, but that population number remained static. God and Pastor Abraham Toft and the elders of the Pentecostal church that pretty well runs town, forbid the population number on the town sign gets anywhere closer to triple six. That would be sinful.
Driving through town is simultaneously a trip down memory lane and a nightmare. Rebel flags still hang proudly outside same old houses. I imagine, if all those old-timers who thought Jefferson Davis was still the President and that the Stars and Bars would ultimately triumph were finally dead, they indoctrinated their kin with the same mindset. My daddy would say that was as sure as the day was long.
I pick up a bomber of beer and pull off at the field by the water tower, on the other end of town, just a half-mile from the home. I already sent a message to Tammy telling me where I was and what I was about to do. She told me we’d catch up tonight. I can’t really say I’m looking forward to any of this.
As I drink my beer and smoke a hand-rolled, my eyes follow the layers of generational graffiti along the water tower. I never put anything up there myself, but I knew some who did. The song Gnawba Blues from Hoba Hoba Spirit is playing, something I got into once I moved away. Three miles away is the state line. Back when I was younger, we used to say the state line was the end of the world.
And here I am, back in Blacksnake after seven years in outer space. Back to see a dying woman who probably won’t even know who I am. I finish my hand-rolled and get ready to drive the final half-mile to finish this, but not before I hold up my last swig of beer in a one-man toast.
“To my grandma,” I whisper. “And to getting to Borneo once she’s gone.”