In memory of Mary Magdalene Pointdexter, Cherokee Nation
They cruised down the highway in a ’77 Dodge Charger, the big-block engine purring at eight-five miles an hour. They were heading west and the sun was setting over the mountain range that had raggedly snaked across their horizon for the last four hours, always looming, not seeming to grow much closer.
They traveled over flat long roads that stretched for hundreds of miles, passing defunct towns, high grass and cattle ranges. They did not travel by map and had little idea where they truly were. Somewhere in East Texas still, an eerily quiet land whose inhabitants were peculiar, a culture steeped in traditions that went back several hundred years, perhaps much longer.
It was poor country, places the coastal liberals could only dream about, a type of grinding poverty that left its people in a rather difficult relationship with their creator. By and large, they were generous to a fault, more than happy to open their arms to strangers. But a deep darkness, a legacy of hate and blood-soaked soil was ever present. The Deep South would forever remain among mankind’s dimmest and most tragic of landscapes
The man driving the car knew the South well. It was a different world, a different land, and even though it was welded by geography and political structures to its estranged northern cousins, it might as well have been foreign soil.
They’d started in North Carolina, the last real home of the Cherokee , and meandered south along I-95 until they reached the northern edge of Florida, and from there they’d been traveling west, northwest for the last few days, making their way through territories that had never recovered from Sherman’s merciless onslaught.
“You want to stop and get something to eat, Joe?” the driver asked.
Joe didn’t say anything. The passenger, a man nearly seven feet tall, appeared to be meditating. He almost always appeared to be meditating. It was the state Joe most preferred.
“Well, I’m hungry. The sign says there’s a nice diner coming up in about twenty miles,” the driver said. “I could go for a big old country-fried steak covered in white gravy, maybe some collard greens and vinegar, mashed taters. Maybe even get me an apple pie.”
The night air was turning deep purple, and the transition happened quickly. The clouds, high cirrus strands, gray lines traversing the infinitely broad horizon from side to side, took on a purple orange glow that was beyond majestic , it was breathtaking.
“See that there Joe, that’s a brilliant damned sunset, ain’t it? It’s no wonder pagan idolaters fell to their knees in the presence of something so grand.”
The car cruised along for another ten minutes, eating up the double-yellow line as the driver preferred to stick to the middle of the road. Never know what might jump out from the brush on the side of the highway. Best to leave your options open, he would say .
The big old boat of a car, a testament to a forgotten age of pure American muscle, kicked up gravel and dust, and made a nice grumbling noise as it pulled into the parking lot of a small brick restaurant with a wide bank of windows and a neon sign atop a thirty-foot foundation that read Starla’s Diner .
“What’d you think, Joe,” the man asked, lighting a cigarette. He opened the window and just let his feet and ass sink into the nice strange feeling of not moving so fast, so long over open road. “You wanna smoke?” he asked.
The man named Joe shook his head almost imperceptibly.
“Fair enough. I know you got your training to do. I’m gonna finish this though before I go inside. You can go on in without me, if’n you want.”
Joe didn’t move an inch. Eventually the man finished his cigarette and he was careful to place it in the ashtray. Some time ago he and Joe had had words about throwing cigarette butts out onto the ground. The man regarded Joe’s words with all the care he might regard the sermon on the mount had he been there on the sidelines. The issue was never raised again.
As they got out of the car, the driver began to cough violently, a wet sawing noise. He put a handkerchief to his lips. Dark blood. The giant came around and placed a massive hand on the on his older friend’s shoulder, steadying him until the coughing fit subsided.
The elderly man smiled grimly, fighting against an invisible pain. “Time enough, Joe, time enough.”
The pair entered the diner and were greeted by a pleasant looking woman in her early thirties. They could see the creases of worry and effort at the bottom, and the corners of her eyes. She was cheerful though. Kindness throughout her bones, welded to her DNA.
“You gentleman like a booth or would you like to sit at the counter?” she asked, holding two large laminated menus in her hand.
“We’d like a booth, ma’am. Me and my associate are very keen on having a proper dinner at your fine establishment,” the man smiled brightly.
“Come on this way, hon.”
She turned and the man’s eyes fell for a second as he watched her wide hips, covered in a simple brown skirt cut just above her knees, swish away, then he recognized he ought to follow.
The pair followed her to a booth and took seats opposite one another. She placed the menus down and came back with a couple of tall plastic glasses of ice water a moment later.
“You gentlemen like to hear the specials this evening?” she asked.
“If you’ll pardon the foolishness of an old man who means no harm to anyone, above or below the Earth, I’d be happy to hear your pretty voice tell me anything you could want to.”
The waitress blushed a bit, but she knew the old man was harmless. “Well, we’ve got country fried steak with mashed potatoes and white gravy.”
“See that, Joe, we came to the right place.” The man turned to the waitress. “You think you could bring me one of those, and make sure everything’s drowning in gravy, maybe bring some collard greens on the side?”
“Sure, hon. I can do that.” She turned to Joe. “You see anything you like?”
Joe was silent.
“You’ll pardon my associate. He’s in a deep meditative trance. We got something we’re gonna do. Joe needs his concentration.”
“Huh,” the waitress replied.
“What’s your name, if you’ll pardon my asking?” the man asked her.
The waitress took a small second to glance down at her nametag.
“I can read well enough,” the man smiled. “I just think it’s interesting to hear a person say their name. It’s a very different thing, mind you.”
“Sarah,” the woman replied.
“Ah, wife of Abraham. It is a good name.”
The waitress seemed perplexed for a moment but relied on routines to rescue her until her mind could clear.
“Can I get you boys some coffee while you’re waiting?”
“I’ll be right back,” the woman smiled.
After she left, the old man leaned forward. “That’s a right beautiful woman. I bet she’s got a drunk husband at home, a couple of kids, but she gets up every day and battles it out with the world. There’s beauty in that, don’t you think, Joe?”
The waitress returned with coffee. Joe didn’t move so much as a centimeter even when a few scalding drops of coffee accidentally splashed out of the cup and hit him on the exposed part of his right arm.
“I’m so sorry,” the woman explained, dotting his motionless arm with a napkin.
“No worries,” the man replied. “My friend here is deep into the trance. He only appears to be here, while his soul is traveling the spirit realm, preparing for his task.”
“It would be a long-story to tell, but my friend here is royalty of a sort. His name is Cherokee Joe. He was born in Siloam Settlement , in North Carolina, near one of the last true homes of his tribe. He is what you and I would refer to as a shaman, a man who walks between this world and many others. He is on a quest assigned to him by forces you and I will not likely ever understand. Cherokee Joe is a magic man, not the rabbit-in-a-hat nonsense, no cards up his sleeves. No ma’am this here is a man who can perform miracles with his mind. Trust me, I’ve seen it. His magic is as old as the world itself, shamanic magic, older than Astarte. You know who Astarte was?”
“No sir, I’m afraid I do not,” she replied.
“Right there in the bible. Kings I. You know Solomon?”
“Many of his hundreds of wives were followers of Astarte, pagan demigoddesses. They were keepers of the old magic, from the time before Abraham, perhaps from before time itself.”
The woman raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t interrupt . The restaurant was basically empty, and she had no other tables in her section to attend to.
“Old Solomon, he fell in love with the wild women of the forest and their promiscuous ways, their divine vision of sexuality and the connection between the act of procreation and the deistic, mystical act of creation itself, a conduit constructed of the union of two people forming a wondrous, ecstatic circuit straight into the mind of the goddess.”
The woman blushed.
“I can see that look in your eyes,” the old man smiled. “You have the look of a woman who’s been pent-up too long. Denied your true nature. Robbed of your rightful heritage. I suspect were you born in a different time, you would have taken to the forest, been another priestess who consecrated the flesh, the sensuality that bubbles underneath every female. Were you born in different times, your life would’ve been far different, far more liberal, and odds are, you would’ve been far more happy and quite a bit less confused about the true nature of life and the magic that inhabits every space, but most especially the sacred space of sexuality.”
“That’s all real nice, hon, and you may be right, but you still didn’t answer my question.”
“Cherokee Joe is gonna walk across water, the way the prophets of old did. Only Cherokee Joe is gonna walk all the way from California to Hawaii.”
“Serious?” the waitress smiled. He was an absurd old eccentric, she thought, a fantastic bullshit artist. Place had them pass through from time to time.
“As serious as a rattlesnake bite,” the old man replied. “Cherokee Joe’s magic is old magic, true magic, miracles the Pharaoh’s yes-men could not recreate if a gun was pointed at their charlatan heads.”
“Why on Earth would he want to do that?” she asked, surprised at herself for pushing further into the conversation than she probably should.
“Because the world has forgotten mystery, and disregards the ancient wisdom, because the world is out of balance, and only great acts can turn us from a terrifying destiny.”
“Well, you two are quite the pair.”
She politely ducked off when the service bell rang, and a few moments later she came back with a plate nearly overflowing in white peppery gravy.
The man smiled like a Cheshire cat when the plate was deposited.
“Now that’s a steak, that’s a proper country-fried steak.” He used his fork to cut in and dipped a piece into the mashed potatoes. “Kings of old never had it so good,” he told her.
She smiled politely and told them to holler if they had anything else they needed.
“That’s a big steak, ain’t it, Joe? Just what the soul needs on the last leg of the journey.”
He dug in, reveling in swirling all the contents around in the thick pool of white gravy with his fork, drowning the collard greens in vinegar and pouring Texas Pete and black pepper over everything.
When he was finished, the waitress returned. Although Cherokee Joe had made no visible movements, his cup of coffee was drained . The waitress seemed perplexed by this statue of a man, leathery-skinned, stoic, ultimately a cipher.
“You fellas want some dessert?” she asked, picking up the dishes from the table.
“How are you on pies, darlin?” the old man asked. “I’d love me an apple pie.”
“We have apple pie, cherry pie, strawberry-rhubarb pie, lemon meringue, pecan, key lime pie.”
The old man nodded. “I think an apple pie would be good.”
The waitress smiled politely: “I’ll get you a slice right away.”
“No, darlin, bring me the whole thing. I’ve got a big soul that needs filling.”
She raised her eyebrow for a second before shrugging. “I can do that.” She carried a carafe of coffee in one hand and topped off the two men’s cups before disappearing back into the kitchen.
“Now, see, that’s service. So what, I want to eat a pie? I can think of stranger things, can’t you, Joe?”
Joe didn’t respond. He didn’t move an inch, but when the waitress returned with a pie plate, she found his coffee cup empty again. She returned and refilled his cup.
Before she could walk away, the old man stopped her.
He reached into the pocket of a tired old blazer and produced a flyer. It had all sorts of colorful icons, figures, crazy hippy symbols, she thought, but at the bottom it stated: “Mystic will walk across the waters from the shores of California to Hawaii. Come witness the miracle. July 27th. No reservations necessary.”
He handed it to the waitress solemnly. It was rolled the way ancient scriptures were, so it wasn’t wrinkled. He had dozens of the things carefully rolled up inside the pocket of his jacket.
“You gotta come to the shore this weekend, have mystery and reverence restored. This promises to be a life-changing experience. You could live the rest of your days and never see a man walk across water. Beats shit-kicking it around town and getting drunk on a Saturday night. I promise. No fake nonsense here, old magic, something to set your soul on fire.”
The waitress knitted her eyebrows, but she was visibly curious.
“Walk, as in walk across the Pacific, all the way to Hawaii.”
“Yes, ma’am. If something is worth doing, it should be done in a grand style. Nothing less will stimulate the pathetic, mush-minded youth.”
“You fellas trying to make money off this, maybe some sort of internet YouTube thing?”
“No, ma’am. Cherokee Joe doesn’t care about the internet, or fame, or money of any kind. A cloud over true living, money is. That’s Cherokee Joe. A purer soul you will not find. When he tells me he’s gonna walk across the Pacific, you can believe me, after all I’ve seen, this is for real. No illusions, this type of miracle the world has not seen in a long, long while. ”
“I couldn’t get out of here on such short notice. I’d probably lose my job if I took off for the weekend.”
The man turned to Cherokee Joe and gave him a nod as if to say: “Yep, pegged her type.”
“You are in luck, then. If I were to hand you ten one-hundred dollar bills, a thousand in total, could you make it then? Could you cover your travel expenses, get someone to cover for your shifts, get a babysitter?”
“You for real?”
“I’ve lived a long life, maybe too long. I have so much of this stuff, I could burn it all for days and still have more. Take it. Take as much as you need, as much as you could want. But be there at the shore this weekend. This is important for you.”
The man reached into the opposite side of his jacket and produced a rolled-up bundle of cash. He peeled off the rubber band, counted out ten notes.
“What is this, some sort of reality show?” the woman asked. He could see fear creeping up into her eyes.
“It’s more real than that. Our work is critical. We are trying to restore mystery to the world, and thereby reinvigorate reverence for the place we call home, our only home. Money is not relevant. What Cherokee Joe is gonna do isn’t about money. You’ve enough there to justify a weekend excursion to see how surreal things can really get, how mysterious the world truly is, and the importance of this elemental fact. You can come and have your soul renewed with wonder.”
“Well…” she replied. She swallowed a lump in her throat. Cherokee Joe made no movements, not with his hands, not even with his eyes, but when she looked down she saw that his coffee cup was empty again. “Let me get you another coffee,” she said.
She whisked away. Her southern charm, her inability to deviate from social and professional protocols caused her to come back and refill the silent, motionless man’s cup.
She studied the silent giant of a man inasmuch as she could from the waitress station in the middle of the line of tables and booths. He was as stoic as the pyramids of Giza. He wore denim overalls with a simple white t-shirt underneath. He never conversed with his partner, although it would seem from one party’s perspective that there was a lively and ongoing conversation.
A thousand bucks for a trip to the coast to see a damned miracle? It didn’t matter what she believed. She did the rough numbers in her head and figured she could come out a few hundred dollars ahead of the game regardless. Dear god, that was important. A few hundred dollars this month was just the break she needed. She’d worked doubles for so long, she learned to sleep on her feet.
So what if the whole thing turned out to be a sham, a publicity stunt, or some stupid reality T.V. pilot. She would never consent to having her picture placed on the big screen, so worst-case scenario, it was the free trip to a beach, which she could only dream about in her current circumstances.
She came back with the bill after a few moments.
“I guess I’ll see you guys in California.”
“Don’t you worry none, darlin. You come to the shore this weekend and your soul will be refreshed. You shall see the world anew, young daughter of Astarte. Be free, if only for a moment, the purest moment of all. One moment of purity is worth more than a lifetime of lies and discontent. One moment of perfect clarity can alone turn slave into master.”
She pulled out the flyer and looked it over again, the rich symbolism, that while she did not comprehend, marked the change through the ages from the Pre-Moses Taurus age, to Aries, to the fish imagery of Pisces from the Age of Jesus, all the way through to the water imagery, the onset of the Age of Aquarius.
The pair left after paying their tab. The man didn’t ask for his money back. He didn’t seem to care about anything. He kept on with his one-sided conversation with the dark, nearly seven-foot tall man who never appeared to move, but somehow managed to ingest three cups of coffee.
When they got back in their car, the man turned to his passenger.
“Who would’ve figured we’d find her here?” he asked out aloud, shaking his head with a smile.
This was how it went during their various stops on their way through Texas towards the horizon and the waiting coast. They stopped at rest areas, truck stops, restaurants, but they never stayed in a hotel. They would pause for a bit, and the man would engage one or two select people and pitch them before handing out the flyer. Joe never said a word. The driver spoke with policemen, vagrants, soldiers old and young, each time seeking out someone who appeared to need a bump up, or a jolt away from their conventional life, someone who looked a little lost, someone in need of sacred mystery. The Deep South was fertile ground for their enigmatic enterprise.
When they eventually arrived at their destination, on the date noted on the flyers, there was a small crowd of people assembled on the edge of the shore. Two camera crews were waiting, local news guys with slick-backed hair and perfect white smiles, looking for a fluff piece to make a bit of fun out of.
The man, along with Cherokee Joe, parked the road boat in a public parking area, and they walked to the shore without the man saying more than a word. It was time to be quiet now, time for more serious things.
The crowd was small, but it was not insignificant. Among the faces, the man discerned several people he had come into contact with, the people he’d pitched on the idea of witnessing something magical, something to provide nourishment to their starving spirits.
Cherokee Joe, for his part, walked to the edge of the ocean. He let his lower legs get wet, the denim sticking to his calves. He declined every attempt to interview him by simply not answering any question, not speaking a single word. A few people held out their smart-phones, not content with merely watching the event without a medium, not sure they were there, the driver always figured. Not sure without evidence.
After the salt seemed to lick his thighs well enough, he proceeded to walk straight through the waves, past the low beach breakers and into the deep past the continental shelf. He pushed forward. Instead of walking on water, as the miracle had been perhaps understood, he waded out, eventually disappearing beneath the surface.
Joe’s partner, his only apparent human contact with the world, sat down and crossed his legs Indian style before he produced a flask of bourbon, and allowed himself to sink into the soft wet sand at the edge of the waves.
After fifteen minutes, the small crowd became agitated, some of them sold on what they saw as a false dream of witnessing something transcendent, something that could allow them to make sense of the misery that pervaded their lives, something that could allow them to rationalize their struggle, something that was supposed to restore mystery but now by most accounts appeared to be a public suicide.
They threw half-filled Big-Gulps of soda at him, other bits of trash. One of them went so far as to spit in his face as he sat in the wet sand waiting for his partner to re-emerge from the ocean. The man took it all in stride. He was unnaturally quiet, his eyes looking out over the waters.
Minutes passed into an hour, and eventually even the jackal camera crews peeled away to seek out the latest social trauma. Soon it was just him and the ocean, the rhythmic crashing of the waves the only sounds other than the seagulls.
It was after all the others peeled away, leaving behind their leaflets and fantasies, that Sarah approached him.
She sat down beside him on the wet sand.
“Not what you expected, huh?” she asked.
“One should expect nothing, makes it damned hard to get disappointed when one has no expectations,” he replied.
“Your friend, though. He walked into the ocean. He didn’t perform the miracle you told us he would perform. You’re human, how can you not experience regret after pulling this all together, all these people here to see something that could help them make some sense of it all?”
The man shrugged. “I’ve no regrets, darlin. I’ve no expectations either. I am immune to such concepts. I live my life the way I see it. I’ve no bucket-list. I’ve lived life a thousand times over, and I know when my time comes, I’ll not be burdened with any regrets. I am at peace with who I am, and who I have been, and what I will become upon my death.”
“Your friend just walked out into the ocean. He was supposed to perform a miracle, something that would ‘reinvigorate’ our appreciation of mystery. Now, your friend is likely dead. Whatever P.R. experiment this was is now over. It certainly didn’t change anything.”
“I did not choose his destiny. We all have a path to travel, and all journeys lead to a dead end. I could no more be responsible for his choice than I could be held to account for the rising sun.”
“I really think you guys were trying to do something here, bat-shit crazy as it is, but it didn’t work,” Sarah replied.
The old man smiled and pointed a finger out towards the ocean, its soft low-tide waves lapping at him as he sat in the wet sand, the detritus of the non-believers surrounding him in the form of soda cans and crimped popcorn bags. Out in the ocean, a hundred yards from the shore, a dark pop of a figure pushed through the foamy surface water and grew larger, eventually becoming a tall, dark, formidable shape.
The figure made its way to the shoreline and sat down opposite the man and woman, the only figures left on the sand after the failed miracle. He was wearing a necklace of flowers, a lei.
“How ya doing, Joe?” the man asked.
Sarah was mystified into silence.
The man reached into his pocket and produced a crumpled pack of Marlboros. “You want a smoke?”
Cherokee Joe, his clothes soaked in saltwater, his face a cryptogram, replied: “Yep.”
The old man turned to the wide-eyed waitress: “Mysterious thing, this enterprise we call life, huh?”
Sarah blinked, but didn’t find any words worthy of the situation. For a moment, she saw herself, her place in the universe with perfect clarity. For one single moment she saw everything clearly, just a brief second that both enlightened and threatened to devour her.
The man handed her a cigarette. She placed it between her lips, her fingers trembling. He lit it with a hand cupped to preserve the flame. Behind them, the sun was rising to shine down on another day, casting its warming rays over the purple swells, and the white caps that lapped at the three as they sat there in silence. Above their heads, the seagulls danced in the sky, cart-wheeling in the wind, carefree, perfectly free.