Strange Altars

Image of Short Story

Sitting at the black, wax-encrusted table in the back of the spiritual shop I felt foolish. I had wandered into the front of the store, as I always do when visiting New Orleans, looking for souvenirs for my wife and kids at home. This time, on the plane ride south, I had decided that I would finally get a peek behind the curtain in the rear past the cheap hex statuettes and kitschy t-shirts.
A sign in the back offered “Strange Gods, Strange Altars, readings, metaphysical meetings and divine divinations.” Beside it hung a curtain, festooned with African beads, tiny dolls of animals, babies, and devils, which served as a barrier between the world I occupied, and the mysterious one behind it that called to me even between trips to the Crescent City.
Raised Lutheran, the very idea of a Voodoo ceremony raised alarms deep inside of me. But here I was, in a heavily scented emporium full of tiki heads and phallic symbols. With some absinth in my bloodstream, emboldened, I found myself sitting across a tiny round table from a man wearing mascara and holding my right hand in his left. With his other hand he fanned a lump of smouldering charcoal. His long black fingernails with a plastic gemstone glued into the middle of each one mesmerized me.
“You are at the crossroads. I can feel this. Strange things, new things. Spirits and Bondye not mixing you thinking. Whoa!”
“Ummm, yeah, new things. I suppose. I’m not sure what you mean about spirits.”
“God. Your God is frozen in a book. Spirits don’t be talkin’ to you most days, no?”
“I guess. In a way. But I came here more to learn something about myself.”
“Sure. Sure, man. Sure. What I mean is, I can see here you not a regular. Not one of the fold. Catholic?” he looked me in the eye.
“Lutheran,” I replied, returning his gaze.
“Sure, same thing. Other. The other.”
I held my tongue. After all, I was in his place of worship. No need for a discussion of the reformation. I imagined that his faith had some similar fractions and tributaries down which doctrine, dogma, or perhaps in his case, moons and goochers, flowed. That was all better left alone for now.
“Sure, Sure,” I acknowledged, subconsciously mimicking his demeanor and the accent of indeterminable origin.
“Yah, ok, so you come in here for a reading, ok, but are you ready for to see the truth?”
“I was hoping to know what my future holds. Where will I be in 5 years? Will my life be as good as it is now, or maybe better?” I asked hopefully.
“Ahh, I see,” he hesitated. “That’s not my usual bag.”
“Uh, I thought that’s what this was all about. The woman in Jackson Square . . . “
“Sure, sure. I see,” he interrupted. “You really are green, but you seem nice. Maybe we stop now. No charge. You buy a nice gris-gris bag and a poppet out front and enjoy your trip. Pat O’brien’s right across the street. They fix you up a cocktail make you see the past, future and some pink elephants all at once. Maybe stumble into The Dungeon two sally ports up after that for some real fun.”
“I’m sorry. I think I misunderstood. You don’t tell fortunes here?”
“No.” he snapped. “Would you ask your priest to tell your fortune? This is my religion. I’m a houngan, a voodoo priest, not some trickster woman wearing Stevie Nicks bullshit at a bridge table outside the cathedral. I have a congregation. I talk to spirits for guidance, for knowledge, for to help the living. I can do that for you, but no lottery numbers, no where’s my car keys kind of stuff. I leave the bunk to Barnum.”
“Sure, sure,” I muttered, immediately wanting to kick myself. This guy could see how suburban I was, how “green” as he had so accurately put it. “Whatever you can do I would appreciate.”
He reached out to retrieve my hand which had somehow floated away from his grasp on its own. Fanning the burning coal he closed his eyes and started to chant. Very quietly at first, but steadily building.
“Ohhhhhh, Papa Legba, come and open the gate,” he chanted loudly. He called to the Ancestors by name. He implored Marie Laveaux and the Pirate Jean Lafitte. He built to a crescendo with a drum-like rhythm and just when his voice hit a point that was nearly a shout, he stopped and inhaled deeply. Silence. And then his eyes opened wide as he screamed at the tapestry-covered ceiling, “No!”
Outside the booth I could hear a gasp and scattered murmurs from fellow tourists shopping for a piece of the mystical. My face flushed and felt hot for the unwanted attention. His eyes were watery now and he gave me a look that I was too off-balance to read. Did his facial expressions even mean what mine meant anymore? I didn’t know. Suddenly that hurricane drink across Saint Peter street sounded like just what the doctor ordered. A witch doctor, sure, but who was I to nitpick having come this far?
“So,” he said by way of a placeholder, “I got nothing,” his accent suddenly more Brooklyn than Creole. “Ok, sorry boss, the spirits ain’t working today. Must be their mardi gras. Take a tarot deck on your way out. My treat. Try the tropical depression across the way. Eight ounces of booze and sugar with a little umbrella right on top, it’ll set you straight.”
“What?” I asked. “You yelled. What was that about?”
“Nothing, just something I do. Sometimes.”
“No, you were reacting to something. I’m new to all this, you’re right, but I’m not stupid. What was it?”
“No man, naw. You just got the wrong end of the stick. Nothing down here is what you think. Just go and have some gumbo, a beignet, crawfish pie. I gotta get going.”
I withdrew the hand that I had forgotten was in his, stood up slowly and backed through the curtain. Out in the shop, the cashier looked ashen. As I walked past him on my way to the door he silently lifted a tarot deck and held it out towards me.
“No thanks,” I told him, holding both hands up, palms out, making a sign of refusal.
“Ok man, but seriously, get some help. Maybe a cyclone. It’s as green as you are, served with a straw.”
I trudged across the street and into the open, cobblestone corridor area that led to the bar and the courtyard full of wrought iron tables beyond it. The doorman had no line yet, the place was only just opening, and he did a double-take when he saw me coming. Without a word, he pointed at the doorway to the dark, empty front barroom. I nodded silently as I walked past. 1930’s jazz emanated from somewhere down the block as a trumpet, clarinet, drum and bass played a standard, “Mood Indigo.” The trumpet led, drifting in and out of tune and time, while the clarinet fluttered up and down the scale, a bee trying to touch each and every shade of blue. The bass and drum backing barely held the ingredients together, like a thin tulip-shaped glass straining to keep booze and sweeteners in place under a tiny umbrella.
My mind muddled from the reading, absorbing the potent musical concoction, I didn’t even react when the bartender appeared and placed a tall, neon-colored drink in front of me as I sat down to the bar.
“Here you go, man, first one’s on the house. Let’s just say your insurance covers it.”
I thanked him with a grunt and began working on a headache for the plane ride home.