Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Ghost of John the Baptist

     The house squatted on Lexington like a big pink skull, leering blindly out of its dirty window eyes, and the kudzu crept up the sides like black cobwebs.  It was, of course, abandoned - empty for years, and doomed to be only irregularly inhabited by ghosts, rats, and drunks.   Behind the house, we were well on our way to being quite drunk ourselves, between the whiskey and wine and the full moon. 
     It was one of those nights, stiflingly hot and dead calm; far-off voices floated on the air, mingling with the crickets and the traffic.  We had been moseying back to my tent, nestled deep in a nearby kudzu patch, when I copped an earful of joyful singing from the back of the big pink skull.  Was that an Otis Redding song? Having most of a jug and no immediate plans, we followed the sound around back to investigate.  Four or five old guys, obviously well-lubricated themselves, huddled in a circle, bottles in the air, while one, gazing skyward, rasped “These Arms of Mine” out into space. We sat down in the dirt and joined in.  I noticed that another guy was singing to himself in Spanish, eyes closed, swaying on his seat.  Two others nodded their heads, stomped their feet, and swore.  Next to them sat John the Baptist.

     History has always rolled heavy wheels down Lexington Avenue- downtown Asheville has been a hub for commerce in western North Carolina for over a century.  Creeping gentrification, more tenacious than any kudzu, brings shiny new condominiums, cute little boutiques, and more jobs.
     Right? They don't put the rest of it in the brochures, but they should: “Welcome to Asheville - Any Way You Want It!”  You want a corrupt and trigger-happy police force? You want greed and blood and body parts in the ditches?  You want empty condos blotting out the sun, waiting to be filled until Florida sinks into the ocean?  You want to work for nothing, wait for nothing, maybe die over nothing?  You want to smoke crack with a midget? You came to the right place.
     Those big wheels roll fast, and if you can't roll with with 'em then you might get run over.

     I knew John the Baptist already; he always hung out on the corner of Bordeau, on the steps that went nowhere.  He had been around ever since I could remember, part of a generation of characters I used to see every day, but whose numbers, even around the turn of the millennium, had been thinning.  It seemed like they were all failed musicians, larger-than-life cats like The Legendary King Snake, the Johnny Cash Guy, and the Creepy Elvis.  John always introduced himself with the full title, John-the- Baptist, and wouldn't respond to anything else.
     That night behind the big pink skull he was silent, still as a shadow, hunched over on his little stump.  When I woke up the next day and strolled by, he was sitting on his crumbling stairs, covered in vomit and trying to light a cigarette.  His hands, shaky on a good day, were not cooperating at all.  I lit one for him and sat with him for a minute.  Conversation with John was usually pretty futile, since he didn't want to hear anything I had to say and I never could understand what the hell he was talking about, so we just sat and smoked and then I made my way on.  Today was no different, except he was even quieter than normal.  I snuffed out my smoke and walked down Lexington into town.

      The first winter I spent in town, deep inside that house's cranial cavity, I was shucking corn, helping my friend K make whiskey.  He said that the only other way to get into heaven, besides the obvious one, was to make your own liquor.  The part that vanishes in the process, he explained, made the angels drunk, so you could slip past them when the time came. “Whiskey for the angels,” he said. “Worth a shot.”    

     I wrote a song about whiskey and Otis Redding and John the Baptist and the big pink skull on my little jalopy guitar, crouched in my tent, and went back the next week.  Nobody was there.  For the next few days, I looked for John, but he was not to be found.  I asked around, but nobody knew anything.  Eventually I stopped looking.  One night, walking from somewhere to somewhere, I stopped at the stairs that went nowhere and sang the song out into space, and left.  I would haunt the spot once in a while, pausing to smoke a silent cigarette and wait for a sign, but I was waiting for nothing.
     Eventually, they tore down the stairs.  The big pink skull is gone now, too, having taken a wrecking ball between the eyes.  Grass grows in the crater, at least until the new condos are built, and next year the kudzu will return.

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