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Below the Bible Belt

That year, snow fell on Tallahassee. For my birthday, we went to the Ripley’s Museum in  Panama City where I cavorted with Fiji mermaids and shrunken heads, with pieces of the Berlin  Wall and bottle cap art. Zoltan told my fortune. That year, the invocation. We made our pilgrimage to New Orleans, city of levees. To the French Quarter and St. Louis #1. We saw Marie Laveau’s tomb, the jar of gardenias about to succumb to the Delta heat. Devotees scrawl  X’s in the plaster, hoping the priestess will grant their wishes from the afterlife. Somewhere, I  imagine Laveau saying, It was the slave’s job to say, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ But I was never a slave. There were wildflowers in the cracks, gifts of Mardi Gras beads, trinkets,  cigars. We saw Bellocq’s photos, Storyville ghosts, red light in sepia. We drank hurricanes and  listened to Arlo Guthrie singing about the night train. Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park. I cut off my hair to prove myself a supplicant. I tended the graves closer to home, the ones where  no famous priestesses reside, where no Hollywood royalty have purchased a plot. Everywhere I  went, black dogs and crows followed. I wore the token. I built my altar. I made my offerings of  chicken and rum. I placed my heart on the scale. One of the Crossroads Gods showed up to get  my number. I did mushrooms so that I might walk with him and make arrangements, in the  manner of Robert Johnson. That year, the zoo. There were wolf cubs. The female licked my  hand, sister of the moon. The male bit my husband. While I was on shrooms, I bit him, too. That  year, Hurricane Michael flattened Panama City. St. Michael, Archangel of Death, bearer of  scales.

We headed back north. Two days driving. We ate some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, at  a gas station owned by Hindus in Alabama, a statue of Ganesh by the cash register. The December day was bright and brisk, but we ate outside anyway, luring stray cats from the trash  bins with bits of chicken. It felt like more spirit offerings. Maybe every act of kindness, no  matter how small, is an offering. I wanted to take them all home with us. We crossed Mississippi  in the dark, my playlist on shuffle. When “The Midnight Special” came on, I glanced at the  backseat, expecting to see Dan Aykroyd, but it was only Crossroads God again, grinning at me with his skull face. We stopped for the night in West Memphis, not an hour from Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, where he sang in the fields with his family, twenty acres of bottomland, of  snake-infested swamp. In the afterlife, Marie Laveau’s dancing with her beloved Zombi. How high’s the water, mama? How high’s the water, papa? The bus is comin’, gonna take us to the  train. Looks like we’ll be blessed with a little more rain. We drove past city dumps and sheriff’s  offices, past roadside stands hawking eggs, tomatoes, hot boiled peanuts, day lilies, and a man  selling deer jerky out of his pickup. Past roadkill carcasses, past Confederate flags, and something called BIG JEFF’S GOATSHEEP RANCH. Waited at railroad crossings while the  BNSF cars thundered past.

On road trips, wayside shrines are inevitable, traffic accidents being one of the fastest shortcuts  over Jordan. We drove memorial highways. White crosses, fake flowers, maybe some stuffed  animals. Somewhere between West Memphis and the Ozarks, two months after the season, a Dia  de los Muertos altar by the road, near the railroad tracks. The crepe paper and picador flags  fluttering in the Baptist sun. The skulls and black dogs, the statue of St. Martin de Porres. The Crossroads God tipped his hat to his brother. A high school where the students had decorated the  football field’s chain-link fence with a Feliz Navidad banner. Scary ghost stories and tales of old glory and poor Jacob Marley rattling his chains. It was Poinsett County, I think. Mexican flame flower, flor de Nochebuena. Pepita gathering weeds from the roadside to place on the altar,  blood-red like Christ’s sacrifice. A crossroads is an X, is a cross. Where flesh and spirit meet.  Where ofrendas are sent up. Fellow travelers, I’ll look for you in the railway stations, in the  depots and truck stops. Watch for the signposts. Out of the flood plains and into the mountains,  then down again, to my river lands. To be home in time for a white Christmas, that is my wish.  Johnny Cash, aka the Man in Black, aka JC. He got his start singing gospel. His dying words  were, I hear the train a-comin’. I’ve got my ticket. I’m on the platform, waiting for the all  aboard.

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About the Author

Lauren Scharhag (she/her) is an award-winning author of fiction and poetry, and a senior editor at Gleam. Her latest poetry collection, Midnight Glossolalia (with Scott Ferry and Lillian Necakov), is now available from Meat for Tea Press. She lives in Kansas City, MO.

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