“I ordered the soup,” I tell the waitress.
“That is the soup,” she shoots back, with an eye roll for effect.
“Oh,” I say, pausing for my own effect, “Any chance I can get a knife, then?”
She gives me a glare and huffs off.
“It’s hungry,” rasps the man in the chair beside mine. We’re sitting a dim old diner that I think used to be a Waffle House. I consider not answering, because he’s clearly the transient sort—I know, pots and kettles, and all, but just because I’m a kettle doesn’t mean I want to spend my dinner listening to some crazy old pot talking about himself in the third person.
“It?” I ask, between spoonfuls of “soup”.
He leans in closer. I ready for myself for a whiff of that good ol’ BO scent, but he smells more like sun-baked asphalt and something vaguely earthy or swampy. He’s got red-brown wrinkled skin so weathered that he could be anything between white and black, and anywhere between forty-five and seventy-five. His eyes are bright. It’s hard to pin down their color in the dim light, beyond extremely pale, but they look almost electric, and they’re picking up the subtle shifts of light from the neon tubes outline the old juke box in the corner.
It’s towards the juke box that his nervous little General Electric eyes dart, and he whispers—wheezes, really, “It. The wicked box, stranger. Don’t you feel it? No one’s fed it in awhile and the old hunger’s gnawing, gnawing, gnawing.” He looks backs at me, as the neon progresses through its red phase, and his eyes are . . . unsettling. “Got to pay the Devil his due, stranger, you know that. Scratch for Scratch. You got any change?”
I pat my pockets for a moment, then shrug. “Oh, darn it! I guess left it in my other pair of pants,” I told him, “with all of my hope.”
“Ha, ha, hooo!” he laughs at that, and it’s one of those deep melodious laughs, all weird and juxtaposed to his wheezing voice.
I smile back, take a breath, and tell him, in kinder tones, “I don’t have much, and I can’t afford to give it to you just so you can listen to some music from nineteen sixty.”
“Fair enough, fair enough,” he nods. “I’ll make you a bargain, then.”
I raise an eyebrow. A good con is usually worth the ride, and something tells me this guy knows a few. “Alright, what’s the deal?”
“My great-gran, my mother’s, mother’s, mother, she was an old crone, a genuine one-eyed old creole swamp witch.”
“Not cool!” he says, with a grin. “She was the meanest old thing ever walked on two legs and a mahogany cane. One time, I remember, I mouthed off at her, and I spent a whole week as a bullfrog, dodging gators and egrets in the bayou.”
“So let me guess, you’re gonna turn me into a bullfrog if I don’t pay up?”
He lets out another rolling laugh, “Ho, ho, oh!” and claps me on the shoulder. The lone waitress shoots us both a glance that’s equal parts wary and annoyed. “I just might, if I could, but I’m not a swamp witch, I’m just a dabbler. I got me a little power, mind you, but it’s the women in my family who got the real juice.”
He considers me then, quiet like, “You got the juice, too. I think that’s what got the wicked box all riled up. Two of us in the room, it’s like Fat Tuesday.” He glances at it again, a quick sideways dart, like he doesn’t want to get caught peeking, and tells me, “Here’s my deal, my bargain: One quarter to appease the box for me, one quarter to buy its mercy for you. Give me one more, and I’ll tell you where you are, two more, and I’ll tell you your future.”
“You’ll tell my fortune for a dollar?”
His laugh and his smile vanish like friends in hard times. “No, no. I don’t tell fortunes, and you listen good, stranger, ain’t no one who will sell you a fortune for a dollar. Only things that buys a fortune is a fortune,” he rests a gnarled hand on my shoulder and squeezes, “and it’s a currency exchange few people get the better of. Anyone ever offers you a fortune, you tell her no. And if she keeps asking, you tell her fuck no, understand?”
If he’s running a con he’s selling it hard. I’m beginning to believe he believes what he saying, so I nod. It’s not always clear where the crazy ends and the con begins, or vice versa, but it’s usually not a good idea to push, either.
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Got it.”
“Mind you,” he says, “most people offering to tell your fortune are just trying to con you, but losing some money is the best thing that you can expect.”
On that note, he holds out his hand. This guys slippery like a greased-up fish, and I still can’t pin down whether he’s running a very self-aware con, or the complete opposite. Truth told, I’m starting to enjoy it, and decide it’s worth the dollar just to see where it goes from here.
I drop the quarters out into his hand, one at a time. The light’s moving through green, now, and his eyes are shining with it.
“One for you, one for me, one for now, and one for . . .” I hesitate. “What’s the difference between the future and a fortune?”
“Ahhh, see, now you’re getting paranoid, stranger. Good.” He rubs his free hand across his face , in thought, then grins green. “The future is always changing, so telling it is cheap . . . it’s like you’re looking out the window. You look again tomorrow, and some things are going to be the same, some things will change, though. Now a fortune, a fortune, that’s a promise, stranger. It’s the opposite of telling someone what the future will be, it’s telling the future what. You’re saying it’ll be the way it will be, and that takes real power, to tell the future what it’s going to be.”
That sort of makes a sort of sense, I decide, and I drop the last quarter into his hand.
I grab every cracker in the cracker bowl thing, and start opening them up, as he turns his attention to the juke box.
What happens next is worth the dollar, either way, because he plays it to the hilt, sidling over to the machine like it’s tiger that might be hungry, then reaching out a long shaking hand, absently stroking down the front of the box.
Now that I’m looking at the juke box, I think it does feel somewhat hungry. It’s because of the dimness, I decide. It’s the brightest thing in the room, and whenever I look right at it, my eyes adjust, and the rest of the building-formerly-known-as-Waffle-House seems to dim. It’s almost like it’s darker and more oppressive because of the juke box—which is, really, the exact opposite of what it should be doing, as the only piece of color in the room.
The old con-wizard is dropping the first coin through the slot with a shaking hand, and it rattles down, clear through down to the coin return. It’s hard to tell in the shifting light, but I swear the man turns white for a moment, before he puts the next quarter in. Involuntarily, I feel his own tension reflected in my shoulders.
This second quarter rattles down . . . and the juke box accepts it. I feel a knot I hadn’t noticed at the base of my shoulders unravel. The third follows, then the fourth.
I sprinkle the crumbs of half a dozen saltines in my soup, to see if that helps the culinary situation.
When I look up the old man’s lips are moving in what looks like mumbled prayer as he retrieves the first quarter from the coin return, and tries again. This time the old juke box doesn’t reject it.
I hear the man sigh, audibly, and then he punches the old Bakelite keys at random without even a cursory flipping through of the musical options, and backs slowly away from the juke box until he’s almost back at his chair, before turning around to me.
He wipes a sheen of sweat from his brow and whispers, as if in great confidence, “I thought I’d had it there for a minute.”
I snort through a mouthful of crackers and soup. The first song has started to play.
“So when do you tell me my future?”
“I don’t,” he tells me. “The wicked box does. That’s the second-to-last song, though. This one’s just your reprieve. Next comes your now.”
The current song is one I’ve heard before, but I don’t know the name of, with a long flute intro.
Gonna take a freight train, down at the station, don’t care where it goes . . .
I guess that fits.
“I don’t need to know where I am, I’m in Farmville.” I pause for a moment, and glance at the waitress, who shakes her head, no. “Or Farmington, or Farmdale, or Cornville, or something, I don’t know.” I look back over at my companion. “Why do you keep calling it ‘the wicked box’, anyway?”
He looks at me like I’m dumb. “That’s just what it’s called, stranger.”
“I’ve always just called it a jukebox.”
He nods. “Exactly. That’s what I said.”
“No, you called it a wicked box.”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
I start to wonder whether I’m Abbott or Costello, and raise a hand for him to hold up, but he just ignores it, keeps right on talking. “Juke’s from an old Gullah word, stranger, joog, it means wicked.”
Gonna ride me a Southbound, all the way to Georgia, ‘til the train runs outta track.
“I’ll be damned.”
“That’s the general, idea, yes.”
“Don’t suppose you know why it’s called that?”
“Not for sure.” He looked back at it for a moment, then shrugged. “If you want an old man’s guess . . .”
“Reckon it’ll be better than mine.”
“Well, when they first showed up, they were in joog joints, houses of ill-repute; whores, gamblers, booze, and worse—and well, that’s just the way a box works, isn’t it? It’s an equal and opposite reaction sort of thing; it’s pouring out all the music, something’s got to be pouring back in to fill that void. You put it in a room full of anything, and sooner or later the box is going to be full of it, too. Sooner or later, they got all filled up with wickedness, and now that’s just natural for them.”
I take that in, and shrug, making a note to look up “jukebox” sometime. The first song’s coming to an end.
“I still don’t think I need to know where I am.”
He laughs. “That’s because you’re young and stupid, stranger.”
“Oh, is that it?” I’m a bit annoyed, but I can’t keep the humor out of my voice.
“Sure it is. You, me, that waitress, the cook, we’re all in the same place, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I agree. I can feel the trap, but well, why not?
He slaps a hand down. “No we ain’t!”
The waitress jumps, squeaks a little, while I manage not to do either of those things. He points at the waitress, “She’s at work, saving up to get out of here. The cook,” he points through the wall, “he owns this place, this’s where he’s building his life.” He rests an old spidery hand on my shoulder, again. “You, me, we’re just passing through, but you’re passing through near your beginning, me, I’m passing through nearer my end—all of are in the same building, yeah, but there ain’t one of us in the same where.”
I am just a poor boy, though my story’s seldom told . . .
That left me silent. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
“Now you get it,” he said.
. . . when I left my home and my family, I was no more than a boy . . .
He’s talking now, over the song, but almost in rhythm to it, like he’s singing the wrong verse, or the lyrics that were supposed to be there.
“You’re a long way from home, you left it a boy. No one knows you’re gone, there’s no one who remembers you enough to care. You’re not a boy any longer, though, though you’ve not been gone long.”
He paused, and stared into my eyes as the singers sang, “Lie, lie, lie . . . lie, lie, lie. . .”
His pale eyes shift from orange towards yellow, then back to green, as the refrain continues.
In a clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade, who carries the reminders . . .
“You don’t miss home, but you wish for it, and you don’t have it. You’re fighting. Fighting for the place, fighting for yourself, fighting because you’re young, and getting stronger, and you know nothing but how to fight. Some days you want to give up, despair, let the cold take you, but you know the cold won’t take you anywhere you want to go, so when everything’s stripped away, in spite of yourself, you fight.”
I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.
I feel my heart pounding as his blue eyes turned violet, and my own eyes burn a little.
Lie, lie, lie . . . lie, lie, lie, lie, lie, lie . . .
And then it’s over, done, and he leans back a fraction of an inch, and his eyes seem to glow a little less. The music and the chorus go on, and on, and I start to wonder what comes next.
“What’s to stop knowing my future from changing my future?” I ask. I don’t remember forming the question, and I suspect I’m just filling the silence. The man’s looking at me with orange eyes, and he laughs, quietly, this time, but still as richly as ever.
“What’s the point of knowing your future, if not to change it?” he asks.
“Good point,” I say.
“You can just cover your ears,” he says, “and ignore the music. Ask me not to and I’ll not interpret it for you.”
I consider seriously the option. This is silly, I realize, and shake off the sudden attack of nerves.
“I always dive a little too deeply into stories, forget where the line between the real and the imagined lies. Always have. Part of me is still afraid of the monsters under my bed,” I tell him. Or myself, maybe, but he can hear it, so what’s the difference?
He chuckles with me, and tells me, “I’ve long since learned that the scary monsters sleep in beds, not under them. Why sleep under a bed, instead of out in the open, if not out of fear?”
“Ah, but if the monsters fear us, then who are the monsters, really?”
“They are, stranger,” he tells me, with certainty. “Don’t doubt it for a moment. They stick to the shadows out of fear we’ll remember they’re real . . . and come for them, eyes red with fire. It’s fear they earned, fear they deserve . . . bad gris-gris brings its reward. . .”
There’s a moment before the neon cycle starts again, and his eyes fall into dim shadow, as if they never had any color of their own at all, and he waits. He leaves unsaid what both of us know, Any moment now, the words will begin.
A mechanical whirring issues from the box, as the records change over. I realize there’s a physical arm in the box selecting the music, not a fancy digital anything.
“Ever since the beginning,” he whispers, “they’ve sealed prophesies in wax.”
I feel it then. A wave of emotions that I’m not sure are mine, a hunger, and a pang of worry over what song is about to play. Even though I know it doesn’t matter, something tells me it does—or perhaps I have that backwards. The crux of it all is that there are many, many, sad songs in the world, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know which one my life belongs to.
The music starts. Something that sounds like old country, but it’s a song I’m quite sure I’ve never heard before. Barely ten seconds pass before the voices start to sing. It’s Johnny Cash, and some other guys.
. . . the desert is my brother, my skin is cracked and dry . . .
“You’re a traveler born, and born to travel, but you travel into danger. . .”
. . . only fired once, they shot me in the chest. They may have wounded me, but they’ll never get the best of better men. I’ll ride again.
“Danger, and victory of a sort. It may be the death of you. The game is rigged, you’ll have to cheat.”
. . . they dumped me overboard, but I can swim. I’ll ride again.
“I don’t know what is literal, what is metaphor, and what is lies . . .” he frowned, and trailed off.
“Some of it’s lies?” I ask. “What’s the point of a lying future?”
He frowns. “Some of the future is always a lie. So future-teller must lie, themselves, or the future will make a liar of them.”
We are heroes of the homeland, American remains, we live in many faces, answer many names. We will not be forgotten, will not be left behind . . .
He sighs then.
“This is a hard one. A hard one to tell, a hard one hear. A song with four singers, told in the voices of many men. Honest men, criminals, givers and takers, natives and invaders.”
. . . they’ll never win, I’ll ride again.
“Told in first person, many voices . . . I don’t know who is you, or how many. I don’t know which are people you will meet, which ones are you, or which ones are both.”
“We’re a little bit of everyone one we meet, stranger, and a lot of a few of them.”
I look back at him and don’t know what to say.
He shakes his head. “No, no, I’ve failed to live up to my end. Your future needs a reader more skilled than I. I’m sorry.”
I wave him down. “Was more than worth it to me.”
He shakes his head, his eyes somber purple.
“No, stranger, that’s not how it’s done. Bargains not honored come back to haunt us.”
He snaps his fingers, and begins to claw at his neck, pulling away a thin gold, or fake gold, chain, running through a hole in a tiny silver coin. He holds it out, his hand still shaking a little.
“Pretty sure that’s worth more than a quarter.”
“A lot more, in many way,” he says. “It’s a 1916 Mercury dime, silver, inherited silver, and it will protect you from all kinds of evils, stranger, it’s got powerful magic on it.”
I shake my head again, “It’s too much. How about you just owe me one?”
“It’s a fair price for my honor, boy!” he says, his voice ringing out like a trumpet, all hints of whisper and wheeze forgotten. Suddenly I’m not so sure if it’s age, or fear, or anger that makes his hands shake.
“Fine, but I’ll owe you one,” I say, as I reach out my hand and take it.
It’s a bad thing to have on you, I know. I don’t want to take it, because I’ll feel like an ass if I sell it, but keeping it, rather than protect me from danger, it might as well be a sign saying, Stab me, and sell this for meth money.
I put it around my neck.
“Mercury was the patron God of the travelers,” he tells me. “Although that’s not really Mercury, it’s supposed to be Young Liberty. I like to think of her as a little of both, a guardian bringing safety to your freedom, and freedom to your safety.”
“Thanks,” I say. Part of me is still trying to figure out the con. This is unexpected, it’s the sort of thing that would put anyone of kilter, and that’s always what they do just before the trap gets sprung.
“Not a problem, stranger,” he tells me, putting on a pair of thick black sunglasses, then unfolds a little red-tipped cane, and heads for the door, tapping here and there as he goes. He reaches down and takes his pack from next to door, and swings it open.
“Wait,” I say. He turns back to me. There’s a hint of a smile on his features like he knows what I’m going to ask. Maybe he does; it’s not exactly an intuitive leap. What I want to ask is, Are you really blind or is that just part of your con? and, If you’re blind, how the hell did you find the slot for the quarters so easily?
I can’t bring myself to ask it, though. Maybe I don’t want to insult him. Maybe I don’t want to know. So instead I say, “Aren’t you going to listen to your song?”
He laughs again. “It’s my song, stranger, I already know it.”
Without another word, he turns and lets the door close with a squeak and a rattle, whistling a tune as the jukebox’s mechanical arm whirs to life. Sure enough, just after he leaves, it starts to play. Which means nothing, because he picked the song—assuming he could see the keys.
I shrug. Any which way you cut it, I got my money’s worth, and, as long as you get that, who cares?
I pay my bill, slightly reluctantly, and head out after him. As I get to door I cast one last nervous glance at the jukebox, busy shifting from orange to red, and I realize the last song is over, and I can’t recall a single line of it. Even the melody’s gone.
Then again, it wasn’t my song.