Hello! I’ve been working hard on this story so that I could submit it to a comedy festival…and I just finished it! It’s a story about a trip I took to New Orleans with my grandpa. It’s pretty damn long, but I really do like it a lot. I’m not just saying that. Give it a darn minute of your time and see if you like it!
There’s a different kind of weird that calls New Orleans home. Wow, I said that sentence in a strange way. But yeah, it’s true. New Orleans is not weird like Portland where your neighbor is a clown distributor and your landlord sells painted fingernail clippings collected by vegans (the clippings themselves are from carnivores). And it isn’t like Austin, another city known for it’s “weirdness.” At least, that’s what I’m assuming. I haven’t been to Austin, but if it were the same as New Orleans I’m sure people would say “Keep Austin like New Orleans” instead of “Keep Austin weird.”
New Orleans has an old type of weird that’s especially present in the French Quarter. A place that seems not frozen in time, but rather stuck there – in the mud. Because it’s muddy there, get it?! It’s a swamp! It’s a place where, as Hannibal Buress shares in Live from Chicago, you can have your own parade for yourself whenever you want, complete with booze to go. There’s music and dancing and the best seafood I’ve ever had, which isn’t that odd. But, rather than beg for food, dogs play dead for money, there’s a hot sauce store on every other block, and there are alligator heads in pretty much every window. It’s not a normal place.
I visited New Orleans for the second time in spring of 2015. It was a happy accident that I ended up taking the trip. Shortly beforehand, my grandpa called me up on a routine phone call and said, “Your Auntie Annie and cousins can’t come down to New Orleans with me anymore, so I’m not going to go. I can’t believe it’ll be the first time in about twenty years I haven’t gone down!”
“I’ll go!” I said, without thinking twice.
“Don’t you have…college?” Grandpa asked.
“Oh yeah. Whatever, I’ll make it work!”
It was my senior year. I didn’t even check my schedule – I just bought a plane ticket.
It actually turned out that my professors were, surprisingly, 100% accepting of my mini vacation. I’d explain to them, “Hey, I know this is going to sound weird, but…I’m going to New Orleans with my grandpa for a week. I totally understand if my grade suffers because I’m missing a ton of class, but I just feel like I have to go.” Which sounded like absolute bullshit to me.
And they’d be like, “Yeah, take your time! You don’t even have to turn your assignments in if you don’t want to! Have fun with your grandpa!”
I’d been struggling to invent yet another sickness that could get me out of class, when, apparently, all I needed to do was mention the word “grandpa” and my professors would suddenly turn apologetic: “I am so sorry my class exists! Take as much time off as you want, Stu! I didn’t realize your grandpa was involved!” Either they were all pals of Grandpa Bill or they must have envisioned some frail old man on the brink of death, taking one last trip with his beloved grandson before drifting away.
That is not my grandpa. My grandpa, now in his 80’s, drives tractors, chops down trees, weeds all day, and welds massive sculptures to sprinkle across his giant farm. My grandpa is the guy who told me the address of his French Quarter timeshare suite, the day I should get there, and then said “I’ll be smoking a cigar in the courtyard when you get there.” And he was.
So, I flew right down to The Big Easy, rolled my suitcase into that courtyard, and the first thing I noticed, besides grandpa in his bright yellow bathing suit and matching crocs, was the pool. I’d swam in that pool before.
“Is this where my family stayed when I was little?” I asked.
“Well, I’m not sure, but it very well might be!” He said. “I probably lent your parents the suite when you were, what…seven? So maybe I was wrong…it’s been fifteen years since I haven’t made the drive down.” Grandpa lives in the top west corner of Illinois by the Mississippi. He’s been driving to New Orleans every spring for the past fifty years or so: pretty much the only vacations he’s taken since “getting old.”
Just about then, in the courtyard, it started to rain. And barely stopped for the next 7 days. “God DAMN it!” Grandpa shouted. He’d be saying that a lot.
The rain mostly kept us inside, a state of affairs grandpa absolutely despises. He can never sit still longer than it takes him to finish a meal or a cigar, or maybe both in quick succession. He is not a fan of inactivity.
At one point, the rain did clear up long enough for us to run around the tents at the Jazz festival and try every seafood dish you could imagine. Over and over again, grandpa would appear out of nowhere with another heaping plate of food to shove in my hand:
“What’s this?” “Crawfish etouffee.”
“What’s this?” “Shrimp po’ boy.”
“What’s this?” “Shut up and eat.”
He’s not a fan of questions, either. But, all the food was delicious; I didn’t have to speak.
Besides the occasional foray into the oppressive wetness for delicious food, we were often confined to a small awning in the courtyard, where grandpa could smoke his cigars and remain relatively dry. Curse words and puffs of smoke took turns spewing from his mouth as I leaned against the brick wall of the enclosure, honestly fairly amused with his perpetually sour disposition. “We can still have fun,” I said. “Why don’t we walk around and check out some of the shops?”
So we did. We wandered around in the rain until we found somewhere “worthwhile” to stop. A huddle of Cajun people were shoveling out boiled crawfish and vegetables from large coolers to passers-by for tips. With a newspaper stand as our table, grandpa and I shared a plate of buttery crustaceans. Then I mentioned something that I was sure grandpa wouldn’t like: “There’s this Voodoo store down the street that I wanted to check out, if you don’t mind?” If I remember correctly, he responded by saying something like, “Aaachh! I don’t want to have anything to do with that bullshit!”
The Melton family (that’s my family) has a strong tradition of not believing “bullshit” like Voodoo. If you don’t already know, the definition of bullshit is “anything that most Meltons don’t believe in.” Bullshit includes – but is not limited to – Voodoo, bigfoot, any sort of religion, the chupacabra, slender man, the loch ness monster, any urban legend you’ve ever heard of, anything a liberal has to say, not pushing your chair in after dinner, the Joneses buying a trampoline, not knowing the difference between a Phillips head and a flat head screwdriver, and giving money to charity (other than for tax benefits).
Bullshit also includes ghosts. In high school, one of my favorite shows to watch on late weekend nights was Ghost Adventures, a show that chronicled the stories of ghost hunters. Ghost hunters: a term I find very confusing. How can they be hunting for ghosts if the ghosts are already dead? There’s nothing to kill; they’re ghosts. But hey, that’s what they call themselves, and they’re the “experts.” I say experts with quotes because no matter how many different types of EVP recording devices they carried with them and no matter how many reenactments of ghost stories they had Z-list actors portray, the amount of paranormal evidence these ghost hunters uncovered was invariably just as diminutive as their television audience. The show was ripe with “bullshit.”
My supernatural fandom pissed off my parents like nothing other. My parents would come into the living room multiple times over the course of one episode saying things like, “How can you watch this?! You know that none of that stuff is true, right?! How can you believe that?!” And I’d explain to them again and again: “I don’t believe it, Mom…I think it’s funny! It’s entertaining.” Several 30-minute episodes later into the Ghost Adventures marathon, inevitably one of them would thump back into the room again, saying, “I can’t believe that you believe this bullshit!”
The fact that so many Meltons hate bullshit – no, loathe it – is probably the very reason why I find it so entertaining. My parents’ frustration with Ghost Adventures was just as amusing to me as the show itself. It made the show even better. Learning how to tolerate bullshit has allowed me to experience a sadistic amount of satisfaction from the displeasure of others.
I guess the positive way to spin that is that I’m a pretty tolerant person. Someone who does believe in bullshit like Voodoo and spirits and energy is a girlfriend I had in college. And I liked her, despite all that! Before I left for New Orleans, she told about how her grandfather ran off to New Orleans with his friends to “escape the law” after they had knocked down his small Massachusetts town’s water tower. Years later they all nervously returned back to Massachusetts in fear of finally being brought to justice and, of course, absolutely no one remembered or cared what they had done to the water tower.
That ex-girlfriend of mine says she always dreams of living in New Orleans one day – following her grandpa’s footsteps and experiencing life in a place that is weird like she is. It was this (and the entertaining allure of bullshit) that drove me into that small Voodoo shop in hopes of finding a nice gift to bring back for her.
Although he made it abundantly clear he didn’t understand why I wanted to go inside, grandpa finally agreed to smoke a cigar on the stoop while I surveyed the shop. There was a lot of stuff crammed inside that tiny shop. There were tons of books about Voodoo and about summoning spirits. There were little hand-labeled bottles that contained “love potions” and the like, although the contents shared a striking resemblance to hand soap mixed with silver confetti. There were incense and sculptures with devils and alligator feet. And there were pentagrams everywhere. The lady behind the counter, a fit little woman probably in her fifties, was talking to a customer about some pendant or another – the meaning of it and how you’re supposed to treat it and what not. She had jet black hair and spoke with unflinching eyes surrounded by mascara.
I saw grandpa lean through the shutter windows. He must have caught part of the store owner’s conversation because he rolled his eyes in full bullshit mode and pointed to his quickly dwindling cigar, as if it were his only timepiece. I rushed out of the store.
“Good god,” he said. “Did you hear that woman? Magic this, powers that. I’ll tell you what, though: if she shut her mouth she’d be absolutely gorgeous.” We headed home for the day.
A few days later, it was raining hard once again and once again grandpa had a fit. I decided to head back to the Voodoo shop alone so that I’d have more than two minutes of my grandpa’s short patience to find a gift. When I walked inside, no one seemed to be in the shop. I shuffled over to the display case by the register and looked down at the necklaces inside.
“Ahuh, sure.” The woman with the black hair was talking on the cordless phone in the back room. She talked for a while as I looked over the necklaces. I wasn’t leaving, which seemed to annoy her. She took her time getting off the phone. “Oh I know. Okay, well listen…I’m gonna go. Someone is here in the shop so I better talk to them. Call me again, alright? Great.” She hung up the phone and walked out from the back of the store. She rested her hands on the display case, leaned forward, and looked me in the eyes.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi.” She stood there and stared at me. I immediately felt as though she perceived something in my eyes I didn’t know was there: some telling sign that I thought everything in her store was absolute bullshit. I saw something in her eyes too: that she had dealt with people like me before. People who thought her stuff was bullshit. She wasn’t going to take my crap. She thought she had me pegged, but she was wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was all bullshit. But I would never say that! I’m not my grandpa; I love bullshit. I was just a guy in way over his head in a Voodoo shop.
“Um, so I’m looking for something to get my girlfriend…”
“Why isn’t she getting something for herself?” Voodoo lady said.
“Because it’s a gift. It’s something that you get someone and it’s a surprise and then they’re happy and then you’re happy.” It was like a Mexican standoff, but in the bayou. And instead of guns our weapons were Voodoo and attitude. “She isn’t here in New Orleans, but she’s always wanted to come,” I added.
“Well then she should come and get something herself.”
“…Well, she can’t.”
“Well then don’t get her anything! I don’t believe in buying gifts for people. That’s stupid.”
I couldn’t help but think…’is she trying to prevent me from buying something from her?’ I decided to attempt a different angle.
“Sorry, but I’m kind of new to all this stuff…can you tell me about these necklaces in here? What do they mean?”
“What do you mean what do they mean? They mean whatever you want them to mean.” I could feel my back start to sweat in the muggy heat as Voodoo lady continued to stare. She continued, “It’s whatever you feel. I can’t tell you what they mean. They just mean whatever they mean to you. That’s why I don’t believe in buying gifts. How can anyone know what something will mean to anybody else? If you want to get something for yourself because it means something to you, then great. Do that. But you can’t know whether something will mean anything to your girlfriend. You can’t know.”
“Okay…” I said. I tried to meet her halfway. “Well. I do want to get something for her. So if you were me…and you absolutely had to get something…what would you do?”
Voodoo lady took an extremely long pause, as if I had just gotten her to realize why she had opened a store in the first place: I could exchange real American money for the goods she was selling! “I would say you can only know what means something to you. So, if you have to get her something, get her something that means something to you and that’s the absolute best you can do. It won’t be good, but it’ll be fine. Just get her something that feels right to you.”
“Okay. I can do that,” I said. “Can I take a look at that?” I pointed to one of the necklaces in the case and then had her take out a couple more to look at, too. The phone rang, and I finally found some relief from her intense stare. She picked up the call.
“Hello?” she said. “Who is this? …Who? Okay I don’t know who you are, but fuck Joanne!” Whoa, right?! It gets better: “…I haven’t spoken to Joanne in ten years and I never want to talk to her again!” She yelled. “…You’re Joanne’s what? …Joanne is a lesbian?! Joanne is a lesbian? JOANNE?!”
I started looking around the store to see if there was anyone else there to witness this, or maybe a corner for me to hide in. I found neither.
“…Sure, you can come to the store but Joanne is NEVER coming back here again, you got that? Okay good. …JOANNE IS A LESBIAN? There’s no way! She’s messing with me. …I don’t care who you are, Joanne likes cock. …Oh, I’m sure she does! I’m sure she does love pussy now! …Okay then! See you then!”
Voodoo lady finally whipped the phone back onto the table with a harumph. “Can you believe that! That was Joanne’s ‘partner.’ Joanne’s a lesbian, can you believe it? JOANNE IS A LESBIAN!”
“I…I don’t know who Joanne is,” I said.
“She’s my old partner.”
“Wait,” I thought. “You’re lesbian too?”
“No, no, no…we ran a tattoo parlor together.”
“Ohhh…” I said. “That makes much more sense. Because if you were partners partners you would probably know she was lesbian already…”
“She tried to cheat me out of my money! We went into business together and I paid for everything and then she said ‘I’m leaving and I’m taking half of the business with me!’ And she did!”
“Wow, that’s pretty crazy,” I said.
“And now she’s a lesbian!”
“I don’t believe that one bit! There is no way that she’s a lesbian. A lesbian. JOANNE! …Joanne loves dick. I mean she loooooooves dick.”
“…” I’m not gifted enough to know an appropriate response to that comment. Luckily for me, Voodoo lady didn’t need my input in order to continue her tirade.
“Good for her! Good. For. Her! Now she can be a lesbian with her lesbian partner all she wants – I’m not helping her. Oh that’s some sick joke! Joanne eating pussy! HA!”
Thinking back to the end of her conversation, I asked, “…Is she…coming here?”
“Her partner is coming here to check out my merchandise.”
“Ohh…I’m sure she is.”
“JOANNE IS A LESBIAN?!” I don’t know why that made her so mad.
“You don’t understand, we would go out together and…she was…she was NOT a lesbian. I’ll tell you. Anything but. She would go after big, buff, tough men.”
“Well, she had to not be not really lesbian for her to change and become a lesbian, right? I mean if it’s a change, that’s kind of what a change is. You know?”
“Joanne…a lesbian. She stole from me, you know. That bitch. I’m never talking to her again.”
“She really sounds like a horrible person.”
“Thank you! She is!”
Voodoo lady finally snapped out of it. “…Well, did you find anything?” She asked.
“I think I like this necklace here.” I pointed to the first one we had pulled from the case.
And, as if she had completely forgotten her adamant stance on gift purchasing, she responded, “Oh, I bet your girlfriend will like that a lot!” I’m quite glad she did let me buy something from her. We continued to have a nice little chat after that, punctuated with fits of rage directed at Joanne. I left the store having made an unlikely friend.
I glanced at my phone. I must have been in the shop for an hour and a half talking to Voodoo lady about Joanne. I had a voice message from my grandpa wondering where the heck I had been. When I made it back to the hotel, I told him all about what happened and he absolutely loved it. He thought the story was hilarious, of course remarking on what “bullshit” it all was.
That’s the thing though: my grandpa thinks bullshit is hilarious, but he never put himself in the position to have fun with it. He stayed outside of the Voodoo shop because he couldn’t take the craziness that went on inside. But, at the same, time he loved the crazy story that I got out of it.
See, I think my family is a fan of weird bullshit like that (just like me), they just don’t like to admit it. I think it’s that uniquely weird New Orleans bullshit that subconsciously kept my grandpa coming back to the same city for over fifty years. He loves telling stories like that, but he could have gotten one more if he would have just come into that Voodoo shop with me.
Obviously, Melton bullshit is not the only kind of bullshit there is; everyone has their own definition. It’s hard to step back from what you believe in and just have a good laugh. But, when you let the bullshit in and keep your mind open, you might get a good story out of it! That’s why I have a bigfoot poster on my apartment wall, inviting any guests to passionately articulate how much of a hoax it is. That’s why, in college, I had a girlfriend who placed crystals on my belly button to realign my chakras (or whatever). That’s why I took a trip to New Orleans for a week to talk to a Voodoo lady about her lesbian ex-business-partner Joanne who she hadn’t spoken to in ten years when I was supposed to be learning about modal logic.
It’s all bullshit, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun!
I still think Voodoo is bullshit. But it’s entertaining as hell.