This Florida boy didn't take to the cold of Wisconsin too well; it reminded him too much of Sweden and its freezing drizzles that stuck to his coat and scarf like the sniffles of some long-dead Viking god. The interstate took him to Madison, but I decided not to lodge there for the night. I found some tiny, out-of-the way town in the middle of nowhere, and pulled to the side of the road to collect my thoughts and figure out where I could find a warm bed and some coffee.
Signs had advertised some 'House on the Rock' since he left Illinois, and I figured I could stop by and see what all the fuss was about. I started up the car again and drove off to follow the signs, lighting a cigarette with one hand on the steering wheel and the other fumbling around for my lighter. I knew the rental car company people would cluck their tongues disapprovingly at my smoking in the car, but this cold compelled me to leave the window shut. It was colder than Ymir's ass crack out there, and I was a mere Florida boy on a road trip.
I wondered what the House on the Rock could be. I imagined some sort of Pentecostal tent revival, some meeting house for snake-handlers and tongues-speakers. Out here, I could believe it. I half-remembered a song I learned in Sunday school:
"The wise man built his house upon the rock,
His house upon the rock,
His house upon the rock.
The foolish man built his house upon the sand,
His house upon the sand,
His house upon the sand,
And the waves carried it away."
Some time later (it was probably an hour, but I couldn't be arsed to take out my cellphone to check the time; it'd require me to take my gloves off), I pulled into my destination. It was a house, all right, and big, old, rambling one at that. Maybe I could snap some photos for my Flickr page or something, have a story to tell all my friends when I got home. I might even Photoshop some sepia-tone into some of them, just for the added artsy effect.
I had a vague feeling that the house was bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside, then chuckled at myself for believing the impossible.
I didn't bother to lock the doors as I tied the scarf tight around my neck.
The hallways twisted and coiled like the intestines of some creaking wooden beast, and the walls were lined with all sorts of old gewgaws and brickabrack (I was shocked I remembered such words, a bachelor's degree and most of a master's having filled my brain with much bigger ones). There were a lot of old Burma Shave signs. My grandfather, God rest his soul, collected this sort of thing, before he went all crazy and got himself into all that trouble. At the end of my wanderings and surreptious photo-snappings, I found a carousel, billed as 'The Largest Carousel in the World'. I felt like I had seen bigger.
Like all great American tourist destinations, there was a gift shop. An old black man with a pencil mustache stood over to one side behind the counter, sleepily watching me as I looked around for a souvenir to show my friends back home while we discussed the political economy of tourist traps. Coffee was to be had, and my poor adenosine receptors yammered out to be blocked by caffeine molecules.
"Could I get a coffee, please?" I asked in my best 'trying not to sound like a white college student' voice.
He wore a checkered coat and yellow gloves. Every square inch of him screamed out 'stereotype', the sort of things I saw in those films in Intro to Anthro about a million years ago. 'Little Black Sambo': a lazy nigger (my mind still reeled at that word) who used his wits to get out of trouble from his white overseers, and more often than not used his wits to get out of working for his white overseers.
"Where you from?"
"What gave it away?"
"Hav-A-Tampa. I smell the smoke on you."
"Ha, burned my last one yesterday on the Interstate. They used to call it 'Cigar City', back before air conditioning made it a big city. They still have the remains of the cigar factory downtown."
"Been down there before."
"It's not so bad these days. Home, sweet home."
He smiled, in a way that made me feel very small and insignificant.
"You know where I could find a place to spend the night?"
"Not much around here. You probably could have turned off at Madison."
"Nah. I miss small towns. Grew up in a couple."
He smiled again. Something about this man was strange, ageless. This man had seen things, been through things. I wanted to know why I felt so stupid around him.
"Good coffee. Cold as balls out there. Pardon my language."
"Shit, they're just words."
"Good to know."
"Words are powerful things, you know, young man."
"I try to be careful with them. I love words."
"Not many your age are so careful. But you're not as careful as you think you are. No one to keep your tongue in line."
"Sorry, but this is something I hear from everyone older than me I come across. How us young'ns are degenerate rascals, out boozing and whoring and getting into trouble."
"If the shoe fits..."
"Well, I guess you're right. Though I prefer smokier intoxicants to alcohol."
He laughed, again in a way that made me feel tiny and pathetic. I started smoking pot in my junior year, and still did from time to time, although I had a teaching assistantship and funding. It wouldn't do to smoke pot with my classmates these days.
"You're a bright young man. But you're also not so bright."
"I've heard that before. On both counts. I'm almost about to believe it."
"What's a bright young man like you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know."
He laughed, this time a snort. I didn't feel so small anymore.
"Who are you, anyways? What is this place?"
"You ask a lot of questions."
"I'm studying anthropology. We ask a lot of questions. It's how we make a living."
"You're studying people."
"Not a bad way to make a living."
"So, what, you're not a person?"
"You look enough like a person to me."
"You're not too bright, you know that?"
"Aww, shucks, I'm just the son of a drunken redneck from the swamps of Central Florida. I've heard that one before." I drew out these words in a mock Southern drawl, the sawdust and Miller Chill and giant fucking cockroach shit reeking from every pore.
"What's your name, anyhow?"
I hesistated a second.
"I know, you think it's a girl's name."
"I once new a guy named Ashley. Is 'Nancy' short for something?"
"Well, since you're an anthropologist, young man, it's short for 'Anansi'. 'Compé Anansi', in full."
"Your mother had a hell of an imagination. Or really hated you. You ever listen to Johnny Cash?"
"I've had that name forever."
"So have I. Since I was born."
"And that's what different between you and me."
"Oh, lemme guess, you're a god or something. I read a book about that once, how all the old gods were still around and raking horseshit and selling produce in America, or something like that."
"I read that one too. Maybe you should have majored in religious studies or theology or whatever you college students call it these days."
"I would guess that 'Anansi' is some sort of god, what you're trying to get at."
"Yessir. West African, came to America by way of the slave trade."
"And what's an old African god doing out here in the middle of Wisconsin? Honestly, I would've thought I'd have run into Odin or Thor or someone, in this freezing middle of nowhere."
"He just came by here a few days ago, the one you call 'Odin'."
I laughed. And half believed him. But I hadn't been high in weeks. Pot is easier to come by when you're not trying to exude a veneer of respectability for the sake of your graduate advisor.
"You're getting brighter by the minute."
"That one I've never heard before, Anansi."
"You been to Africa?"
"Two years. Peace Corps, Senegal." I felt almost foolish to mention this to him.
"I lived a couple of countries over. Though it was much more complicated back then. You white people screwed everything up."
"That's something I heard a million times. This time, I have to agree."
"Like I said, you're getting brighter by the minute."
"Mind if I smoke?"
"Not at all."
I lit up again, filled my lungs with carcinogenic goodness. Anansi stared at me, looking me over as though he had a question or two to ask himself.
"You want one, Anansi?"
"I can't turn it down."
I handed him a cigarette, the kind I've smoked ever since my senior year. Djarum Bali Hais. Indonesian kreteks. Go great with a cold beer on a warm evening. He seemed grateful to accept my offering.
"They used to burn sacrifices for me. I smoke these days to remind me of when people used to offer burnt sacrifices to me."
"Reminiscing?" I had worked with a schizophrenic back in my undergrad years, and was used to following along in conversations that made no logical sense.
"When you're immortal, you have a lot to reminisce about."
"My curiosity's getting the better of me."
"You want to hear a story?"
He cleared his throat and took another drag of the cigarette I gave him.
"Lion was sitting under a tree one day, when up came Leopard, looking all flustered. Lion asks him, what's the matter.
"Leopard tells him he seen the strangest thing he ever saw. It walked on two legs like Ostrich, but had no feathers. It was as naked and smooth as Snake, and was black as dirt. It had hands like Monkey, but no tail. It looked like no other creature Leopard had ever seen. Its huge, round head stood on a thin, spindly neck, and the meat on its bones could hardly fill his family's stomach. Its teeth and claws were tinier than a cub's, and duller than Elephant's. Yet, it walked around like Lion, like he owned the entire earth he stepped on. Leopard had no idea what to make of it.
"Lion thinks it over for a second, and tells Leopard to watch out for this one, this creature's more dangerous than anything else that walked on the earth or flew in the sky. He tells Leopard that this one is the enemy of them all."
"We humans really know how to fuck things up."
"You sure do."
"Thanks for the story, Anansi."
"Thanks for the smoke, Andy."
I thought to pick up my lighter and pack of cloves, but decided not to. This detour was well worth the six bucks these smokes cost me, and he sure seemed happy to take them off my hands.