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Authors: Jeffrey Ford

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BOOK: Crackpot Palace
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I walked a mile or more that first time in the Barrens and saw no one. Finally, at a place where a stream ran alongside the trail, I stopped, surrounded by endless pine and oak. Red and yellow leaves covered the underbrush. It was so quiet that when the wind blew, I could hear the pines creaking as they swayed. Off at a distance, a crow cawed. Right then I felt something curl in my chest, and I turned around and started back. I saw deer watching me from deeper in among the trees.

Back in my car, I went up the dirt hill and crossed Route 206. On my way up Atsion toward home, I spotted a large, hand-painted sign on the side of the road. In bright green on an orange background it read
ART SHOW TODAY! ALL WELCOME!
Then I saw it was at Crackpop's house, and I was pulling over. There were a number of cars parked along Atsion and more pulled up into the lot next to the house. When I got out of my car, I saw people in the backyard and smelled a barbecue.

I passed beneath the writhing tree giants in front and went around back. There were more of the crazy sculptures in the big backyard and from their twisted hands hung paintings and mobiles made from animal bones. Some people sat under them smoking pot, and pretty much everybody there had an open beer. People just nodded to me and smiled. Kids and teenagers and old people, black, white, and a woman made up like an Arab sheikh in white robes. When I passed the grill a young guy with a goatee and tattoos all over his arms, holding a spatula, offered me a hot dog. I accepted and moved on, strolling around from painting to painting.

Crackpop was no Picasso, but the images were sort of charming in their neo-kindergarten style. They were all depictions of events in the Barrens—Indians and deer and settlers hunting wild turkey. There was one of a burial beneath a giant oak, and a whole series of what looked like demons. I felt self-conscious there, so I lit a cigarette and strolled closer to the house. When the music, Faron Young's “Hello Walls” scratching away on an old Victrola, ended, I heard a woman call my name. I looked around.

“In here,” I heard her say, and I turned and looked into the shadow of a screened porch I was standing near.

“Who is that?” I said, shading my eyes to try to see.

“Ginny Sanger,” came the voice.

I walked over to the concrete block that stood where steps should have, hoisted myself up, and opened the screen door. My eyes adjusted, and I saw Ginny sitting in a redwood lawn chair next to Crackpop, who wore some kind of animal pelt over his shoulders; a red, white, and blue headband; and his usual getup. He had a joint between his fingers that was as thick as a cigar.

Ginny introduced me and said, “This is Sherman Gretts, the artist.” I stepped over and shook the old man's hand.

“Seen you at the pizza place,” he said.

I nodded. “I was looking at your paintings,” I said.

“Want to buy one?” he asked and laughed.

“How much?” I said.

He motioned for me to sit down in the empty chair next to his. I did. He passed me the joint and I took a hit. Ginny took it from me. Gretts leaned close and said, “She tells me that you're a writer.”

“I am,” I said.

“Why do you write?” he asked.

“Because I like to,” I told him and he laughed.

He stubbed the joint out and said, “Okay, you want to witness something?”

“What do you mean?”

“I'll give you a painting if you bear witness to me. Ginny'll be my other witness.”

“To what?” I asked.

“I'll show you,” he said. He reached down beside his chair and lifted into his lap a rolled-up pink bath towel. He laid it on the coffee table in front of us. “First thing, you gotta listen to me,” he said.

I nodded.

“Back in 1863, a book titled
The American Nations,
written by this gent Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, was published. In it Rafinesque, as he was known here, claimed to have had revealed to him by the Lenape a copy of the Wallum Olam, a book written on tree bark in ancient pictographs, telling the narrative of how the Lenape had arrived in the area from far away due to a great flood.” The old man took a beer off the table, snapped it open, and handed it to me.

“Rafinesque even hinted that some of the scenes had shown the early Lenape beginnings in Siberia. By the time the book came out, though, he said the actual Wallum Olam had been destroyed in a fire, but assured the reading public that the reprinted pictographs in his book were authentic. But of course they weren't. Of course they weren't.” Here Crackpop went silent for a moment and leaned back in his seat.

I glanced over at Ginny and she winked at me.

“His was a fraud,” the old man began again. “But like so many things labeled false, it holds some pieces of truth. I'm telling you the Wallum Olam is a real thing. Let's just say that I have contact with a certain sect of the Lenape who guard the real Wallum Olam at the dark heart of the forest. What I'm going to show you is a page of it.” Sherman put his yellow-nailed hand out and unrolled the towel. Within it was a roll of the thinnest piece of birch bark, so supple it appeared to have the texture of cloth. It was off white, and in the center was a black drawing of a giant turtle with a man straddling its back.

“You didn't make that, Sherman?” asked Ginny with a stoned smile.

“Oh, it's real,” he said. “If they find out I took it, they'll send a mahtantu after me.”

“What's that?” I asked.

“A kind of demon,” said Ginny.

“You didn't notice this when you came in I bet, but my house is surrounded by a small concrete gutter full of water. I keep a pump running twenty-four/seven in it so the demons can't get in. I was taught that evil spirits can't cross running water.”

“What happens when you leave the house?” I asked.

“I have to be really careful, perform rituals and such before I go out. I can't mess up.”

“What are the chances of that?” I asked.

“I can do it,” he said, “but the question is, can you two? Remember, you're my witnesses. If you tell anyone outside of this protected area, even in a whisper, about what I've shown you, they'll know I took it and it won't matter how careful I am. So you've got to promise not to tell anyone.”

“Okay,” I said. “It's a deal.” I stood up and shook his hand. I said a quick good-bye to Ginny, thanked the old man, and split, almost missing the concrete block on the way down. Crackpop said I could take a painting, and as much as I wanted to just get out of there, I had to stop and consider it. The old man was truly insane, and his slow revelation of it on the porch gave me the creeps, not to mention old Ginny smoking a joint and secretly mocking him to me. On the other hand, I knew that years later, if I didn't have something tangible to attach to this story, when I told it, no one would believe me. I grabbed the rendering of the oak tree burial from the hand of a tree-being. As I relieved it of the picture's weight, the wooden giant moved, as if stretching. All the way home, with that painting in the backseat, I kept checking the rearview mirror.

Lynn took one look at the painting and said, “No,” so I hung it in my office. Later that night, in bed, she asked me about my walk. I told her about the church and the art show. I really wanted to tell her about the bizarre episode of my bearing witness, but I swear I didn't. And the fact that I didn't followed me into sleep.

Time passed, a couple of years, and both kids were in school and Lynn and I were both working. The Curse of Crackpop wasn't the worst that could happen, and so the whole thing faded pretty quickly from my thoughts. Occasionally, I'd see him on the move, and I'd wonder what rituals he'd performed in order to walk so far from home. At other times, I'd notice the painting hanging in my office, and that would make me think of him as well. All this was fleeting, though, in the onrush of our lives. Through all of it, even drunk at the holidays or stoned with old friends, I kept the old man's secret.

More time passed, and the whole thing was as prevalent in my thoughts as my third birthday party, when one night Lynn came home from work pretty upset. She was trembling slightly.

“Crackpop,” she said. “I almost hit him. He's drunk or something, stumbling around in the middle of Atsion Road.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.

“Fuck him. I almost hit a tree trying to avoid him.”

“What should we do?”

“What are you going to do?” she said. “Stay out of it.”

“Somebody's gonna hit him,” I said.

“He's popped his last crack,” said Lynn. She picked up the phone and called the local cops.

Maybe a month after that, I heard, in a matter of two weeks from different neighbors and the guy at the 7-Eleven, that Crackpop had a meltdown at the pizza place, engaging in some unwelcome bellowing, then he was spotted weaving along Atsion one afternoon, literally frothing at the mouth; after that a car did hit a tree, trying to avoid him, though no one was injured. This chain of events ended in his being hit and killed one night by a semi. Our neighbor, Dave, told us about it at the beach. He knew one of the cops who was called to the scene. “Gretts was completely obliterated,” he said.

I waited a few months out of some strange sense of respect, and then I told Lynn at the end of summer. We sat out back on the screened porch, having coffee by candlelight. The crickets were strong and the night was cool. When I finished telling her about my bearing witness to Crackpop, the first thing she said was, “Does that mean Ginny told someone and the old man was possessed by a demon?”

I laughed. “I didn't think of that,” I said.

Soon after, there was another fatal accident down on Atsion. Four high school kids in a white Windstar, drunk and high, veered off the road into a large oak tree. The driver was killed instantly, the two in the back died later, and only the front passenger, having been thrown from the vehicle, lived. That person was Duane Geppi, and when he finally came to, he swore to the cops that it was Crackpop, back from the dead, who had come lunging out of the shadows at the van. That story made the rounds. I heard it from a number of different people and told it to more. Hence a legend was born. Weird old guy, hit by a truck on Atsion, comes back from the dead to walk the road, seeking revenge against the world that shunned him. Reports of his ill-intentioned specter showed up frequently in the local paper around Halloween, and I heard from my older son that kids sometimes drove out that way toward the lake, hoping for an encounter. Eventually, Crackpop's house burned down in a fire of “mysterious origins,” as it was reported. They didn't know the half of it.

What really scared me was something else entirely. That question Lynn had asked me about whether Ginny might have given away the old man's secret came back to me every time I'd see the oak tree painting in my office. I knew the only way I could find out whether she had or not was to meet her face-to-face. I believed that even if she lied to me when I asked her, I'd be able to detect the truth in her expression. I called the couple who'd had us to our first Christmas party in town, where I'd met Ginny, and spoke to the wife. I told her I wanted to get Ginny Sanger's phone number. She said she didn't know who I was talking about. I described the stately older woman with white hair, and she said, “I can tell you for sure, we don't know anyone like that.”

“She doesn't visit you sometimes? She lives down Atsion.”

“You must be thinking about one of your books,” she said, laughed, and hung up.

I scoured the phone book, paid for an Internet trace, stopped and talked to old people when I'd see them out in their yards along Atsion Road. Nobody had ever heard of Ginny Sanger. I took some solace in the fact that Lynn attested to having met her. There wasn't a Sanger in the county, though. It took me years to figure it out, my kids are in college now, but I had the answer hanging in front of me the whole time.

I found her yesterday, in the circular cemetery next to the white church. The giant oak looking on, I scraped some moss off one of the stones and there she was:
VIRGINIA SANGER, BORN 1770—DIED 1828
. Like I said to Lynn, don't ask me to explain. I don't understand my own part in what happened, let alone Ginny's. What I was fairly certain of, though, was that, if I went into that church and went through their archive, I'd find some thread of a story about her, a sketch, a letter, and then there'd be no end to it—legend giving way to legend, like a hydra. That's the way it is here. The mind of the place manifesting in human legends that intersect and interbreed into a vast invisible wilderness all their own. We really only live along the edge of the Pine Barrens, but, still, for whatever reason, that spirit reached out and gathered us in.

A Note About “Down Atsion Road”

The Jersey Devil isn't the weirdest thing in New Jersey by a long shot. As a matter of fact, when I lived there, I had neighbors who make him look like a patsy. That creature has gotten the most publicity, though, which is a shame because there are literally hundreds of legends that exist in and around the Pine Barrens. There's the White Stag, the Black Doctor, the Atco Phantom, Captain Kidd at Reed's Bay, the Rabbit Woman, Jerry Munyhon (a kind of Barrens wizard who, when turned down for a job at Hanover Furnace, cast a spell and filled it with black and white crows), more ghosts from every era than you can shake a stick at, and that's not mentioning any of the Lenape legends. If you live there for a while and keep your eyes and ears open to these tales, as I did, being a writer of the fantastic, it soon became evident that there was something about the place that engendered legend. Part of this has to do with the enormity of the wilderness, its loneliness and mazelike quality, but I think the main reason is that there is some kind of sentient energy at its heart, as if it is aware and scheming, imbuing the lives of those who live in it or near it with some kelson of its primordial consciousness. The feeling is palpable. I've only felt this from a landscape in one other place I've been, the Scottish Highlands. I spent ten days there once in a cottage near the Isle of Skye. The place was remarkably beautiful, but haunted. There was a pervasive feeling of melancholy and loneliness mixed into the spectacular views of the mountains and lochs. I definitely felt as if the place was alive, like some sleeping giant dreaming. “Down Atsion Road” is my attempt to chronicle the supernatural influence of the Barrens. Believe me when I tell you that most of this story is true, and the parts that aren't are the incidentals. The strange wilderness has been shaping legends since humanity first set foot there. They crisscross and interconnect like a web. Through them, it communicates with us. Consider this, a vast piece of real estate in the Northeast, within commuting distance of New York City, that remains virtually untouched. Think of the money it would be worth to developers, think of the towns and malls and roads that could be cut into it. As other landscapes fall to the onslaught of “progress,” the Barrens has retained itself. Pretty damn cunning, if you ask me.

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