It occurs to me that some of you may wonder why you aren’t seeing The Charlatan’s Boy on store shelves. The release date, after all, was supposed to be August 10. The release date is now October 5. This is a good thing. I turned in the manuscript very late–so late, in fact, that Waterbrook’s sales, marketing, and publicity teams didn’t really have time to pave the way for the book in the way that they would have liked to. So they moved the date to give themselves more time to do what they need to do–getting reviews, lining up bookstore orders, etc.. The people at Waterbrook and Random House might have said “Too bad” and let the book limp out into the world. But they believed in The Charlatan’s Boy enough to back up and take their time. For which I am very grateful.
One Mother’s Day my cousin Todd went out to see our grandmother, who at the time lived halfway to Hawkinsville. The visit was uneventful enough, but on the drive home Todd saw something he had never seen in his life: a roadkill alligator. He stopped the car and got out to get a good look at the poor alligator. It was a big one–eight or nine feet long with a great scuted tail and the same dreamy smile in death that it had worn in life. Todd marveled at the thing for a while, then got back in his car. His friend Brad was expecting him.
When Todd got to Brad’s apartment, the television was on, tuned to a National Geographic nature documentary called “Realm of the Alligator.” Brad, fascinated by the program, didn’t even take his eyes off the screen as he greeted Todd and motioned for him to join him on the couch. A scientist was swimming in a lagoon full of alligators and snapping their pictures. “Look at him,” Brad said, gesturing toward the screen. “They could eat him right now. Can you imagine?”
“That reminds me,” Todd said. “I saw a dead gator on the side of the road today.”
Brad snapped around and stared wide-eyed at Todd. “A real alligator?” he breathed. “Dead?”
“It was there today?”
“It was there half an hour ago. On 247, almost to my Granny’s house.”
Brad was already getting up from the couch. “We’ve got to go get it!” he said. “We’ve got to go get it this minute!” Brad was a young man of great enthusiasms, almost to a fault. He was determined to wring every bit of life out of each day. That particular hour he was more interested in alligators than anything else in the world; he wasn’t going to let an unclaimed alligator molder by the side of the road.
It took some doing to get the alligator in the back of Brad’s truck; an adult alligator weighs several hundred pounds. But they managed. Todd’s dad’s house wasn’t far from where they picked up the alligator, so they went there to skin it out. Todd got the alligator hide, since he was the one who found it. Brad got the head; he hadn’t decided exactly what he was going to do with it, but at the very least he planned to scare girls with it. They cut up the tail meat and put it in Todd’s dad’s refrigerator to marinate, planning to reconvene in a couple of days for a gator fry.
Todd didn’t know much about tanning an alligator hide, but he figured drying it out was surely one of the first steps. So he flopped it over the privacy fence behind his apartment.
When Todd left for work the next morning–he was assistant manager at a shoe store–the flies were already buzzing around the gator hide in the growing warmth. Hmm….he thought to himself as he got into his car. I probably need another plan for curing that hide.
Shortly after lunch a man in khaki came into the shoe store. “I’m looking for a Todd M______,” he said.
“That’s me,” Todd said. “I’m Todd M_____.”
“Mr. M_______,” the man said, “I’m Officer Osborne from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Could you step outside with me?”
Somebody from the apartment complex, perhaps offended by the smell and the fly-buzz around Todd’s gator hide, had ratted him out.
“Mr. M_____,” said the game warden, “did you know it is a violation of Georgia law to possess an alligator carcass?”
“I didn’t know that,” Todd said.
“Well it is,” said Officer Osborne. “It’s a serious violation. I confiscated an alligator hide from from a fence in the Sandpiper Apartment complex. I have been given to believe that it was your alligator hide. Was it your alligator hide, Mr. M_____?”
“Well, yes, it is. But…”
“I’m going to need to confiscate the remainder of the carcass,” Officer Osborne said. “And I’m also going to confiscate the vehicle you were in when you harvested the alligator, as well as the gun you shot it with.”
“The gun I shot it with?” Todd fairly shouted. “I didn’t shoot any alligator! I found it. Dead. It was roadkill.
A sneer curled the game warden’s lip. “Roadkill,” he said. “You’re not the first to tell me that one.”
“It’s the truth,” Todd said. “I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Can anybody corroborate your story?”
“Sure. Brad W______ was with me. He helped me get it in the truck. Or I helped him.”
“This Brad W_______,” the warden said, “you tell me where I can find him. If he tells the same story you tell, you might be off the hook.”
It was a long and worrisome hour that Todd waited for Officer Osborne to talk to Brad. He hoped Brad would just tell the truth and tell it straight. But Brad, in his youthful exuberance, had had occasion to speak with officers of the law before this. He could be a little cagey.
In the end, Brad’s story and Todd’s story and Todd’s father’s story all checked out, and all was well. But Officer Osborne insisted on confiscating as much of the carcass as he could. He already had the hide from his initial visit to Todd’s apartment. He drove to Brad’s place and pulled the alligator head out of the freezer, never to frighten a girl or anybody else. He even drove out to Todd’s dad’s house and got the tail meat out of the bowl in which it was marinating.
The gator fry was cancelled.
A lot of people assume you have to go to the swamp to find feechiefolks. But as we learned in Nashville this past May, sometimes the swamp comes to you. When the Flood of 2010 inundated much of Nashville, a neighbor of my friend Thomas McKenzie got in touch with his inner feechie. Here’s the footage, taken by Father Thomas himself.
My flight arrived at 10:30 at night. There were about a dozen of us on the shuttle bus to long-term parking, and I was careful not to make eye contact with anybody, lest I find myself engaged in a conversation. Across from me sat a man with a banjo case. To my right, one of those old boys–a salesman type–who’s always striking up conversations with strangers who would just as soon be left alone. He started egging on the banjo picker to play us a song.
To my surprise, the man opened up his case, pulled out the banjo, and played us a ripping rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” It was an amazing thing, to be cruising around the airport parking lot in a bus with this banjo picker playing his heart out for us.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget how that little space was transformed the moment the first few notes rang out. At the risk of overstating the case, something resembling a community began to emerge among people who would have normally treated one another with jealously guarded indifference. In one of most impersonal, clock-managed, overly technologized settings you can imagine, humanity exerted itself.
When the banjo picker packed up and got off at his stop, one of the remaining passengers on the bus turned to me and said, “You know who that was, don’t you? That was Bela Fleck.”
I hesitate to provide that detail, lest this story come across as a celebrity-spotting, my-brush-with-greatness anecdote. That’s not the point at all. The music did its work on us just fine without our knowing we were being treated to a private concert by a celebrity virtuoso.
But knowing that it was Bela Fleck who played for us only amplified what I already understood: his performance on the bus was an act of generosity. Mr. Fleck was coming off a concert tour of Asia and Australia; if I’m not mistaken, when his plane landed that night, it was the first time he had been home in over a month. And yet he pulled out his banjo and played a song for a dozen people who had no way of knowing what they were getting.
Why would he do that? I don’t know, of course, but I wonder if it was because he was the only person on the bus who could do it. The artist’s imperative, at its heart, is to give what nobody else can give.
An artist does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.