Last week, I attended a Freelance Menu Writer conference in Papier Mâché, Louisiana.
At the close of the first day’s session, I shook myself awake, went outside, and sought some recreation. Didn’t want to go to the bar with most everyone else and didn’t want to go back to my ratty room at the King Cotton Hylton (“Gym of the Delta!”), either, so I just went for a walk.
A dust devil came swirling down the street and plastered a piece of paper to my leg. I peeled it off and read it. It was an advertisement for Madam Señora: psychic prognosticator. It was close by, only cost five bucks, and things couldn’t get any worse, so why not go see how the fortune cookie crumbled?
She was nice enough, but I was having my doubts after ten minutes of generic nonsense that could apply to anyone. At least it was something different, something fun, something interesting, and perhaps I’d made a new friend in a strange land. We chatted and sipped some kind of weird-ass tea.
I mentioned an imaginary childhood friend whom I am still in touch with—mostly on holidays and during hypnogogic hallucinations.
“This friend have a name?”
“Yes, her name is Kay Possum.”
Madam Señora’s eyes lit up. She smiled and said, “Oh, I know her!”
And she did! She described Kay perfectly. She knew Kay’s favorite song, favorite flower, even described the way her laugh sounds like an orange snow cone—most folks can’t hear that.
At the end of conference day two, I wanted nothing more than to have another spot of tea with Madam Señora. It had been an interesting evening and I didn’t remember leaving.
When I got to her place, there was no one there, nor did it look like anyone had been there in quite a while. The windows and doors were boarded up; the nails in the boards were rusty. I double checked the address. It was the right place, but it was all wrong.
The Papier Mâché Public Library was still open, so I went inside and spoke with a man named Rhett Pepper. Mr. Pepper did not look at all comfortable with my questions.
He led me to a room lined with microfilm machines, searched through some boxes, and popped in a reel. “These are old copies of our local newspaper, the Papier Mâché Picayune.”
He zipped and whizzed back over a hundred years until he found the one he was looking for. “Look at that: Coffee was only five cents a pound! But you didn’t come here to research grocery prices, did you? Still, it is interesting.” Zip…whiz. “Ah! Here we are. Read this.”
Had I known what hornswoggled was, I’d have been it. According to the article, Madam Señora’s place dematerialized, with her still in it, over a century ago. The shell of the dwelling, with the boarded up windows and doors, rematerialized a few days later. It has stood a vacant mystery ever since.
Mr. Pepper said, “Kids love to go there on Halloween and dare each other to run up and touch the door or organically hydrate the dead flowers around the porch, but no one has ever gone inside.”
“What would happen if someone went inside?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t know…because, like I said, no one has ever gone inside.”
No one but me, I thought.
Rhett Pepper walked me to the front door, shook my hand, and wished me well. I thanked him for his time and turned to leave. “Funny thing,” he said, as if he’d just remembered something.
I turned back around. “I love funny things, Mr. Pepper. Care to let me in on it?”
He took off his glasses and clumsily cleaned them with his tie—it was a bowtie, so you can imagine how clumsily. “I’m an educated man, not given over to fantasy and foolishness, but some people, some of them quite sane, have reported over the years that when the breeze is just so, they can detect the unmistakable aroma of weird-ass tea coming from the old place.”
I went back to my motel room, kicked off my shoes, and lay supine on the bed. A brief time passed; then the mattress started to shake. My eyes popped open. It was dark, but I saw another pair of eyes looking back at me from across the room.
“Hey, Kay! How’s it going?”
“Going well, thanks. How about you?” She flipped on the lights.
“Let’s just say I’m glad to see you. I have a few questions.”
“First, I didn’t think this was earthquake country, but the mattress is vibrating like crazy. You don’t seem the least bit concerned about it.”
Kay laughed. (Did you just picture an orange snow cone?) “Oh, that’s the Magic Fingers machine by the bed. It’s old and just kicks on by itself sometimes. If anyone dropped a quarter in it and tried to get it to work on purpose, nothing would happen.”
“Oh. Okay. So, what can you tell me about Madam Señora?”
“What would you like to know?”
I told her the whole story.
Kay looked at me, that look that meant I shouldn’t have to ask. “Think about it.”
“I’ve been doing little else!”
She smiled. “Would you like a clue?”
I looked at her, that look that meant she shouldn’t have to ask.
“Okay,” she said. “Madam Señora knows me, right?”
“And who am I?”
“Obviously, you’re my imaginary friend.”
“Therefore, Madam Señora must also be ____. Come on, fill in the blank.”
A slow knowing crept over me. “Imaginary?”
“Give that man a cigar!”
“Yeah, but boy howdy, Kay, she seemed so Real!”
She gave me a playful, pouty look. “And I don’t?”
“Of course you do! But you and I go back a long way. I just met Madam Señora yesterday.”
“That’s part of the fun. With imaginary friends, time is almost meaningless. As meaningless as what you call the real world.”
“That’s the problem, Kay. I swear it’s getting to where I cannot tell one from the other. Things go on in the so-called real world that have all the earmarks of a bizarre dream; they don’t make a lick of sense. In fact, the imaginary world makes a hell of a lot more sense.”
“Maybe this ‘real world’ is imaginary, also, just with more folks buying into it.”
“Buying in is right! Man, we’ll buy anything. All an advertiser has to do is make us feel inadequate or uncool or undesirable; then we’ll buy all manner of worthless crap.”
Kay smiled. “Before you tear into religion and politics, I already know how they prey on the populace. Let me just remind you that reality, like sanity, boils down to nothing but majority opinion. If people choose to buy into a certain version of what’s real, well, that’s their problem.”
“But so many don’t know it is a choice.”
“So, dedicate your life to telling them.”
“I’m too tired. You know, it would be one thing if their choices made them happy, but they almost never do. There’s so much trumped up drama. Every area of life has taken on the air of professional wrestling. It’s all Snidely Whiplash, and Nell is tied to the railroad tracks. And our Dudley Do-Right is better, badder, faster than your Dudley Do-Right, and our theologians can beat up your theologians. It’s an endless loop of counterproductive dog shi—!”
“Yeah, you seem real happy, too.”
I had to grin. She had me there.
“As your friend,” she said, “I really do believe you’d be better off staying here with Madam Señora and me. That double-speak, no-think thing you call the real world? It scares me.”
“Me, too. Well, it doesn’t really scare me; I just want no part of it.”
“Let’s go home.”
“You’ve got plenty of tea at your place, right?”
She gave me that look...