Keeping the Flame Alive. Hand holding lit candle.

Wizard, Gatekeeper of East Jesus Art Garden

Kristi Rogers

Travelogue

I am a multimedia artist, entrepreneur, and design educator based in beautiful Trinidad, CO. While I have recently focused on the creation of wearable art from leather, metal, fabric, found objects, and electronics, creative writing was my first art. Following a 17-year hiatus, I have taken it up again, beginning with this short story based around my interaction with a wonderful human in Slab City, CA while on an extended road trip in 2017.

Wizard, Gatekeeper of East Jesus Art Garden

 

His spindly fingers twine about his wine glass and the red liquid dances merrily with the quivering of his hand. As he raises his glass to lips that seek it eagerly, arm and hand together form a tenuous spiraling staircase curving upward to become lost in a tobacco-stained mass of frenzied white whiskers. When contrasted with the ruddiness of his nose and cheeks, my newfound friend’s bright blue eyes are bluer still, and fault lines wreak havoc across the otherwise firm contours of his face—the characteristics of a wanderer who has lived life hard and suddenly finds himself in his twilight years, abruptly awakened from one endless rave aged and wizened. "I have no short-term memory," he says to me, shifting in his chair with a quick quirk of his shoulders and laughing shortly. "It's fine because that means it's always new. It's all new. Yes." He nods to himself and raises the glass to his lips again, and with practiced dexterity, follows the swig of red liquid with a short inhalation of tobacco smoke from the pipe in his other hand, which he then allows to drop to his side, almost dragging it in the dust beneath his rough-shod shoes. 


We sit at the entrance to East Jesus Art Garden, situated in a scorched part of the desert in Southern California, to which I am currently a visitor, while he serves as its loyal gatekeeper and docent for curious passersby eager to behold the various outsider art pieces, welded bits of reject metal, and discarded objects-turned-art that jumble together in a visual cacophony and manage to convey both intentional form and whimsy. "It's always Christmas, then," I say, playing along. "Well, yes. Yes. My name's Wizard. Bet you won't forget that." He laughs again, flashing teeth that match his beard, ombre white to brown. We talk for longer then, faces squinting into the desert sun and lips parting in both laughter and in enjoyment of boxed wine. "I always say yes, you know," he says abruptly, interrupting the smooth arc with which he had brought his glass to his lips. "Yes?" As I form the word, I observe that the red wine now spattled his brown and white beard, further deepening the ombre effect. "Yes. In my life, so much good has come of my simply saying yes. Yes to the good and to the bad. Yes. Yes to opportunity. Why not? Whyever say no? Yes. Yes. YES." He chortles then, with seeming glee, but I can't help thinking that for as much as he expresses delight in his choices, an air of melancholy and textured heaviness hangs about him, like an invisible cloak that is palpable only when someone gets close enough to brush up against it. He really is a wizard of sorts...but of what, I cannot yet say. 


His Franzia eventually gave way to our Bota Box, and as I watched and marveled, he poured what had to have been his fifth or sixth tumbler of wine and continued. "Except there was my son. I should have said no." I waited to see if there was more. "I was selfish then. Had other priorities. Was saying yes to other things, stupid things. What I should have done was gotten the hamburger rather than the steak. Yes. Definitely the hamburger. For his sake." Another ten seconds went by, and as he swirled the wine in his glass restlessly and jiggled his foot, pursing his lips in the direction of the sunbaked earth, I asked, "Where is he now? Your son?" The foot paused mid-bounce. "He's away. But I'm trying to make up for lost time. We'll see." With that last sentence, he abruptly jerked his head in the upright direction and his lanky form lifted itself out of his chair as if propelled by an unseen force, bringing him to stand at rapt attention with eyes wide and fixed on a point far above my head in the cloudless sky. For a brief moment, he became sculpture in disharmonious union with the hyperextended figures shaped from welded pipe installed directly behind him. He broke ranks with the stillness, however, as his thin body flailed with unbridled joy. Now thrusting his brimful glass heavenward, he crowed, "HERE'S TO BROTHELS! YAHOOOOO!" Well. I stared hard at him, a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth. That was certainly unexpected. Then a laugh welled up inside me so quickly that it emerged as a mirthful hiccup. His head was kicked back now, chin pointing to the sun, and arms flung akimbo with feet spread wide. "YES. Here's to brothels and one day I will GO to one and NEVER leave!" Seconds, maybe minutes passed, and then arms, head, and shoulders begrudgingly reassumed their normal positions. I remained still like his welded pipe sentry as he gazed out across the vast expanse of outsider art, an unlikely king surveying his equally unlikely kingdom. "Oh yeah, well I suppose there are worse ways to spend your days!" I finally said jokingly, making the poor assumption that he was kidding. Definitely the opposite of yes. Now his bright blue eyes cut my way like lasers, glowing despite the brightness of the sun. "But I'm serious. When I get enough money together, I will go there. I hope I make it. And I will die there. Because that way I will go out in the pleasure of a beautiful woman's company and I won't die alone." The watchful sun suddenly glared overly hot on my face and head, and I sensed that we were both measuring the few long moments that now passed in silence. "And when do you think that will be?" I finally asked. I felt strangely hollow for the way his last words had bounced against my insides. "Could be anytime now. Anytime. They call me Wizard you know. I could magick out of here anytime. I just need to get there first." 


He continued telling me his plans for traveling to the brothel of beautiful women where he would live out his days, informing me of his name at least another four times. He was delightful. As he talked, I observed how the tangled hair of his eyebrows, head, and beard seemed to animate in the light, catching and grabbing it in places. He was no angel but he somehow managed to carry the look of a halo rather well and gifted anyone with whom he spoke with a fleeting sense of abandon and freedom of expression through his own lack of self-consciousness. Very apt for the gatekeeper of East Jesus Art Garden. Yes. This man was a non-angel, which is different from a not-angel. Perhaps he was a YES-angel. Unabashedly fallen but powerful through his embrace of life and gusto for its goodness. And he was absolutely magical in the speed with which he disappeared boxes of wine. I shook my head then and realized that I was myself a bit tipsy and my head and neck hurt from draping too heavily over my hand while I listened to this life-wizened but ever-youthful, odd man. 


Since that sun-drenched afternoon in the art garden, I have thought of Wizard when the bright sun glinted just so off rusted metal, when savoring the last drops of a bottle of red wine, or while perusing a menu on which both hamburger and steak were offered as options. I hope he made it to his brothel and I realize that his particular magic was manifested in his strange authenticity and the humble and forthright way he freely discussed his own failures, which juxtaposed interestingly with his childlike anticipation of the trip that would lead him to his next and last destination. I remember him when I feel the necessity of being open. Of being brave enough to say YES despite the fear of what good or bad might happen. Accept the good but have hamburger rather than steak if choosing the latter comes at great cost to others. And when your time comes, find beauty and cradle it close until the very end.