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You will die

Love tempers threats of damnation

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Daniel tells me to shoot him through the head when he gets old enough to wear adult diapers. "Me, too," says Grant. "Just make it quick," they tell me, and precise, adds Daniel. "I don't want that bullet to richochet off my jaw and come out my eye socket. I'm not leaving no messy corpse."

"Corpse, nothing," says Grant. "With your luck, you'll survive."

I tell them to shut their asses up. I'm not shooting them, I'm not serving them poison pudding, I'm not wrapping their faces in cellophane and I'm not pushing them out of a helicopter at a high altitude (which, to be fair, is Lary's preference and something I can actually see myself doing). But truthfully, I don't care if they get so old and decrepit that there's nothing left of them except their liver-spotted heads attached to tubes in a fishbowl, I'm not pulling the plug!

"Do you understand that, you couple of coddled chickenshits?" I yell. "You're gonna live, you know that, don't you? Neither of you pussies are gonna die a damn second sooner than you have to, do you hear me?"

Pretending not to, they each put the muzzle of an imaginary gun in their mouths. "Pow," they whisper as they pull the trigger. God, I have to admit I do want to kill them right now.

But most of the time they are bearable. I have to admit that, too. I remember it wasn't that long ago that we three made our famous pilgrimage to Prattville, Ala. It was a rainy day, but we drove with the top down anyway. Grant said, "If you drive fast enough you won't get wet," and he was right. Daniel was in the back seat, a hammer in his lap, keeping watch for homemade religious signs peppering the highway on the way down. All of us were in overalls.

Our mission was to visit the Cross Man of Prattville, the legendary lunatic who had transformed the anemic acreage surrounding his home north of Montgomery into a roadside attraction supporting a morass of crudely painted religious signs and other fire-and-brimstone artwork promising hell and damnation to unsalvaged souls.

The Cross Man was rumored to shoot at trespassers, but, bullets aside, I couldn't think of a better way to spend the afternoon. The day before a cashier yelled at me because I gave a buck to a bum in front of her store ("Don't give that man money! Not on my property!"), and the meanness of people in general was starting to sadden me. So it was good to get away, to barrel through the rain at 85 mph with two of my closest friends on a quest for some kind of Doom Forest with Daniel waving his hammer and Grant laughing into the wind, "Hell is hot, hot, hot!"

About 100 miles north of Montgomery, Daniel spotted a sign nailed to a tree along the freeway. It was a good one, too; a large, sloppy-painted piece of plywood with the words, "Repent! Final Warning!" stenciled across the front. Grant immediately pulled over and we clamored out of the car to pry it off the tree. We put it in the trunk and drove away, but not before Daniel replaced the sign with one of his own. Back in the car, he pointed to his sign and asked, "Can you see that OK from the freeway?" Grant and I agreed that you could see it fine.

Finally we ambled into Prattville, asked directions, turned on the right road and there it was: The Cross Garden. The rain had stopped but dark clouds clotted the gray sky. It was a perfect backdrop for the rusty tin, plywood, abandoned cars and broken appliances that made up the clusters of giant crosses and coarsely painted signs broadcasting the pain of damnation: "You Will Die," "No Water in Hell," "Sex = Hell."

It was sinister, eerie and magnificent. We climbed out of the car and flitted about, giddy like kids in Disneyland. Then we found the Cross Man himself, sitting sagely on a chair under a tree. The aluminum walker propped up next to him was festooned with ribbons. A nest of crosses lay splayed across his barrel chest, each on the end of a thin string, looking like little leashed pets let out for a walk. He was, of coarse, in his pajamas.

"I like those crosses," he said, pointing to my ears. I had forgotten I wore those earrings. The Cross Man continued, "You will die. You know that, don't you? Are you ready for it? You will die."

His 10-year-old granddaughter sat at his feet and looked up sweetly. She was painting "Hell is Hot" on a collection of hastily fashioned crosses the size of the kind used to ward off Dracula in the movies. The Cross Man pointed to the pile and told us to take our pick. We did so and left elated, calling out our gratitude all the way back to the car. "You will die," the Cross Man called after us.

On the way home, we waved our crosses at truck drivers on the freeway, and they honked back. Later we passed the sign on the roadside that Daniel had posted in exchange for the one in our trunk. "Look, you can see it from this side of the freeway, too," he exclaimed. We sped by and watched it shrink in the distance. "Love," is what it said.

hollis.gillespie@creativeloafing.com

Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To hear the latest, go to Moodswing at atlanta.creativeloafing.com.

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