Many years ago, as I was wandering in the raw poetry of time like a little Jewish mariachi, I received a strange gift. This, of itself, is not unusual. Any entertainer or musician who performs countless one-night stands every year will tell you that he or she receives a freight train full of misguided gifts: CDs you will never have time to listen to; thick, ponderous books on arcane subjects like how to build an ant farm; homemade brownies that would probably make you so high you’d need a stepladder to scratch your ass; etc., etc., etc.
This particular gift, however, was of a very different, almost personal, nature. It was intuitive, bizarre, and oddly compelling. Almost like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, it was one of a kind in the universe. It was given to me after a show in Denver by a mysterious woman I had never met and would very likely never meet again. It was an armadillo menorah.
Like the aforementioned bottle imp, I quickly realized that the sculpted creature’s roulette eyes seemed to be burrowing deeply into my soul. Like it or not, this peculiar piece of art was going to belong forever in the mosaic of my life. To not accept it, to discard it, to give it away to my favorite cousin, would all be clearly unthinkable and would no doubt result in seven years of bad luck.
There was a long line of people bearings gifts or things for me to sign. It took quite a while, especially because some people wanted their bodies signed. I couldn’t blame them; I shouted from the stage several times the words that had become almost a mantra for me: “I’ll sign anything but bad legislation!” And so I did. I signed three or four women’s breasts and entertained the guys with the story of the time I signed a man’s scrotum in Scotland. “Happier times,” I said wistfully. And, indeed, they were.
Now I was looking at an obese Jewish man who was carrying an old, faded Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys T-shirt gently in both hands as if it were a relic. I signed something witty like “Fuck ’em and feed ’em Froot Loops” and the guy trundled cheerfully on his way. That shirt would never come close to fitting him again. I wasn’t sure if it was a relic or not; I just knew that I was a relic.
At the end of the evening I tucked the armadillo menorah under my arm and got out of Dodge. Another show in my hip pocket. Another angel on my shoulder.
Motel … motel … motel. The armadillo menorah and I traveled the country and the world discovering to our mutual surprise and pleasure that it appeared to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Sometimes our mode of transportation was my trusty old Yom Kippur Clipper. A Yom Kippur Clipper, in case you didn’t know, is just a Jewish Cadillac. It stops on a dime and then picks it up.
Driving from anywhere to El Paso is always a ball-dragger. It was comforting to know that “Proud to Be an Asshole From El Paso” would be a dead-cert crowd favorite. It was also comforting to have the armadillo menorah riding shotgun. Somehow the miles seemed to pass faster. In the manner of any suburban pet owner, I carried on a conversation with my eccentric little friend. Eventually, I found the one-way conversation was becoming a two-way chat that was to prove quite a bit more enlightening than a typical conversation at the Jewish Singles of Dallas Purim Party.
We learned that there was a great deal of common ground between us; we were both bastard children of twin cultures. I was a Jew perhaps hideously misplaced into the heart of Texas; the menorah, quite similar in nature, was also misplaced in this world. Some would no doubt relate to him only as a menorah, armadillos not being known to them. Others would recognize him immediately as an armadillo but they would be totally unfamiliar with the menorah aspect of his being. They wouldn’t know a menorah if they stepped on one, as they undoubtedly had in the not-so-distant past in some places we would soon be visiting, i.e., Europe.
At the show in El Paso, I kept my best friend by my side both onstage and offstage, several times offering him a shot of Mexican mouthwash—tequila—which I was imbibing heavily. The armadillo menorah informed me in no uncertain terms that he did not drink. “Why the hell not?” I said. “It is the way of my people,” he replied. I did not ask him which people. As I urinated on a palm tree under the cowboy stars, I heard a little voice beside me that was definitely not my own ventriloquism. “If you’re drivin’,” he said, “don’t forget your car.”
Moments later I was projectile-vomiting onto a small nearby cactus plant when I heard a strange noise that sounded like the rusty hinge of fate. It was the armadillo menorah, who had somehow arrived at the scene without my having carried him there. Though he seemed to be chuckling at my predicament, I was happy to see that he was finally coming out of his shell.
“Ah,” he said. “The great equalizer.”
“How did you get here?” I said in some little state of wonderment.
“I came with the Tahitian sailors in rudimentary bark canoes across thousands of miles of open, starless seas, many centuries ago, on their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Sometimes, in order to detect ever-so-subtle changes in the ocean currents, they would place their scrotums on the wooden floors of their canoes for navigational purposes.”
“Jesus Christ,” I said. “I’ve not only spiritually bonded with an armadillo menorah, but he’s the most garrulous, annoying armadillo menorah on the planet.”
“I’m not the most garrulous, annoying armadillo on the planet!” he squeaked. “I’m the only armadillo menorah on the planet. I’m like God. There’s only one of Him—there’s only one of me.”
“I thought I was signing up for Travels with Charley,” I said.
“You wish,” he said.
But the road can sometimes be a healing place, and we soon were to discover that there was more that united us than there was that divided us. For one thing, being a Texas Jewboy or being an armadillo menorah are not exactly career paths most individuals would choose in life. Like they say, a happy childhood is the worst possible preparation for life, and it does seem to be true that most people appear to select occupations that they are hideously ill-suited for. A Jewish cowboy with a decidedly odd traveling companion may be the only free man on this train.
As therapeutic as the road can be, it’s also nice to get back to the ranch. The ranch provided plenty of room for my little friend to scoot around, yet he still showed up in my backyard every night with the punctuality of a German. I’d feed him cat food, dog food, bacon grease, anything. Most of the time he was a shy, crepuscular, oddly Christ-like creature, but his arrival always brought a measure of comfort to me. I knew he was cursed to be living in a state full of loud, brash Texans, and I tried not to make things worse.
Once, while chatting in the twilight, I recited to the armadillo menorah the words of the great mystery writer John D. MacDonald. “Somewhere there is a planet,” wrote MacDonald, “inhabited principally by sentient armadillos who occasionally carve up dead humans and sell them as baskets by the roadside.” Perhaps not surprisingly, my little friend seemed to relate to this peculiar vision.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the time we did a swing through East Texas, where everybody recognized the armadillo and nobody recognized the menorah. I closed the show with “Waitress, Please, Waitress Come Sit on My Facebook.” It happened to be Bill Clinton’s favorite Kinky Friedman song, and the crowd loved it. For an encore I sang “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” which brought down the house. Afterward, the only guy in the place who wasn’t smiling—a big, dangerous-looking redneck—found his way to the stage.
In a soft, evil voice, he said, “Why did your people kill our Lord?”
“Because,” said the armadillo menorah, “the motherfucker had it comin’.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the holidays were fast approaching, and soon it would be the armadillo menorah’s time to shine. Today in America, of course, Hanukkah and Christmas seem to have merged together like two large corporations into a commercialized one-eyed giant targeted mainly at small children, who are the only ones who still have a chance of understanding their true meanings anyway. Children have a way of grasping things other than presents sometimes, and some of the things they grasp are the things we have forgotten. That is why, given that Santa Claus may have killed Jesus Christ, and given that many American Jews seem ever uncomfortable with who they are, the Hanukkah lights somehow continue to shine. In the words of the Hungarian Zionist freedom fighter Hannah Senesh, a child who died defending the dream, “Blessed is the match that kindles the flame.”
Being a crepuscular spirit myself, after the little ones had gone to sleep, I stole in to check on my eclectic friend. A change had come over him; he was not talking or moving. The candles still burned brightly but he was now an inanimate object—as inanimate as the Earth itself. And, for the first time since I’d known him, he was smiling.
Kinky Friedman is a singer, songwriter, novelist, humorist, politician, and former columnist for Texas Monthly.