A little story about Rowan, a character from my in-progress novel, going to New Orleans in 2022.
For an activity as fraught with peril as driving is, it is quite relaxing.
In terms of momentum alone, a ton of steel travelling at over eighty miles per hour produces enough force to splatter most living things into gory oblivion. And those creatures that survive? Not happy.
I think these things on long drives. I see fauna dragged just past the solid white line and it occurs to me that I’m inside an enormous cannonball.
The drive from Detroit to New Orleans is long, but straightforward. Get on the highway. Don’t miss the exit.
My A/C is spent so I’m driving with windows down through the night. It’s dusk now. Google tells me the next time I need to make any real change is in five hours.
Bliss. Every moment here is on the dark side of the second hand.
It’s the off-season in New Orleans, a time when the weather is so hot that even the few drunks left on Bourbon Street ask for water, supposedly. I’ve never been.
And I’m not going to Bourbon Street, per se.
My friends are playing a famous open mic there and I’m planning on surprising them. I’ll be at the hostel in New Orleans by the time the front desk opens in the morning. They will play that night.
The idea behind going being someone should witness this event.
Detroit Meets NoLo
Witnessing the event isn’t so important. But it’s more important if the witnessing happens than if it didn’t.
Most of history is like that. I read about the virtues of keeping a diary when I was young and it stuck with me forever. A person without a written diary is like a nation without a history.
All a nation is is history, really. History, violence, and GDP.
I take off my sunglasses. It’s getting a little too dark for sunglasses.
My hair is too long not to have some form of accessory protecting my eyes. Open windows whip my hair directly into my corneas, every time.
Whip whip whip whip.
I put on my hat. It’s gray and beat-down and I bought it the day I turned 18. I went to the Target across town alone and thought I needed a distinctive hat. A distinctive hat does half the work of making a personality memorable if your personality is memorable to begin with.
When was that? Fifteen years ago?
It’s a grody hat.
I wash it but the bill is fractured like tectonic plates and there’s a chunk missing where a small dog nibbled at it.
When I look at myself in the rearview mirror it looks fine. It’s when I see myself in a proper bathroom mirror that I think it doesn’t look good.
But that’s fine. It was never meant to look good.
Michigan looks different than Ohio, which looks different than Indiana, or Tennessee.
Why is it that different states look so – different?
Crossing state lines might as well have a loading screen, like in a videogame.
Videogame developers are masters at making a place seem whole. But nothing in a videogame is whole, or real. It’s just objects swapped onto the RAM of the console or PC, as they come into view.
So when you’re walking into a room, it loads. It never existed until you walked into the room.
This is costly, computer resource wise, this swapping. You have to do it for all the rooms in the level. But you also have to do it for the characters, the enemies and NPCs. So some videogames have clever little workarounds.
For instance, they’ll spawn all the enemies in a level at once. But instead of spawning them in rooms that don’t exist yet, there will be a room built underneath the entire level. It’s always there, a bare, blank cube, filled with enemies, standing there, waiting.
As you enter a new area, these enemies are dragged out of their oblivion and thrown into the new room, filled with wonderful little details, and light, and the first thing they see is a near-immortal god opening fire on them.
This is not an ideal existence. But of course they’re not real.
Because life doesn’t work like that.
At any given moment, people are doing everything people have ever done, all over the globe. On land, in the oceans. Some are even in space.
I’m in this car and at night there are headlights and taillights and between these things are people like me. I’m between headlights and taillights right now.
There are people in the reststops I keep passing.
There are people off in those motels lit up on the side of the road. At the gas station. In the McDonald’s behind the fryer.
There are people in Detroit and in New Orleans and in Nebraska and in Buenos Aires and there is no need for anything to load. It just is.
It’s dark now. It’s late, like three in the morning, give or take a few minutes. The clock in this car is slow.
Its like everytime I get in this car, the clock is late by a couple more minutes.
Like it’s dragging itself through time.
Which it kinda is.
I had forgotten to pay my credit card bill and my card was declined at the front desk of the hostel.
Apparently don’t have sixty-four dollars of credit left. I didn’t bring anything else.
Why didn’t I bring anything else? I left on a whim. I filled the cat bowl with a week of food and left.
The app said my account needs attention. It didn’t need attention at the gas station.
I go back to my car and sit in the driver’s seat for at least twenty minutes watching the shame bubble up from my chest.
Shame comes from deep in the body, I’ve learned. A little rearwards from where anxiety comes from. Anxiety comes from just behind the chest, close to the heart, but shame comes from further down, just above the bowel.
I don’t have much anxiety, however, just shame and frustration. There is money in the bank. I just need to wait a day for the payment to clear. No big deal.
Still. Funny how shame comes from the bowel.
I find a place to park my car, the WalMart Supercenter, just an hour’s walk to the French Quarter down Camp Street. The mission being go down to the French Quarter and just be.
Just be because that’s the only option, really.
Even though I’m exhausted.
I can always walk back and sleep in my car. It won’t be too hot at night.
But hopefully I’ll meet my friends before that happens and maybe they have a couch and can spot me for the bar.
I’ll be good tomorrow, when the payment clears.
I get to walking. The vast concrete looking like every city, but gradually giving way to something of its own, gradually giving way to distinction.
There are gray tents on Calliope Street under the overpass. One of these gray tents has a couple sitting on milk crates outside the flap and they call to me.
I make eye contact. I know this is a mistake. As soon as I make eye contact with someone looking to talk to me, I am drawn in. I automatically square up and hear the person out.
If I ignore their eyes it’s like I can ignore everything and stay in my head.
I could ignore a nuclear explosion if I stay in my head. In that little way I’m invincible.
But eyes are my weakness.
And here I am squared with a stocky man slightly shorter than me, now standing, eyes yellowed under his half-moon pupils, looking at me.
“I don’t want to trouble you but I need to make a call, can I use your phone?”
“A call?” I tell my hand not to reach for my phone.
“Yes I need to call the FBI. My sister is in jail and I need to register a complaint.”
“Oh?” I can’t see where he’s going.
“They aren’t treating her well. They’re abusing their power.”
“Do you have the number?”
“Yes sir I do.”
I take out my phone and unlock it. I kill the process for all the apps currently running (the bank app included) and go so far as to open the phone app itself.
I hand the phone to him and he dials. He gets a voicemail line and leaves a long message. He details that the guards are selling drugs to the prisoners. He says they smuggle in weapons sometimes, a knife once. He rings a number off from the top of his head, something like nine, twelve digits long.
He hands the phone back to me.
“That sounds terrible.”
“It is. I don’t have a phone or I would call every day until they fix it.”
I walk away, following the highway above me. Thirty minutes left in the walk. The red sidewalks here give off a different heat than the typical gray concrete slab sidewalk. The warmth feels earthen, somehow.
My feet and back ache. I walk slow.
It is almost noon when I get to the Quarter and up and down the street are tourists and tourist traps.
I allow myself to be jostled around, slowly, reading historical signs, letting street artists hawk their wares to me though I can’t pay for any of them.
Everything smells enticing, like sandalwood and rosemary. I’m thirsty.
I walk into a bar with air conditioning. There is almost nobody here, just the bartender and a few people in booths.
I ask if I can just have a water and they point to a cooler at the end of the bar with stacks of plastic cups. I get a water and I sit. Getting off my feet releases a tingle of relief through my entire nervous system, a shiver that rises through me like a spirit.
A woman, older, with red hair, walks in and orders a whiskey ginger. British accent. She is wrapped in a blue maxi dress that sheens even in this dark.
The rest of the bar is dressed in loud t-shirts and shorts. Floppy hats. Faces red and straining to communicate and laugh and drink with each other. I feel the sweat on my back cool and soak my t-shirt.
She seems completely comfortable. Like she just dried off from a cold swim. The world seems thirty degrees colder for her than for the rest of us.
I sit and sip my water like I’m not dead parched. I give up and drink the rest of it and go back to fill it up.
I get back and can’t help but look at her. I don’t want to, but she’s literally shimmering.
She’s on her phone, scrolling. Reading. Sometimes typing. Her face loose and vaguely concerned with something somewhere away from this bar.
I get my own phone and snap a quick selfie with the neon behind me. I text my friend.
“Surprise! Guess who’s here? Can you save me a seat when you get to your open mic tonight?”
I don’t mention that I have no place to sleep. Not yet.
I am hungry and tired. They serve food here and I can’t help but watch the whole process happen, again and again, as orders come through in waves.
It’s too early to meet up with my friends. A lacklustre response sits on my phone’s recent texts drawer.
“Cool! Yeah you can come.”
There’s a small kitchen in the back behind the bar where the light is grease yellow and incandescent, the size of a closet, and in this kitchen a young woman in a bright purple t-shirt rocks back and forth on the ball of her leading foot to reach either side of her workspace – the cabinet, the fridge, the drawers of pre-prepped food, all within her reach.
Something is steaming, sizzling in front of her, like the rip of rain against a window, and she bounces rhythmically in her little place before the sacrament.
I watch her make a sandwich while I sit there hungry and tired. A double decker with fresh vegetables in bright crisp colors, quite unlike the variations of gold and amber in everyone’s glasses, quite unlike the clear nothing in my plastic cup.
The young woman in purple brings out the sandwich on a small white plate and places it with a recognizing smile in front of the British woman in shimmering blue.
“The Flo special.”
“You’re too kind.”
The woman in blue is now eating the sandwich, which is much too large for her face. Her mouth opens rather wide like a snake’s to bite through the tall stack of carbohydrates and protein.
The sandwich is gone in moments and soon the white plate is taken away by the bartender.
After all that all is nothing. But the woman looks satisfied, alive. Her back is upright now through the shoulders and alacrity has replaced her vague loose demeanor.
She looks over and sees me looking.
I look away. I focus on the wood, the plastic cup, the metal sink, the cold wet condensation and the lingering smell of tomato and cleaning products.
A moment’s beat.
“You were leering.”
I look up and am startled. She has shifted herself a seat closer to me. She smiles.
“It’s not polite to leer.”
“I’m sorry, that sandwich looked really good.”
“Would you like one?”
“I can’t pay.”
The young woman in purple leans her head out the kitchen.
“Can we get another one for my friend here?”
My heart quickens as she turns around and starts preparing a sandwich again.
The blue lady watches me look and I feel it. I face her and her look is that of curiosity, her jaw levelled, peering down.
She’s more red than blue, at this proximity, her hair framing her pale face, which is now the brightest thing in my vision.
“You look dead,” she tells me. “Like your face is a death mask.”
“I haven’t slept. I got here this morning and walked to the Quarter, from the Garden District.”
“Good God why? Are you a vagabond?”
“Not on purpose. I’m in town to see some friends later.”
“So an accidental vagabond. Have you been here before?”
“I’m Florence, by the way.”
“Rowan. Nice to meet you.”
Florence owns the bar, it turns out.
She tells me a short history while Janine continues her dance preparing the sandwich.
That she inherited the bar recently, from an uncle who had no children.
The sandwich, this towering thing presented on a little white plate, slides into my view and I become like an animal, gripping the bread and ripping through the rich medley with my incisors, a cursory grind with molars, the food finding an easy home inside my stomach like it has always been a part of me.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Janine is an artist.”
“Sandwich artist?” I say through a thick bite.
The sandwich is gone. My body warms like a newly glowing hurricane lamp.
“Thank you so much. I didn’t know how hungry I was.”
Janine takes the plate away and I turn to face Florence and she is gone.
Gone like Batman leaves a room, silently, where once was this blue shimmering wave there is now only an expansive dark room, an open gorge where once was a deep river.
The tourists are loud in the corner, something funny happened between them.
There is no kitchen in this bar.
No Janine either.
And in my hand is a gold coin, blank in aspect, really a perfect disc.
And I am suddenly reminded of what it’s like to swim in a lake.
How you can open your eyes underwater and the dark green murk hides everything but your outstretched hands, pale like death.
And I surface in a cave, red rock overhead, the cold clear sense of wet stone lacing every breath.
The bar is gone now, long gone like it never existed.
My eyes adjust to the dark and ahead I see a shimmering blue shape moving ahead of me.
I move closer and I hear Florence’s voice say something indistinct, like she were whispering a thousand things at once, like she were a thousand soft voices.
And then I see her, her face, her blue shimmering dress, but no legs, rather, the bodies of a thousand eels, tangled, moving.
It’s daylight. I’m outside the bar and I smell the rosemary and sandalwood again. I hear the bustle of tourism.
I have the smooth gold coin in my hand and I feel in my chest a warmth I haven’t felt since I was a child, a feeling from before memory. A pure beginning.
And I get a text message.
“We’re heading out! See you there?”
I notice the gold coin and the phone weigh about the same. I stand on the sidewalk, under shade, coin in one hand, phone in the other. I switch hands.
They weigh the same.
And my phone isn’t one of those little iPhones, it’s a Galaxy Note, basically a tablet that fits in men’s pockets.
And the gold coin, palm sized, about three times heavier than it should be.
The sun isn’t so hot anymore and a sweet breeze twirls down through the sidewalk shaded by the pink building next to me.
Across the street, a watermain must have broken because the street is flooded about ankle deep. People sludge through the doors of a huge white building, picking their feet up with each step like they’re moving through gravy.
Jackson Brewing Company. Decatur Street. Was I on Decatur Street before?
It doesn’t matter.
My dead phone’s still out in my hand, so I pocket the hot little thing.
My hip tenses at my pocket. My bad knee aches.
My friends said they’ll meet me soon, at Cafe Negril.
I assume. If nothing has changed.
I turn heel and start walking without thought as to where I’m going. I am compelled north and my aching knee beats my pace like a metronome.
A steady slow shuffle, about 60 beats per minute. More consistent than I’ve ever played.
Should I play? No. It’s been years.
And my friends probably fought for their spot tonight.
I approach a square bustling with vendors. A huge chapel at the end of a wide open square to my left, horses lined up with their coaches. Stairs to my right, ascending only a few meters into the empty sky.
Despite my aching knee, I walk up the stairs.
The mossy scent of running water hits me before I see the wide river shimmering in the low sun across the square.
A statue of a horseman impedes the view but the river stretches out interminably behind the buildings far to the left and right.
The afternoon quickly breaks into night. I am on the roof again, on Sobieski street, in Hamtramck. My wings stretch out like the river. Two evergreens wave behind me. I feel the wind beneath the skin in my wings and gauge its mood.
My heart races. The low Louisiana sun is back. I am in New Orleans sitting on a step.
I see four horses, carriagemen. I smell the river and food from the vendors, it smells delicious. I hear the bustle of tourism.
A man shouts to his son, get back here.
Sounds appear and disappear like a mood.
I get up and rub my knee and keep walking.
I am less compelled now. I just know Cafe Negril is up Decatur, to the left. Not far.
I can see the sign in my mind’s eye.
Cafe Negril. Live Music 363 Nites A Year
What are the other two nights for? Leap years – are there 364 nights of music?
A silly thought.
Thoughts come and go, I have learned. All thoughts, even those I think will stick to me, end up going away.
I grip a thought to feel this and my mind’s hand calcifies. I feel it like I feel my hair tickling an itch on my face.
I can’t let it go. I look away for a while and focus on my radiating knee like a mantra. The hand is relaxed again, now, innocent like it never calcified around anything.
I hear raucous laughter. Cacaphonous really, and it snaps my mind to reality. Overhead the wood sign bobs on its chains, Cafe Negril.
I walk in the cafe.
It’s early still, but the bar is full. Sound techs flop cable out on the stage to my right, a mural of Bob Marley in his signature pensive pose watching over them. A quote on Rastafarianism is on the wall.
Is the place painted purple, or is the lighting purple?
I find a standing table in the back where I can keep my back to the wall and I lean on my good knee.
Musicians file in smiling, carrying the assortment of instruments I only dream of. Brass everywhere, keys. Drums and guitars. Everyone carrying their instrument with the lightness of touch you expect from a good musician.
That’s a thing I notice. Musician’s play their instruments with a light touch because that’s what their instrument requires. But they also learn to carry their instruments with a light touch.
Even when it’s in a thick shell case extending six feet out from the musician’s scrawny frames. A heavy case that could stop a bullet.
A light touch. Reverence.
I toy with the coin while I wait for my friends to file in.
Its heaviness helps with a little finger trick I learned with quarters.
I put the coin on the dorsal of my index finger and flip it over to my middle finger with it’s flesh, then the ring the same way, and I send it over to my palm with my pinky and back up on my index. Repeat.
I twirl the coin around and drop it on the table.
A quick clang I silence with a slap.
A woman is at my table. She leans on a skinny tattooed arm, forearm flat. She looks out at the door, soft sunlight still piercing through the frame.
Her tattoos are black line drawings on white skin. A naked pin-up girl. A horse shoe cresting at her shoulder.
Her hair is jet black and done up high. She’s short but with her hair she’s as tall as I am.
“Havin’ a drink?” She asks.
There’s a whiskey with ice by me on the table where there was nothing, the glass already beading.
She chuckles and taps the gold coin on the table with the click of a long nail.
“Ya paid up for the night, doll. Cheers, a’right?” She leaves me and the coin with the drink and leans over the bar to the bartender and they both laugh almost immediately, the bartender’s flashed grin like a clear moon at night.