A Story for Shaun
Let us go then you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
The air spun itself into the evening like cotton candy off a metal drum, sweet and sticky. The click and skip of his shoes was muffled, as if Drew were stepping exaggerated and deliberate on broken down cardboard, like a grade school tap dancer performing for apathetic drunks.
He thought for a moment, his first moment of clarity, “Am I drunk?” He thought he must be, beset as he was by a nauseous uncertainty of origin. To test the theory, he took a step to his right and walked along the edge of the curb, arms thrown out for balance like a tightrope walker. The slippery bottoms of his two-toned brogues threw him off and he splashed into a thin trickle of warm Bourbon Street mush. “Gross.”
He sighed. Drunk enough to try something foolish in inappropriate shoes; sober enough to recognize the stupidity of it pretty damn quick. He decided another drink was needed. It was made all the more urgent by the feeling of dread slowly lacing-up the back of his neck like a corset of tiny hairs. Something was wrong, and he didn't want to give it audience until he had a shot and a beer in front of him.
There were no shortage of bars here, stacked one against the other like uneven dominoes pushed from both sides, their balconies and awnings like architectural elbows and fingers thrown playfully into one another’s space. He didn't bother with these; he was headed for someplace in particular, somewhere he couldn't give shape or name to yet, but one that drove him along the street to its darker corners.
He turned up a narrow street, the sign told him it was Toulouse, and walked with his shoulders thrown forward and inwards, crafting an ineffectual shield of bone and cotton. It was raining somewhere close by; he could feel it in his joints. Since when did his joints give out meteorological predictions? The corset on his neck tightened and his throat closed just enough that breathing became a conscious act of rebellion. He returned to his earlier decision, to refrain from thinking until he was at the bar and well equipped to handle the situation. Clearing his mind was not as difficult as it should have been, the panic had yet to sink in.
Drew felt the soothing sense of belonging as he approached an open glass-paneled door at the corner. A wooden Jack of Hearts insignia dangled above the sidewalk off brass-coloured chains. Inside, the air conditioner fought with the humid breezes wafting in from the street and the result was comforting- an exhale of organic humidity and mechanical chill.
The bartender smiled, and the corners of her red-lined mouth pulled against the cracking powder of her cheeks. It was a familiar smile.
“Jaeger, PBR.” He reached in his pockets, (Why were these pockets so deep? What pants was he wearing?) pulled out a five and a one, and tossed them on the bar. A one? Since when did the one dollar bill come back? No wait, this money was American. What the fuck was he doing with American money? Hold on, where was he anyhow? Dread filled the tips of his fingers making them clumsy and skittish so that they found nowhere to comfortably be and jumped about from his collar to his hair to his thighs like a blind assessment. And then, in the specific light of the three-prong candelabra that he saw his wedding band was gone.
Panic was just barely held down by the Jaeger, then disoriented by half the bottle of beer he pulled down in one go. He sat where the bar smoothed itself into a wooden elbow by the blackened front window. Drew placed his anxious hands on the bar in front of him, almost scared to look directly at them but still he glanced at the collection of veins and popped knuckles he found there, and verified that, yes, he had indeed lost his wedding ring. Jesus Christ. The consequences of such a thing he didn't even want to consider, not while he was this sober. Now it was time to freak out. How had he gotten here, and in these clothes? This wasn't his usual print press uniform.
Calm, Drew. Stay calm. You can figure this one out.
He needed to start at the beginning: who was he? That was easy, kind of. He was Drew England, thirty-one, married to Connie England, no children though she was trying. He lived in his hometown of Toronto, Ontario and he worked in the print press room of the Star where he drove his eight-year-old Jeep five sometimes six days a week. No pets, though he was contemplating defying Connie and adopting a mutt to ride shotgun, a Bandit to his Smoky, if you will. He liked drinking alone in dive bars after work, picking blisters with his exacto-knife, and the way a woman’s neck looked from behind. He did not like bulky winter jackets, reality TV or the way his wife wouldn't let him go down on her for more than a minute. Whew. Okay. It all seemed to check out with his gut.
Next, where was he? A flash of recognition and he appeared as a red blip on some GPS system. He knew with a strange certainty (also originating in his gut) that he was in New Orleans, Louisiana. This was odd, considering he’d never been there before, had he? He’d wanted to, tried to convince Connie once that they should spend a weekend there, but she was less than enthusiastic. “Why would I want to go to a broken down town rotting with crime and water?”
It was all so confusing. He couldn't recall ever having been to New Orleans, but the memories that told him so seemed so far away, from another room or on a different channel. He was sure he was in the French Quarter part of town, and he was even sure that he had been here before, in this bar, at this seat, in front of this particular bartender, but he couldn't recall when or even why. Okay, well, at least he wasn't lost. But was he crazy? It was something he had never doubted before; his sanity.
But it didn't seem to be an issue, after all, here he was, rationally taking inventory. (Maybe he had the kind of crazy that makes you think you’re rational.) He felt fine though, could recall what he did on his last birthday (Connie took him out to a restaurant and was a bit adventurous afterward, after a shower, of course- even special occasion blow jobs had parameters). He even felt a pang of homesickness when his father’s kind face popped up in his mind when summoned. Good ole Ed England, always there when you needed him, even doubting your sanity at a bar in the deep south.
“Okay, I just need to remember what I did last. How did I get here?” He whispered it into the collar of his black linen shirt and the bartender, mistaking his reverie for an order, brought him another bottle of beer, which he accepted with a nod. The doors swung open on the other side of the room where the dance floor and a second bar were segregated, and a loud blast of retro music, Depeche Mode maybe, spilled in on a wave of cigarette smoke. That was a good idea, a smoke. He reached into one of the cavernous pockets and pulled out a box of Lucky Strikes.
Hmm. So apparently he had started smoking again. He took inventory, step by step.
I worked a double shift on Friday. Connie bought a new ice-dispensing fridge and the payments are fucking insane. Then I stopped for a drink at Marley’s before heading home. I talked to Tom, sat at the bar… they were playing some old Snoop Dog, I remember that. I still felt sick from that never-ending flu, but nothing too bad. I had one drink and then…. Wait, did I head home?
He searched for the answer at the bottom of his bottle and found only a murky recollection of not feeling well, of nursing his Guinness and moving very slowly to the bathroom, down a narrow set of stairs into the dank basement.
Did I fall down the stairs and hit my head? Or did I leave? Am I lying in a ditch somewhere on a November Canadian night with a head injury or internal bleeding?
He reached up to rub his head, noticing the lack of a cold, thin weight against his skin usually provided by his wedding band. The memory of the ring’s absence made him vigilant to remember. He closed his eyes in an effort to turn them inward and find some answers.
“Hey, look who it is.” A large hand clapped him on the shoulder and he jumped a bit at the sudden contact.
“You all right there, buddy?” An older man with a graying beard and wire rim glasses sat down beside him, using the hand still perched on Drew’s shoulder to lower himself onto the stool. He called out an order while digging out his wallet. “Gimme a Miller there, sweetheart.”
“So, Drew, how’s it hanging?”
He looked up, managed a smile and nodded. “Good. It’s good.”
The man straightened his plaid fedora and tipped back the clear bottle placed in front of him, wiped his mustache and set it back down. “Alright. Well, are you gonna tell me or are ya gonna make me ask?”
Oddly, the man had a New Jersey accent, which ordinarily wouldn't have caught notice, but cushioned on all sides by the long, low tones of southern drawl, it became unusual.
Drew wasn't sure why it seemed imperative to act like nothing was out of the ordinary, as if he weren't in a time and place he couldn't recall getting to, but he went with the feeling. He could indeed be laying in a ditch back home, his broken body slowly being covered with cotton ball sized flakes, or perhaps he’d drank to black-out and somehow managed to make his way to Louisiana, but no matter what happened, he didn't want to seem crazy, even if he was. He decided out of pride, or stubbornness or something left over from a primordial survival instinct, that he would pretend to know exactly what was going on; at least until he could be sure of his safety.
“Tell you what?
The man laughed big and loud, clapped him on the back and took another drink. “Yeah, okay buddy. Did something other than you meeting the most beautiful woman in the world happen last night?”
Panic needled him in the lower gut. Shit! Did he cheat on Connie? Not that the thought or urge hadn't occurred to him in the past... many, many times in the past, mostly when she was busy organizing his money and his errands into neat little piles on that oak kitchen table she and her mother had picked out. But he was after all married and that meant something to him. He was a man of his word.
His drinking companion swiveled in his seat and threw his hands out. “Oh that? Are you serious? Dude, you were freaking out last night. Wandering around the streets until like five in the morning, carrying on like ‘John, man, my life just changed!’”
John, his name was John.
“Well, John, it seems a lot has changed since last night.”
“Uh oh, what happened? She blew you off?”
“ Wouldn't that be a good thing if I got blown off?” So he still had a sense of humour here in this in-between space.
“Oh, you dog.” Another clap to the back, then over his shoulder to the bartender rolling her eyes at a table of rowdy college age tourists near the door, “Another round here, please.”
“Is she still coming out tonight, or what? Chloe’s waiting to meet the woman who changed ole’ Drew England’s life.”
Okay, he was still fully himself here, at least in name, but it occurred to him that he might look different, and his hands jumped to his face and felt around. He turned slightly to the left and caught a familiar reflection in the darkened glass: short, messy brown hair, longer on the top than the shaved sides; a strong, hard jaw; better than usual cheekbones and lips too sensuous to have been gifted to a man. Yup, everything seemed normal.
“Jesus man, what are you doing? Checking yourself out, there? Not to worry, you’re still the most handsome devil in town.”
He laughed it off. “Well, honestly, I’m not really sure what’s up for tonight. Where are we meeting again?”
“Well, I can see you got no sleep last night. Did you get any work done today at all? You got that big contract coming up, don’tcha? The restoration project up on Esplanade?”
Restoration? As in houses? He’d always wanted to work on houses. He’d spent his weekends holed up in the den watching home-reno shows with beer he’d sneak in from the garage. “Uh, yeah. No, to be honest, I’m not really feeling like myself at all today.”
A couple sips from the new beer for both of them.
“We’re meeting at the Hi Ho Lounge. You remember? Up on St. Claude.” He was being sarcastic, but Drew was just grateful for the information, like the fact that he seemed to be a long-term guest here. “Speaking of the Hi Ho, we should head over there soon.”
John grabbed two plastic to-go cups from a stack beside the register, handed one to Drew and left some damp bills on the bar. They poured their beer into the cups and left the empty bottles when they stood to go.
“See you later, Drew.” The bartender sang her good-bye, waving coyly with only the top joints of her fingers on a cupped hand.
“Uh, yeah, see you soon, I guess.”
John wrapped an arm around his companion’s shoulders and guided him out the door. “Man, I’m surprised you remembered to meet me in the state you were in. Good thing too; I had a rough day on the job. I need to relax.”
Outside the street was quiet, not enough for crickets or scraps of newspaper to be heard whispering along the gutter, but enough for Drew to notice. John was still speaking, about installing cable at some seniors’ home and a new driver who didn't know his shit, so Drew took the opportunity to look around. This is what he saw: two-story houses with iron balconies and hairy ferns leaking rain water onto the cracked sidewalks below; sidewalks that meandered in and out along the seam of the street like wrinkled ribbons of concrete; concrete pock-marked with thumb-sized roaches motoring along the sides of buildings like robotic vacuums, sucking up air and moss and comfort; garbage bins tattooed with black grime and stuck with wrappers and papers like greasy feathers on fat green birds.
And, strangely, awkwardly, in the middle of these odd circumstances, Drew felt better than he had in a long time. He felt unfolded, unfurled, unfettered. This made him slow down, until his new friend (he assumed they were friends, and as for the age of their relationship, well, everything was new to him) turned around and called, “Would you hurry up? You’re pretty slow for a guy in love and about to see his lady. And by the way, dude, not to be crass, but my God, the body on her.” He outlined the rounded angles of an hourglass in the humid air.
Drew smiled and decided to fish for details. “So what was your take on last night, anyways? I mean, I was a bit wasted.”
“Really, cause I’ve seen you a lot worse. But, I mean you remember the Circle Bar, right.”
“Jesus, alright, well, after you and me left the Co-operation and met Tom over at the Circle Bar things got a bit crazy. There were shots, and that shrieking woman from Shreveport who kept telling everyone you were Brad Pitt, oh, and you remember the band? Ho boy, we danced our asses off.”
He put a hand on his stomach and extended a bent arm, waltzing himself off the sidewalk and into the empty street.
Drew had no memories of this, but something in his legs twitched like they recalled steps and sways.
“We took that cab to the Quarter, member that? And ended up at the Golden Lantern for that queen’s birthday. Missed the second line, but not the champagne. And then suddenly, you were gone, buddy.”
John stopped dancing and put both hands on his hips. “Okay you’re scaring me now. No, you did not leave, you saw Ann and that was that.” He clapped his hands together like fleshy cymbals. “Game over.”
“Ann.” Drew said the name, a common name, and as if the word itself had snapped open a vein, blood flooded into his cock. He grabbed at the front of his pants, a bit alarmed at his enthusiastic reaction.
John chuckled. “Wow, control yourself. We’ll see her soon and you can err… relieve some of that tension.”
Drew gave an embarrassed chuckle and removed his hand from his crotch, hoping that his sudden thickness wasn't obvious.
On Rampart they jumped in a cab. John talked with the driver, about local traffic, the trend in scooping up residential parking spaces, and the coming storm. Drew concentrated with his eyes, trying to focus in on the world skidding past his window like a seasick man grasping at the horizon to keep from throwing up. Traffic now, and empty houses, and gas stations with out of order pumps, and po-boy shops with broken windows, and hostile faces, and wandering strays, and beautiful girls in kilts and braids, and incredible cars on enormous tires, and a sky that made room for a thicker shade of dark to streak across the bottom like sediment in a bottle of merlot. And then, after a quick U-turn, they were there, pulled up in front of a low, boxy building lit by Christmas lights. It might have been a jail built from Lego. Drew felt a combination of reactionary caution mixing with in-born comfort. The result made him want another drink. He drank a lot here.
“I drink a lot here.” He said it out loud, standing in front of the swinging front door. John shut the car door and tipped his hat back on his forehead.
“Every week, sometimes twice. We always manage to get you home, though.” John put a heavy arm across Drew’s shoulders and guided him inside. “All these years and not once have you not made it home.”
Years? He’d been here for years? How could that be? There went the blacked out-grabbed a Greyhound south theory. He hadn't been out of Toronto since college, save for that Cuban vacation Connie booked; a week of sitting around on the beach while she complained about the service, to the service. So he was pretty much sure he’d had some sort of stroke, maybe an aneurysm, but what to do? All in all, it wasn't such a bad thing to be here in New Orleans where he had a life and friends and what sounded like a dream job working on old houses. Jesus, was this heaven? Or maybe it was hell… Oddly, he wasn't so alarmed. If that was truly what was going on, what else could he do but to just go with it.
For a moment guilt punched him in the colon. How could he not want to fight to find a way back to Connie, his wife of six years? How could he be so blasé about being in another country, and one that may or may not truly exist in the same universe? Maybe he was just a bad man.
“Drew, you bad man you. How dare you keep me waiting until eleven o’clock?” A grinning blonde behind the bar waved him over. “Get over here.” She lined up three shot glasses and filled them, opened two new bottles of beer and pulled herself a pint.
John and Drew sat on two wooden stools, more rickety than the ones at the last place, and folded their elbows up on the bar. Drew looked around him. Walking in the door he’d noticed an empty go-go cage and a row of pleather booths on one side of a dance floor set up in front of a small stage inset to the back wall. The bar ran all along the other side with a small hallway to the back kitchen. The mirror behind the bar was almost completely covered in notices and specials. “MDG $2” “Red Beans and Rice, so Nice $1” “Act How Your Mamma Raised You”
It was dark and filled with the insect-sounds of the bluegrass players collected in a circle on the dance floor, each tightening strings, or tuning instruments, or shuffling feet, or unpacking cases, there arms and legs and necks bent at awkward angles to facilitate the playing of guitars and banjos. A few of them were strumming out the beginning pecks of a song, others waited to get in, like little girls watching double dutch ropes, waiting for the perfect time to jump.
“Alright, we’re all set.” The bartender, his friend apparently, slid two shots towards them and picked up the third, smiling so big he caught the glimmer of gold in her teeth. “To miracles.”