Almost nonstop until eight in the morning, no turning back, bathed in interstate, because New Orleans had a special place for someone like me.
Goodbye Carolina. Down through its southern counterpart, then Georgia. Interstate dipping into the valley of Atlanta, barely beating rush hour traffic as the sun turned the sky a desktop grey. Buildings on either side of the divide showed off rectangular windows with lights on or off in random patterns. Traffic banners, spelled out in dotted tangerines, warned of future congestion. Apart from a state trooper flashing its blues for some unfortunate motorist, the prediction turned out as most do. Easy going into the dawn that was Alabama. Possibly the most boring stretch of road I had ever encountered. Good a place as any to stop, refuel. Motions on automatic. Card, press, pump. Watch the numbers climb. Squint through the brilliance of an accustomed sunshine. Wait for the snap. Step back into my rental, maybe take a moment to marvel that a compact mini was all it took to house all I had left. On ramp taking me back on track. Toying with presets on the radio, just to see what random frequencies might have to tell me. Landed on a Christian dial. Flat spectrum of shame and humiliation, sin and dirty deeds. Hard to disagree with the end of the world, only difference was, I didn’t believe in enemies. Nobody to blame. I floored the accelerator and gave 100 mph a taste. All the way down to Mississippi. Sensing the approaching coast on the shoulder, roadside presenting miniature seashells, shiny particles of sand that had me reaching up and pulling at the visor. Weather report warning of an oncoming storm that was supposed to absolutely drench southern Louisiana. By the time I crossed the state line, some several bridges bringing me closer, the narrative had changed. Scattered raindrops falling from pallid skies. Hitting the windshield, punctuating a rapid approach. I picked up the printed directions, reminding me that I just might make it out of this world without ever owning a smartphone. Something else to be thankful for, I-10 West elevating me to the point where I could see the downtown skyline. Making swift maneuvers between lanes. Eyes darting between paper pinned to my steering wheel and 3pm motorists who seemed unwilling to use their turn signals. Traffic slowing for a brief second, and I figured it would be worth the risk to switch from present first, and call Zipper.
Flipped my phone.
Found his number.
Just a few rings before he answered.
“Hey, man.” His voice was flat, almost, but not quite entirely, as I remembered it from our younger years. “You close?”
“Yeah,” I managed, avoiding an incorrect deviation and remained on course. “Should be at your place soon.”
He replied with a muffled kind of nothing.
“You ok?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m ok,” I thought I heard him say. “Just have a cold.”
“Text me when you get here.”
Didn’t feel like telling him I didn’t have a text plan, each one sent coming in at 20 cents. Nodded into the phone and pretended it was some kind of oral contract. Hung up and focused on where these directions were taking me.
And didn’t know it at the time, but I was taken down a mercifully simple path. Exit (number). Right turn on City Park Avenue. Keep right. Wild wilderness of cemetery headstones on either side, marble statues staring me down, reminding me. Took another right onto Canal Street. Passed another cemetery on my right, enough to get me smiling, All right, I know, I get it, this is where it will be. Came to the crossroads real quick, a right on St. Patrick. Slalomed my way past a couple of potholes. Still drunk on the movement of 12 hours on the road when I turned left on Palmyra. Inched my way forward until I caught the address. Right half of a split shotgun. Took a moment to notice all cars were parked with half their tires up on slanted curbs; more like speedbumps that lost their train of thought. I followed suit.
Felt my legs laugh at me, make fun.
I ignored them and wandered over to the house.
Perfect symmetry. Two stets of stairs, painted green, leading up to a shared porch of the same color. I walked past the first set of steps, cautiously took the second up towards a red door. Rectangular windows on either side, stained glass. Didn’t want to knock. Figured I’d waste a couple of cents. Sent Zipper a text: on the porch, i think. Sat on the steps. Lit a cigarette. Looked out over the neighborhood. Quiet. Almost serene. Across the street, another house stared back at me. Beyond that, clouds at a family reunion gathered to wish me a mediocre hello.
October wind humid, crisp, all contradiction, and I heard a meow of protest.
Turned and saw a black cat on the porch. Wandering over. A little disgruntled at how his day was going. Eyes and expression that led me to believe it would be any moment now before he opened his mouth to actually talk. Tell me what he had to say.
He collapsed alongside me and let my hand rub his belly.
I smoked, and watched myself from a distance.
Thinking I would do anything at that moment, for a shot of absolutely anything.
Heard some kind of sound from behind me.
Heard a very specific one one second later.
Chipper voice, draped in pink-lipped caution: “Hi.”
So I turned. Saw that the window to the left had opened, stained plates replaced with a round face. Pale and pronounced. Dirty blond curls, incompatible traces of gray for her age. Blue eyes bordering on the grey that led me here, crisp, assuming, wondering, sizing me up, and I was never happier to know there was nothing for them to see. She tilted her head and let one of her arms hang loose from that muppet window. “I see you’ve met David.”
I took a leap of faith, “This your cat?”
“We’ve been talking.”
“He likes you.”
“Had to happen someday.” I paused. “Sorry, I’m Lucky. Am I at the right place?”
“Yeah,” she motioned with her head, to the door. Just inches away. “Come on in.”
I stood as she remained, reached, opened the door. There was Zipper; bony body, gingery hair and once goatee turned to a full fledged facial mask. Wild eyes magnified by a pair of lenses. Hobbling towards me on a set of crutches. Right foot trapped in a boot. Grinning as he came in close for a hug.
I allowed it.
Waiting. Letting go.
Glanced down at his foot. “That’s one hell of a cold you got.”
Zipper glanced down at his leg. “Cycling accident.”
“You’re on a bicycle now?”
I took the half second it usually took to take anyone in. Undershirt. Draped in a Hawaiian, pale blue and red hibiscus. Cargo shorts. Rolled cigarette behind his ear in place of a Newport, New York days so clearly a thing of the past.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He ignored the question. “Come on in.”
One step, closed door.
“Is David not joining us?” I asked.
“Kiki’s allergic,” he replied.
I turned, had to presume this was Kiki.
Did my thing. Gave Kiki her moment; about five-five barefoot. Thick legs under denim spent from one two many spin cycles, natural tares revealing bruised knees. Unapologetic figure. Curves under a gray t-shirt displaying a flapper girl pole dancing along what appeared to be a Styrofoam cup. Letters reading: New Orleans Daiquiri Fest. Carnation lips closed in an ever present frown, eyes lazily indicating that she wasn’t easily impressed.
Good thing I hadn’t easily impressed in a good long while,
“Hey,” I said.
“Kiki,” she said.
We shook hands in a clinical moment under Zipper’s watchful eye.
Zipper gave my shoulder a slap. “Want to unload your stuff, or…?”
“I have a bottle of nice scotch in the car, if you’re willing to have a drink with me.”
Zipper laughed. “Welcome to New Orleans.”
I caught a smile from Kiki. “Lets get some glasses, Lucky.”
I nodded, let myself out.
There, on the porch, David looked up at me with pensive eyes. I reached down to give his head a scratch. His ears went perpendicular to his head. Could feel the purr radiating through his black fur, all the way along my fingertips.
“Don’t get to used to anything, David,” I said.
From behind me, the window popped open. “Lucky?”
I turned to find Kiki’s face in the frame, actual grin on her face. “We doing ice, or straight up?”
“Straight up,” I said.
She nodded, “David loves you.”
Closed the window.
I looked down. Caught a tooth protruding from David’s feline grin.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said.
Down the steps and out to the compact mini. Pulled out the key chain, bleeped it open.
Reached into the passengers for my bookbag, bottle of Scotch secured inside.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said to myself.
Walked back towards the house.
Straight up, on the rocks, David or no David, Kiki or no Kiki, new Zipper or old Zipper, the fact that a lethal storm had taken the opportunity to pass over this city, all the same, song, dance, what have you, me, and that bird I noticed in the tree.
Come a few months from now, I’d be committing suicide anyway.
I walked past David, wiped my feet on the mat, opened the door and made myself at home.