Fiction by Bobby Mathews
It was the kind of night on Bourbon Street when the heat comes down and smothers you like a jealous sibling holding a feather pillow. The shot girls were busy in their Daisy Dukes and bikini tops, hawking cheap liquor from expensive bottles. Drink the bottom-shelf tequila someone funneled into a Patron bottle and wander down the block past the strippers and the three-card monte dealers, past the fortune tellers and street prophets. Behind it all is the endless cacophony of sound, jazz and jizz in New Orleans.
Your kind of town.
Or at least it had been until they threw you out of Marie LeVeau’s on Decatur Street. The hotel offers a voucher for two free cocktails at a minuscule saloon with room for three at the bar and a single two-top near the door. The walls are covered in mirrors to make the place look bigger, but after a while you’ve drunk too much and it gets tiring as hell to look at your own damned reflection for so long. At the Cigar Factory where old Honduran men hand-roll wet leaves and bind them in the big wooden molds to hold their shape, the young white kid behind the counter will sell you a mediocre cigar at a premium price.
So you walk out of there with the cigar lit and smoke billowing around you like you’re the steam engine that pulls the world, feeling almost fine. But after half a block the humidity has set in and your smoke won’t stay lit no matter how hard you puff. Walking around just a stone’s throw from the Gulf feels like you’re wading shoulder-deep in water so warm someone else must have already pissed in it.
That’s how you end up on Bourbon Street in the first place, you know. You walk away from the water, flee the smell of the salt carried on the incoming breeze like rancid cologne sprayed over the body of a decaying corpse. The Gulf has no love for the Big Easy, and the big water has already tried to murder this town on multiple occasions. The last time, it nearly succeeded.
For some reason, Bourbon Street feels safer. Maybe it’s because you can’t see the Gulf from here. Maybe it’s because of the endless tide of humanity that flows back and forth along the street, pulled not by the moon but by the drink specials.
It’s always a party down here, but it’s never clear whether the festivities are a celebration or a wake. Bourbon Street smells like warm piss and stale beer—maybe the same thing, right?—and you find a darkened doorway so that you can add a little of your own special brand to the glittering stream that runs through the gutter.
That’s when you see her. You’re trying to zip it up, got your gun in your hand right there, and not a weapon in sight. But this girl isn’t a danger to you, not a danger to anybody. She’s curled in the fetal position, with jeans that would be skin-tight if they weren’t puddled around her ankles. Her green tank top is dark with sweat, and as far as you can tell, she’s wearing neither bra nor panties, and row upon row of garish plastic beads weighs down her slender, delicate neck.
Never mind that it’s the height of summer and Fat Tuesday won’t waddle its way around again until after the new year, the cheap and tawdry beads have become synonymous with the decadence of the French Quarter. If you don’t see a nipple on Bourbon Street, you’re not looking very hard. They’re more common than chicory coffee, and less expensive, to boot.
You try not to look at the girl too closely, just a peek out of the corner of your eye. You don’t want to know if she’s gone, another poor child who went looking for some fun and found something else entirely. It’s the Big Easy, right? And there ain’t a thing in this old world that’s easier than murder. Like breathing and sex, it just comes naturally for some people.
Oh, you know that’s a generalization of course. Most folks won’t ever really kill someone, but there’s lots of folks out there with murder on their minds. Hell, you’re one of them tonight.
Then the girl’s arm twitches. She’s alive, at least for now. That means you can go your own way if you want to. Just keep that burned-out stogie in the corner of your mouth, wander back into the anonymous flow of humanity as it slides by, let the current take you on to the next drink, to the next bar, let it wash you ashore at the next saloon and hope you can live with the memory of a girl you left alone and helpless in the gutter.
But you’re just kidding yourself, and you know it. Think about the Good Samaritan, the things they taught you in Sunday school when you were just a boy. A long time ago, you think, but some lessons stick more than others.
Kneel beside the girl, put your hand on her bare shoulder. There’s grit and muck down there; feel it through the dirty knees of your faded blue jeans, and you try not to think about what kind of filth you’re getting into. Her skin is warm under your palm, and you try not to look at her tit hanging out the side of her shirt.
She looks up at you, eyes bleary and unfocused. There’s vomit in her hair. You take your hand away quickly as she tries to sit up. The girl doesn’t make it, and you wrap your arm around her so that she doesn’t fall onto the concrete and bust her head.
“Oh God,” she says, her voice almost unintelligible, a croak. She rolls over onto her knees, gives you—and anyone who cares to look—a glimpse of a full moon on an otherwise overcast night. Then she straightens up, struggling to get her jeans over scabby knees, jerking the waistband over her butt and nearly to her navel.
She’s wearing cork-soled espadrilles, but she’s been so far down in the muck that the bottoms of her feet are black like the soul of a witchy woman from the swamps.
“You okay?” You ask, because you’ve got to say something. She’s on her feet now, unsteady, but she’s obviously better off than she was. She runs her hands through her dirty hair, and you can see by the way she casually flicks her fingers toward the gutter, slinging chunks of vomit and who knows what else, that she’s had some experience waking up like this.
She wobbles toward you, arms spread wide, lipstick-smeared mouth open for a good night kiss. Catch her wrists with your hands, fingers tight, and turn your cheek just in time so that she only shares a little lipstick—god, you hope it’s just lipstick—on the side of your face.
“Nice time,” she slurs in your ear. “Had a nice time.”
You’re glad one of you did. You watch her as she toddles off, wondering if she found what she was looking for down here in the Quarter. So many people looking, most of them drunk or high out of their minds, sometimes both. For the tourists, Bourbon Street is a pilgrimage, a trip they make once in their lives just so they can say they did it. Like a Las Vegas of the Deep South, what happens in New Orleans is supposed to stay there.
But you’re no tourist. The hotel room on Decatur was supposed to be a place for you to crash so that you don’t try to drive home drunk, so that you don’t see Mary Alice while the booze is in you and you say too much. Or worse. So you drink a little more and you watch the people. It’s a carnival without Carnival. And you end up down near the end of the street where no one goes, where the music can’t reach you and the partners who come to dance the night away will never visit.
The end of the street is where the serious drinkers come. This is the place where the bartenders don’t talk, because they got their own problems, Jack, you better believe it. This is the kind of place where every other man at the bar is over fifty, overweight, and nearly overcome by some heavy burden he’ll never talk about. It’s the kind of bar where a sleeping drunk can be ignored, and where the regulars wear the burst capillaries in their cheeks as a badge of honor.
There’s no shame down on Bourbon Street, not anywhere, but there’s even less here, where the juke is broken and the sawdust on the floor hasn’t been changed in so long that it’s turned gray. Order a whiskey, whatever they’ve got in the well. Gotta keep drinking, because if you don’t, the headache and the heartache will catch up to you. Ask for water back, because somebody once told you that the reason hangovers last so long is that drunks get dehydrated easily. Nod at the lush on the next stool, and he takes it as an opening.
“Them Saints,” he says, “how ‘bout ‘em, ey?”
“They gonna be any good this year?”
He drains off his whiskey. Like you, he’s drinking it neat, or trying to. A little dribble runs down his chin and drips onto the bar top.
“Cain’t never tell, can you?”
“No,” you say. It’s true. You can never really tell about anything. Just take it as it comes.
“Death and taxes and the Carnival,” he says, “and damn if Fat Tuesday ain’t too far away to worry about right now. The hell with it. Who dat, am I right?”
He’s right, of course he is. Who dat and all. But you’d agree with anything at this point. There’s no use in two drunks arguing with one another. High up in one corner of the bar, there’s a flat-screen TV tuned to the weather channel. There are storms in the Gulf, just like there are every summer, but this year they’re all headed toward Mexico or the East coast. Still, folks down here keep an eye on the storms. They can turn at any time, like an angry drunk looking for his next victim.
The guy next to you slides off his stool and heads to the rear of the saloon. There’s a sign on the wall that reads RESTROOMS, with an arrow pointing helpfully in the correct direction. You mind your own business, thoughts about Mary Alice circling in your head. You don’t know the guy, pretty sure you’d never seen him before, carrying a leather bomber jacket—in this heat no less—and most of his clothes in his arms as he scrambled over the privacy fence in the back yard. And of course you want to take it out on her. That’s your first instinct. My God, she’s right there. Twenty-three years with Mary Alice, and today’s the first day you ever came home early and unannounced. Guess who won the pony, boy, did you ever.
So now you’ve got a quiet place to drink, and after the second one you realize that it’s not what you want. Not what you need, either. No, what you need is down there at the other end of the street with the lights and the music and the girls who don’t wear any underwear.
You leave some cash on the bar, enough to cover your drinks and a little leftover for a barkeep who doesn’t ask questions, just pours ‘em real strong. And then you’re outside in the air again, thick and salty enough to be the soup left at the bottom of a bowl of gumbo. This end of the street is dark, the lights few and far between, and you walk it with your head up and your shoulders back, daring some young punk to come out of the shadows. Oh, you’re drunk enough to roll, sure, but there are easier pickings in this town. There always are. You’re a big man, six-foot five-inches in your sock feet, a might taller in the cowboy boots you always wear.
A big man. But not big enough for Mary Alice, the whore. You shake your head, try to clear it. You know she’s not a whore, know that she’d yell at you for shaming sex workers with the word. But you don’t know what in the hell she was missing, why she’d turn to another man. And she didn’t get time to tell you.
That’s because your dumb ass got into your Ford F-250 and drove off before she could say anything. Left her at the end of that dirt road in the doublewide y’all are still paying for. Let her explain why you left, why you put two plumes of red dust in the air like rooster tails and got on down the road. You made two phone calls on the way from shit-ass Slidell into the city, and then you threw your damned phone off the bridge and into Lake Ponchartrain. Did you know you were throwing your life away, too? You must have.
It’s an easy three blocks back to the noise and back to the bustle. Bourbon Street and one last hooray, one last night with the music and the girls and the booze and everything that goes with it. One last time to watch the sun come up, one last chance to dance the night away.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Two phone calls was all it took to end a life. The first call was to the hotel, where you got a room for two nights; that second call, though, that’s the one that seals the deal. That’s the call that brings the scrawny little man with the ill-fitting suit and the pencil mustache. He was an oily little man, and there was something about the way he kept patting his slicked down hair that you really didn’t like.
He’s got brown eyes, big and deep like the waters of Lake Ponch. Like Mary Alice’s eyes.
For five thousand dollars, he’ll kill your wife and take her body off into the swamp where the gators and the snakes and the bobcats will take care of the rest, and nobody will ever find out what happened to her. The price is right, and you give him half up-front. Never mind why you have that much cash on hand. That’s nobody’s business but your own.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” the oily little man says. “I got just the thing for her. You ain’t gotta deal with that bitch ever again.”
What is it about that word? What made it strike a nerve? God knows you’ve called her that over and over for the last three hours. You still don’t understand why it set you off the way it did, but you lean back as if you’ve just been struck by a blow.
“Don’t call her that,” you say. Were you already drunk? You don’t think so, but maybe. Hell, probably. You stopped at a liquor store on the way in, and you can remember what the pint of Old Forester tasted like when you uncapped it and guzzled it down in the parking lot. It was just a pint, but how much does a man need to get drunk? Even a big man like you.
Now he’s looking at you with a wrinkle between his eyebrows and a question on his lips that he’ll never get to ask, because now your fingers are around his throat. Your hands are big, like the rest of you, big as dinner plates, and this scrawny chicken wing of a man is small, no bigger than Mary Alice.
He looks up at you with her eyes, and his fingers dig into your forearms. You can feel the dull bite of his nails on your skin. But you’ve already used your weight to bear him down, push him onto his back on the floor. Even if he’s got a weapon, he can’t think well enough to get to it. It doesn’t matter anyway. What’s he gonna do other than put you out of your misery?
You read somewhere that it takes eight minutes to strangle a man to death. You’re not sure how long you keep hold of his throat, but it could have been hours. The big tendons in your forearms hurt like hell, and your hands feel useless. You can’t straighten your fingers. You don’t look at the would-be killer. You can’t bring yourself to do it. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see that his face is purple.
And Mary Alice’s eyes are in his face, and they’re wide open and staring at you.
You run water in the bathroom sink, cold first to help your hands. When they feel halfway normal again, switch the water over to hot and scrub your face. When you’re done everything feels raw and painful, but the tears that left dirty trail-marks down your face aren’t there anymore, and that’s a relief.
Step around the corpse on the floor, a dead man whose eyes remind you so much of your wife, and go downstairs. Take a left out of the hotel, and there you are at Marie LeVeau’s. You’ve got drink tickets in your pocket and no reason not to use them.
So the night goes on, and you lose yourself in the darkness and the music, in the flow of humanity that never stops on Bourbon Street. And sometime around four a.m., you’re drunk and horny enough to ask a girl to dance. She’s too young for you by a good fifteen years, but she’s drunk too, so you dance while the band plays, and you talk while the musicians go out to smoke their cigarettes and toke their joints.
It’s a good time. You drink and you smoke and you dance the night away, just the way you ought to.
Because you know the sun will come up eventually, and some poor, underpaid hotel maid will find that body, the little man with Mary Alice’s eyes, and then they’ll come for you.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll still be drunk when they do.
Editor’s note: This story was first published in Close to the Bone Summer 2020.