Thursday, March 27, 2008

BABYLON BLUES (a fragment)

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 lies underneath the water line. The coffins are drowning. The undertakers have holes drilled into the sides, but when it rains, the coffins still go floating in the pits. You can hear them rattle at the underside of the gravestones.
That is only true, of course, for the Protestants.
The Catholics have their own peculiar rites.

*

I met her at the ACE hardware store on Oak Street. We were both eying the quickly shrinking piles of plywood.
“You look like the kinda guy that knows how to wield a hammer”, she said. She sees me often at Donna’s bar, she added. Quite possibly.
“And I bet you have a car.”

We bind the boards to the roof of my dinky Toyota. First we board up her shotgun house in Bywater, then we drive over to the Vieux Carré.
“I like your t-shirt”, I say. The front reads “Babylon”, the back says: “And on and on and on…”
She does not reply. Then, casually: “The least I can do is buy you a beer.”

The city loves to cozy up to its drowsy river. The Mississippi, soggy with the sediment of the collective dreams of this feeble continent, sways slowly -- drunkenly -- through its bed of mud and heavy metals. But not today. Today the wind whips foamy crests on the water; a dirty surf licks the levee. In the narrow window of Reverend Zombie’s Voodo Shop the Legba dolls are shaking; Erzulie stares with wide open eyes over the vast emptiness of the Quarter. The bars are closed. Pat O’Briens, Johnny White's, Molly’s, The Famous Door, The Cat’s Meow – all empty boxes of unreachable promise.

I must have a bottle of something or other on top of my fridge. And the Quarter is on higher ground than the rest of the city -- in my apartment, we will surely weather the storm.

*

The Catholics are smarter. They do not bury their loved ones. They shove them in narrow alcoves high above ground; the heat of the eternal Louisiana summer slow-cooks their dead. After a year of baking the remains are shaken into a cotton bag and thrust to the back of the niche, to make room for the newly deceased – perhaps it is cooler in the back.

Once I too stood at the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. I knocked three times on the hollow cover; with her gold-rimmed lipstick my girlfriend drew three crosses on the wall. We left the lipstick there in the dirt, a meager offering; we hoped Marie would like the color -- Rouge Sensation. Apparently she didn’t: The baby never came and my girlfriend packed her suitcase.

*

Did the rain start? The pale light in the room is compatible with the hypothesis of rain: softly filtered, phlegmatic and pure, a study for an alchemy in blue. The CD player hiccups. The lamp on the nightstand flickers. The power plant delivers its final sob: Girl you gotta love your man.

She grabs a cigarette and gathers the sheet around her; she steps onto the balcony. The windows are nailed shut; the door is still open. The very last board, meant to close us in completely, bangs against the railing. I step into my boxer shorts and press myself against her, the wind a hot lush breath against our necks. We fit well together. How often, how closely, how warmly can strangers fit together.

There’s another shipwrecked couple on the other side of the street. They wave at us from their balcony – forty-somethings, the woman sports a motherly layer of fat, the man a ponytail. They did not need a sheet; they did not need no boxer shorts.
And while our neighbors merrily proceed with their copulation, we raise our eyes to the heavens and watch the fraying clouds nibble at the fraying moon. There come the first drops of the fraying rain. Time to hammer those last nails.
When I am done, I slither down the drainpipe. My bare feet land in a puddle of glimmering slime. I run upstairs and slide next to her in bed. The darkness is palpable, the night a bath of ink.

Why me, I ask. I am a dime a dozen.
Why Noah?, she asks. After the Lord commanded His flood, He needed a righteous man, just one man, one righteous man and his companion. It didn’t matter that the Righteous One was a drunkard – he was steadfast, watchful, gentle, and firm.
You are my righteous man. You are steadfast, watchful, gentle, and firm.
She promises me this: If by accent the world would drown again tonight, the two of us will populate the earth.

*

The rain rages against the plywood. A hellish wind – this is no whistling, no howling, no wailing -- this is a throbbing, thumping sound, all the fury of the West-African continent condensed into one gigantic boiling, pounding fist; here comes the fuming black devil Satan tearing up the town with hurried, bloody claws.
In St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the Protestants are dancing. The catholic souls take a breather from the heat.
I take her in my arms.
Life is what happens when you stop asking questions.
The wind is shaking the foundation; the rain is thrashing the walls.
Tomorrow, I say, all of this will be over.
She agrees.
Tomorrow, little boy, everything will be over.

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