Storey Clayton recently received an MFA in creative nonfiction from West Virginia University. He’s worked as a youth counselor, debate coach, strategic analyst, development director, rideshare driver, and poker player. His nonfiction has appeared in more than twenty literary journals, including upstreet, Pleiades, Lunch Ticket, Typehouse Literary Magazine, and Blue Earth Review. Learn more at storeyclayton.com.
I’m trawling around the French Quarter at an almost pre-dawn hour. I’m in the eastern part of the Quarter that’s foggy and deserted and makes you think a pirate might stumble out of one of the beautiful shutter-doored two-story shotgun homes lining the street. I’m thinking about how many more riders will need Ubers tonight and when I should get home and whether that particular shape of fog looks like it could hide an apparition and what I would do if something incontrovertibly anachronistic happened right in front of me. It’s always in this mood, at this time of night, when people see witches or spirits or alien craft or shadowy government agents.
A ping calls me just around the corner, to the Clover Grill, a kind of old-school one-off Waffle House at Bourbon and Dumaine, in the heart of the eastern Quarter. This is a great pickup spot because Dumaine, which has been blocked for construction on and off the last few months, is one of the only northbound one-ways in the Quarter that is accessible from both directions of Decatur, itself the best east-west thoroughfare through the area. Plus, folks leaving the Clover are usually sobering up a little.
I pull up alongside to see a mismatched couple looking distraught on the street corner in front of the welcoming glow of the 24-hour greasy spoon. The woman is young and put together and almost pretty; the man is disheveled and haggard and could pass for homeless. Both wear expressions of resigned doom. I wonder if this is the time that I’ve long anticipated when a Good Samaritan calls an Uber for a homeless individual and I ferry them to their last remaining relative who hasn’t given up on them.
They both get in, reluctantly. I confirm the name (it’s the woman’s) and then swipe to start the ride, confirming the address.
She asks if we can make two stops and I readily agree, grateful for the extra distance on a slow night.
She turns to the man in the car, who is slumped over, inattentive, refusing his seatbelt. “Are you sure you want to go?”
“Yes, I’m sure, fuck it, let’s go.”
I’m not wild about their disparate enthusiasm for departing and pause while she checks with him once more. I raise my eyebrows into the rearview mirror and she nods almost imperceptibly. I feel the need to verbally verify and then pull us gently away from the curb.
“Babe,” she gushes, “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry all this happened tonight. I’ll make it up to you.”
“You were already trying to make it up to me,” he says, slowly and miserably, each syllable seeming to require tumultuous effort. He is facing the window on his left.
“I know,” she says quietly and withdraws.
He sits up, slowly, and inclines slightly in her direction. “I know it’s not your fault.” There is a straining sweetness in his voice.
She clasps his hand in the wide space between them on the back bench. “I know.” She sounds like she doesn’t.
“Look at me. Look at me. It’s not your fault. You tried your best. Shit happens.”
She drops her eyes, refusing his dictate. “It does.”
The Quarter recedes in the quiet, the last visible walker disappearing behind a shrouded doorway. I consider how many souls lie slumbering in this ancient town, dreaming of their day to come, full of beignets and etouffee, jazz and gyration. I still can’t determine the exact relationship between the couple in the back of my car.
“Are you going to tell mama?” he asks.
“Why would I?”
“She’s going to want to know what happened.” He pauses. “She’s going to see.”
“Yeah.” She hadn’t thought of that. “I guess so.” She asks if he thinks he should tell her.
“I don’t want to. Don’t. Don’t put that shit on me.”
Hurt, she tries to explain herself, but he cuts her off. They stare out opposite windows into the night.
We wander through the fog, the GPS giving me more turns than seem strictly necessary on this low-visibility journey. The Marigny gives way to the Bywater, an up-and-coming neighborhood whose hipness has recently replaced a reputation for danger, with the rents quickly trying to adjust to the new paradigm. Low-slung porches sag beneath ornate rotting balconies. Freshly painted neighbors with renewed right angles sit smugly beside them. The destination pin approaches, the map slowly zooming in at a closer and closer view of our location. I ease into a stop. The silence, enhanced by the fog, is powerful.
She sighs. He makes no moves. She looks at him. “So, I’ll call you. Maybe we can hang out again soon?”
He relents, slightly, reaching out for a hug. “Okay, sure. You can call me.”
“It was so good to see you. Really. I mean it.”
They come apart, more magnetic repulsion than disentanglement. He reaches for the door, opens it, is working toward heaving himself out. She puts her hand on his arm, urgently.
“I love you.”
“I mean it. I love you.”
“Loveyoutoo,” he mumbles.
And then he’s gone. She stares at him as he lopes to the porch, one of the lowest slung, fumbles in his pockets, looks genuinely worried for a moment, then relieved as he removes the small jangle and inserts a key into the broken-looking lock. He disappears behind the door.
She sighs, heavily.
“So, where to now?” I inquire after giving her a moment.
She stutters, then offers me an address on a street I don’t know.
“In Algiers, across the river?”
“Westbank best bank,” she says without mirth.
“You got it.”
“You sure you don’t mind? I could call another one.”
“Don’t be silly. I’m happy to take you.” I’m especially happy her morose companion won’t be joining us.
She looks out the window, forehead against it, contemplative but not tired. We zag through the narrow crumbling streets of the Bywater and finally pull onto St. Claude, the main drag to take us back toward the highway. I am trying to discern how best to start a conversation when she interrupts my thoughts.
“You mind if I ask you something?”
“You got any brothers or sisters?”
I’ve always resented the presumptions that come with this label, sure I exhibit almost none of them. “Only child.”
“Shoot. I was going to ask you how you possibly live with a sibling.”
“That was your brother?”
A long sigh. “Yup.”
“Is he – are you – okay?”
“Want to talk about it?”
“You don’t mind?”
“I don’t mind,” glancing at the GPS, which says 15 minutes lie ahead. “We’ve got a long ride to go.”
“So that was my brother. I haven’t seen him in… six years? I mean, not really. We talk occasionally, once in a while, but I had to draw some lines. He’s a heroin addict. Well, was. Well, is. I don’t know. It’s complicated. He’s been through a lot of shit. Our father. He wasn’t very nice to him. Left me alone, but he really took it out on him. It’s been hard. He’s been through a lot.”
“Is he older or younger?”
“Older. Two years. Fuck, man, we used to be so close, you know? And then he got older and got… weird.” I know what she means. “I moved down here to get away from him, honestly. New start, got a job, got two jobs. Then he comes and visits maybe eight years ago and I’m not so sure, but I’m like okay, come on down, and he does and he loves it. Just goes all in on it, you know? Just loves this town.”
“It’ll do that for you.” I’m speaking less from experience than vicariously here. My job affords me the ability to go out every night without going out. As someone who doesn’t drink, do drugs, or eat animals, I make a better bystander than participant in the Big Easy.
“Sure, sure, I love it too, but not like that. You know? Like I have some self-control? Like I know when to go home, you know? But of course he doesn’t. He stays out all night, disappears for days at a time. And he’s staying with me and mom says he’s my responsibility and we’re all freaking out wondering where he is and shit. And then he just turns up like nothing happened and says he needs money. And I want to put him on a bus home. I fucking buy him a bus ticket home. But do you think he takes it? Of course not. He’s been here ever since.”
“Did he stay with you?” We’re nearing the freeway, passing her brother’s cohort, the homeless and derelict who overstayed their invitation to New Orleans’ endless party. The city’s chronically poor huddle together in vast tent cities and makeshift shelters under the wide spans of interstate.
“At first? For a while? Like maybe three months and then I kicked him out. I actually had to move out, myself, tell the landlord to kick him out if he kept coming back. Said he should change the locks. That’s pretty much when it started. The not talking. We’d try to see each other every few months, but I couldn’t handle it. I have enough of my own shit to deal with, you know? Like I’m working two jobs and this ain’t an easy city and that’s about all I can do.”
“I hear you.”
The gargantuan twinned cantilever bridge looms in the distance, offering us safe passage across the nation’s mightiest river.
“So why’d you call him tonight? After six years or whatever. What changed?”
“He did. Or he said he did. No, that’s not fair. He’s been really trying. I mean he doesn’t have a job or anything, at least not one he can tell mama about. But he’s working to get himself cleaned up. And I mean, I can’t believe what happened. I feel so bad.”
“So he’s been actually going to a dentist and a doctor and all that. He’s trying to get clean. Going to meetings. So he just got these teeth. His teeth were all rotted out, lots of pain, an excuse for the heroin, you name it. So he got fitted for a set of teeth. Real nice ones, he was proud, could smile again. And he took them out to eat, because he’s still getting used to them and he has some teeth left in the back, so we were there eating, and, and –”
She starts to choke up, heaving little sobs, and they suddenly overtake her in a subtle but poignant way. I wait for her to continue as we descend from the 170-foot-high bridge into the fog once more. She takes thirty seconds to compose herself. Gas stations and convenience stores shine through the mist.
“I don’t, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to cry, but it’s just so hard.”
“It’s okay. Take your time. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.”
“No, no, I want to. It’s hard, but I need to. I need to talk to someone and mama’s no help.” She sighs shudderingly and blows her nose. “Okay, I think I’m good now. Someone threw out his teeth.”
“They were just down on the table by the plates and someone must have picked them up or something and they threw them away. We looked for them for like an hour. And we finally found them in the bottom of a trash bag.”
“Seriously? Was he able to get them?”
“No. I mean, they were seriously deep in the trash, like we barely saw them in this huge bag they hauled back from the dumpster. It was disgusting. He wouldn’t even touch them.”
“But teeth like that. I mean. They must have been expensive. Can’t you just – wash them off?”
“From the trash?”
“Wash them off… really well?”
“You should have seen them. I mean, I don’t blame him. You can’t put something like that in your mouth after that. So they’re gone. And then he realized he’d lost his glasses too.”
“He needs glasses?”
“He’s needed them forever, but he just got a pair. Real nice ones, too, he was so proud of the frames. Thought he looked real good in them. I haven’t seen him… proud… in a long time.”
It’s hard to picture the man she’s describing in light of the man I’d met at the outset of this ride. I ask if the glasses were in the trash and she responds uncertainly. I suggest that perhaps he’d just left them at home.
“Maybe. But I doubt it. He just fucks everything up.” Another sigh. “No, that’s not fair. Things get fucked up for him. Or, well. That’s the thing, right? He normally fucks them up, but this time he didn’t. It’s all my fault.”
“Well I invited him out. You see? I just wanted to see him, to give him a chance. To give us a chance. To reconcile, you know? I wanted to reach out because I know he’s trying. He’s trying so hard. And then this happens. And if I hadn’t asked him to meet me, to go hang out, shoot some pool, get a meal, then he would still have his fucking teeth and his fucking glasses and he’d be okay.”
“You can’t put that on yourself. Someone threw them out. That’s not your fault.”
“I know. But it kind of is, right? I wish I could just go back and not ask him. It’s the kind of thing he thinks is always going to happen. And so now getting his teeth is just another piece of bad luck for him. It was good and now it’s been ruined just like everything else in his life. I’m just worried… I’m worried he might do something. Something to hurt himself.”
“Yeah. That’s what I want your advice on. I don’t want to push him too hard, but I’m not sure he’s going to be safe tonight. I just kept getting that feeling as he was going in the house that that was the last time I was ever gonna see him. And I almost went in after him. I wish I had. But maybe then he would’ve lost something else he needs.”
“You really think he’s that close to the edge?”
“I mean, it’s such a big deal. He was going to start interviewing for jobs with his teeth now. And now what’s he going to do? I’m worried he’s going to start using again or that he knows he can’t and there’s no way out and he’s just going to give up. End it.” The sobs are back, though fainter. We’re traversing the narrow streets of Algiers Point, a parallel part of New Orleans on the south side of the river, which everyone calls the Westbank. It’s significantly quieter here than even the eastern Quarter, and more residential.
“You have to tell him he matters to you. And give him some hope.”
“What kind of hope could he possibly have?”
“Sometimes it’s not about the long term or the big picture. I’ll be honest, I’ve struggled with suicide myself.”
She’s incredulous at this and I worry briefly that I’ve distracted her from the point I’m trying to convey. We are nearing her destination and I’m running out of time. I could tell her about my first attempt as a washed-up ten-year-old who’d been pulled out of school, dragging a shard of broken plate across my throat. I could tell her about decades spent wavering unsteadily on train platforms and windy bridges. I could tell her about what I don’t think was my second attempt, just two years prior, slamming the back of my skull into a plaster wall until I nearly lost vision. It would be a distraction from what she needs.
It is so hard to explain suicidality to the unsuicidal. So I tell her about shortening one’s outlook on the future so time doesn’t look so insurmountable. I note that everyone needs something to look forward to, however small and seemingly insignificant, to get them through the worst moments. I suggest she should plan to see him again, soon.
“I’m not sure he wants to.”
“He wants to. Everyone wants to have people who care about them. He might think that you just think he’s fucking up again after losing everything. You have to show him that you are proud of him, that you like his company, that you haven’t given up on him.”
“Yeah, that might work. Should I call him now? I’m just so worried about him.”
“Text him first and if you don’t hear back, you can call. But no need to sound the alarm if he’s actually okay. You don’t want him to feel pushed.”
We arrive just about then. And I sit with her in front of her driveway while she drafts the text message. I suggest a couple of edits to sound less judgmental and more excited. She agonizes over each word before sending it. And then, as soon as I hear the little chime to indicate the message has been sent, she loses it. Just starts sobbing in the car, heaving and shaking, then choking out apologies between sobs. And I tell her it’s okay, it’s all right, she’ll hear back, he’ll be okay, and it’s understandable to cry in this situation. And she cries and I wait and listen, then tell her she’s a good sister and it’s not her fault and he’s going to be okay. And she dries her eyes, futilely as the water keeps getting replenished, and tries to smile awkwardly through the mess, and looks at her phone and sobs some more.
And she apologizes and apologizes and I say it’s okay, it’s okay. And then her phone chimes and it’s him and he’s alive and okay and says that he liked seeing her too and they’ll talk tomorrow. “Tomorrow,” she whispers. “He said tomorrow.”
“You’ll talk to him tomorrow.”
She heaves a long sigh and turns away. Amid more thanks and apologies, she opens the door, closes it gently, so gently it doesn’t latch. She opens it again and says “Sorry,” and closes it fully and then walks gingerly up the three wooden steps to her door.
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