34. THE FATEFUL DAY
After being robbed in the French Quarter, I’d panhandled enough for the streetcar fare and trembled with relief all the way back to our place Uptown. It was a Friday night and I wasn’t surprised that Marino wasn’t around. I tossed my jacket and shirt on my bed and went to the kitchen and splashed water in my face and on the back of my neck. As I was toweling off I looked up to see the small devotional on the wall.
My thoughts ran from my stupidity at nearly getting stabbed to my ambivalent loneliness for not accepting love that was being offered and uncertainty as to where my future direction might take me. My faith had supported me in times of peril and consoled me in times of weakness. I had meditated on my spiritual state and felt strongly that I knew of a deep inner resolve that had revealed itself in my better moments. A kind word, a simple bit of consideration to a stranger, a glorious sunrise, many episodes of gentleness that were just as easily forgotten flooded my memory. I got down on my knees in the darkness of my ramshackle room and simply and earnestly asked for God to come into my life and move me according to His will.
It was one of those divine moments and I sought to ennoble it in some way. My stack of recent artwork was off to one side of my desk. I went over and sifted through them, finding one I particularly liked; a darkening sky over the river, railroad trains and squatter’s shacks in the foreground. I’d smudged it with my thumb to emphasize the sky and the smear accented the light just right.
I took it over to the barbeque pan we used for an ashtray and set it down. Giving thanks, I lit one corner and watched the flame slowly consume first the edge and then the body of the drawing. “Amen!” I affirmed.
My pots and pans were boxed up and I’d traded the fan for the radio and filled my pack with clothes, towels and sheets along with my toiletries. It would take two trips to move into the apartment on Rampart and Esplanade. The plan was to pass through City Park on the way and see the new exhibition at the art museum and then get the keys from the landlord. I’d carry my art supplies and rolled up drawings in a sack with what little food I had and then come back for my bike.
Marino had come in late while I was sleeping and I mumbled an acknowledgement and rolled towards the wall. By sun-up he was already dressed and had gone up to the river levee. I was looking to get my day started too. I washed up, had a quick bite and rolled a cigarette. It had been my habit to scribble a quick sketch in the morning to loosen up my drawing hand and I lingered over the desk I was giving up. With my pen, I drew a continuous line that delineated the shape of a head with staring eyes and a full mouth.
I left the drawing on the table, retracted the pen and clipped it into my shirt pocket. Slinging the full pack onto my shoulders and picking up my sack, the screen door slapped closed behind me. I crossed the street and then the railroad tracks. Marino was sitting on top of the levee looking across the Mississippi and stood up when I came over. “Another beautiful day”, I began and then gasped as he turned towards me. He was sporting a black eye and a cut over his eyebrow. “I had a fight with Bernice last night”, he said. “I told her I was thinking of returning to Seattle and before I had a chance to tell her I wanted her to come with me, she grabbed an ashtray and smacked me in the head”. “Some girlfriend”, I said. “Maybe you’re better off without her”. His reply surprised me. “I’ve never loved anyone like this before”, he said with apparent conviction.
The sun had burned off the early clouds and it was getting hot. “I’m going for a swim and then catch a nap”, he said quietly. “In the river”, I asked. “Isn’t that a little dangerous with the gators and gar fish around?” “No, I don’t think so”, he replied, and stripped off his shirt and wandered down the path to the river’s edge. I followed along and described my plan to take my gear to the new apartment and then come back for my bike. “Maybe we can get a bite of dinner together when I get back”, I said. “Sure”, he said absently as he waded into the shallow water. “Take it easy”, I said, and saw him wave before I turned to catch the Carrolton Avenue Streetcar to City Park.
By now, I knew the cloakroom attendant at the Delgado Art Museum and she was glad to stash my pack and my bags while I took in the new exhibition: A retrospective showing of work by the social realist painter Jacob Lawrence. His seemingly simple approach to storytelling masked a sophistication of composition and I was struck by the dramatic foreshortening of his figures. His devotion to outlining a series of works describing the Underground Railroad and migration of slaves from the embittered South to the promise of freedom stirred my own sense of liberation. In reading the exhibition text I was surprised to learn that he was a professor of art at the University of Washington back home in Seattle.
It was a straight route down Esplanade Avenue to Rampart Street and I wasn’t in a hurry so set out walking to the park entrance and down the shady side of Esplanade. After several blocks I was ready for a light meal and dropped my gear at a sidewalk bistro. “Lunch?” said the waiter bringing a basket of bread and a glass of ice water. “Yeah, that’d be great”, I said and took the menu he proffered. Downing half of the water in a couple swallows, I looked over the bill of fare and decided on the grilled oyster po’ boy. “Dressed?” he inquired, meaning did I want it with lettuce and tomatoes. “Yes. Please”, I responded and held my water glass up for a refill.
I was at peace over the move I was making and pondered the possibility of Marita or Lisa coming to stay with me in my new place. My new position at work was leading to more interaction with the art department and Mr. Richards had indicated that if I got my driver’s license I could use one of the company’s trucks to work in the field. Once the brutally hot summer was past, I figured, the cooler autumn would be a relief and I’d probably go home for the holidays. I was thinking of the paintings I’d soon be making in my new apartment and planned to show to gallery owners in the French Quarter. “Here y’are”, said the waiter, setting down my po’boy with a giant pickle on the side.
As I sat there chewing my lunch, I looked next door to see an official city plaque mounted on a fence in front of an historic home. I got up and took the few steps to read what the plaque had to say. The Edgar Degas House was the residence of the famous Impressionist painter when he had been in New Orleans visiting relatives in 1872 and 1873. I wondered how his notion of the Creole culture measured with the reality of it and whether he had been pleased or disappointed.
I sat back down to finish my lunch and put one foot up on the empty chair opposite mine. A breeze rustled the leaves overhead and a pleasant mixture of Magnolia blossoms and gardenia flowers wafted by my senses. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and let the mild perfume permeate my being and felt completely at peace.
“Check”, stated the waiter and tapped my elevated foot with the menu while placing the tab before me on an ornate silver tray. “Right”, I said, removing my foot and fishing out my wallet. I had exactly one hundred and fifty five dollars that I’d withdrawn from my bank account the day before. After rent and deposit, I figured I’d have enough for groceries and a bit left over. “Thank you”, I said and drained my glass. “Merci”, responded the waiter.
Before long, I was at the corner of Rampart and Esplanade. I went to the gated house next door where I had been told the landlord lived and found an enormous lock chained to the gate of 103 Rampart. All of the shades had been pulled but I could see that lights were on. “Mister Frywell?” I shouted and waited for a minute and then shouted again, “Mister Frywell?” The paper curtain on the front door crackled softly and the door opened a sliver. “Mister Frywell, sir, I’m here about the apartment?” He opened the door just enough to slide out sideways and shifted his eyes back and forth as he came down the few steps from his porch and stayed in the shadows. I notice the holstered gun on his hip. “Yeah, I was told you’d be by today. You’ve seen the place?” he growled and looked at me with bloodshot eyes. “Yes, sir”, I responded “And I have the rent and deposit with me”. “Alright”, he scowled across the still locked gate and fished into his pants for his keys. Looking around, he detached two keys and handed them to me saying “This one’s for the front door and this one’s for the room”. I handed him an envelope with the cash and he opened it briefly then folded it and stuffed it into his back pocket. Looking straight at me, he warned, “No loud noise and no extra guests or there’ll be trouble. “Yes, sir, I mean, No, sir”, I said and took a step back. “Keep it clean too. I’ll be checkin’”, he said and without waiting for a reply hurried back up the stairs and retreated into his shuttered home.
“Whoa! That’s pretty creepy all right”, I said to myself as I carried my things around the corner and slipped the key into the lock. It turned with ease and the temperature was a good ten degrees cooler inside. I was winded by the time I’d scaled the three flights of stairs and opened the door to my new home. It was a little stuffy so I left the door open rather than opening a window and letting in the heat. I set my stuff down and plopped on the king-sized bed that was just box springs and a mattress on the floor. Delicate plaster filigree ornamented the ceiling and a tarnished Baroque chandelier was suspended overhead. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It felt as if all my cares and concerns exhaled along with my breath and I turned on my side and glanced out the window. A sparrow had perched on the railing of the fire escape and chirped a greeting.
I still hoped to unpack some things and make a list of items I’d need, so sat up and pulled my pack over and untied it. Plugging in the small radio, I made sure the volume was low and switched the channel around to hear what stations I could pull in. “Thank goodness”, I exclaimed when Lee Dorsey’s, “Workin’ in a Coal Mine”, issued forth on WYLD AM. Checking the refrigerator, I was delighted to see a can of cold Barq’s root beer and held it to my forehead before cracking it open and taking a long pull. Unloading one of the sacks, I turned over a small sketch and wrote on the back: Toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, beer, bread, cheese, milk, butter and eggs. I even included a bottle of cheap champagne to keep on ice in case I met someone and got lucky.
After a shower in the aluminum foiled bathroom and a change into fresh clothes I felt renewed and prepared to turn this new page in my life. I envisioned where I’d set up my art table when I could find one and stepped out onto the fire escape and looked over the rooftops of the French Quarter. Knowing that the immediate skyline hadn’t changed much in a few hundred years it seemed that I might be poised in time and space and on the verge of something transcendent. I waved to my new neighbor watering her geraniums on the balcony across the street.
My things were in neat piles and I hung a few shirts on hangers in the closet. “I better make sure to get a couple candles too”, I thought, in case of a power outage. I folded my grocery list into my pocket and locked the door behind me and headed down to Canal Street to catch the streetcar back up St. Charles. The gentle rocking of the streetcar and the opulent facades of the historic mansions seemed different somehow and I easily imagined what it must have felt like to be alive in the distant antebellum days.
I hadn’t noticed the crusted dirt around the outside base of the old house on Leake Avenue and thought at first I should knock on the door since I was quitting the place. Only the screen door was closed so I called “Hey!” and stepped inside. Marino was lying on the green couch with a bag of crushed ice over his swollen eye. “Feelin’ better?” I asked. “Yeah, not too bad”, he replied, “just a little sore”. It was getting late and I kind of hoped he’d already had supper. “Yeah, that’d be great”, he said after I’d asked him if he wanted to go up to the Camellia Grill for dinner.
“Boggs came by after you left”, he said, as we were walking along the top of the levee towards the café. “He said you were going on a double date to the Audubon Zoo tomorrow afternoon with Lisa and Betsy”. In my excitement over my new place I’d completely forgotten and made a note to stop by his place. We managed to score a window table in the crowded café and reminisced about our journey here and times we’d had as kids. “Life takes some funny turns sometimes”, he said. I agreed and dug into my Caesar salad. He asked about the downtown apartment and I understated my enthusiasm but invited him to crash there if he ever got stranded downtown. He reciprocated since he knew I’d be returning Uptown frequently to catch the music at Jed’s or the Maple Leaf Bar.
It was fairly late when we exited the diner and I could make out the Big Dipper once we got away from the streetlights. I wasn’t looking forward to the long bike ride back and then the return trip tomorrow for my date. “Do you mind if I sleep here tonight so that I can meet up with Boggs and Lisa tomorrow?” I asked Marino. “No sweat”, he said. “Mi casa, Su casa”.
I was glad I hadn’t gone out drinking in the clubs like I usually did on a typical Saturday night. I collected my few remaining things and rolled them in my small oriental carpet and set it by the door. It was too warm for any blanket so I lay down on my old bed and rolled a cigarette and blew lazy smoke rings into the air. “Still thinking of headin’ home?” I asked Marino while he was setting up his bed in the kitchen. “Yeah, probably”, he confessed. “Working outside in this heat for another month will be brutal”. “”What about Bernice?” I asked. “She’d like to leave N’awlins for good”, he declared. “She’s burned a few bridges already and is on the outs with her folks over some stupid misunderstanding”. I didn’t inquire further and clicked off the bedside lamp as the northbound freight train rumbled slowly by. I glanced at the waxing silvery moon casting striped shadows throughout the house and let my mind wander among the stars before tranquil sleep caught up with me.
“How was the swim?” I asked Marino the next morning when he came in with his hair dripping. I was finishing a cup of instant coffee with a day-old bagel I’d found in the fridge. “What a relief!” he stated and reached for my cup and took a swig. “It must be ninety degrees already”. I wouldn’t be meeting up with Boggs and Lisa for a few hours and hadn’t had a swim for weeks. I grabbed my cut-offs and a towel and told Marino I was going to cool off. “I’ll come too”, he said and grabbed his smokes.
The sun was burning my bare shoulders the moment I stepped outside and I draped the towel over them for protection. I walked up the levee where I’d flown kites, played with the neighborhood kids and had picnics with Lisa. Looking out over the river. I was surprised to see how much the Mississippi River had receded overnight. Maple trees that had been submerged were standing on dry ground and the moored barges were much further away than they had been. Marino walked past me and was inspecting some fresh vegetation that had sent up bright golden shoots. The morning sun was reflected in millions of scattered pieces of water and I squinted to make out images in the distance.
“This is gonna feel great”, I said to myself, in anticipation of the cooling water. Marino looked back as I waded into the water and felt the sand give way between my toes. I was captured by exuberance and picked up speed as I ran into the water and leapt high into the air and inhaled deeply. The birds stopped chirping momentarily, the wind through the trees stilled briefly and I felt air rush across my back. A dull thud replaced glorious exhilaration and I felt most of my body disappear instantly. I opened my eyes and a murky brown cloud of churned mud obscured my vision. I couldn’t move. I COULDN’T MOVE!
I summoned every ounce of strength I had to lift myself clear of the river. Nothing. I had managed to keep my last breath of air in my lungs and knew instinctively that once I let it out that it would be all over. My only hope was that Marino had been watching and was hurrying to come to my aid. Nothing. I tried to rise again with more determination than I thought I possessed to no avail. Frantically, I began to move the air up and down my windpipe in a mocking attempt to simulate breathing. I detected a shadow through the gloom and sensed Marino above me. My mind was screaming at the top of its lungs for him to turn me over. Fingers reached under my shoulder and raised my face clear of the troubled water. I gulped the sweetest air I’d ever tasted but was in a state of dread and horror. “What happened?” cried Marino.
“I can’t be paralyzed!” I screamed. All my dreams, my hopes, my plans withered in a flashing moment. “I’ll get help”, shouted Marino, as he dragged my unresponsive body up onto the beach. “Hurry!” I said urgently. He tore off in the direction of the payphone at the corner gas station. I lay there, scared out of my wits. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Now what? My mind reeling, I looked at my unfeeling fingers and tried to make a fist. Nothing. I could feel the blinding sun on my face and shoulders. Period. At least I could breath again.
Time was standing still and the light reflecting through the leaves of the trees overhead gave me pause. “Such a beautiful world”, I thought and was thankful to have been alive once. Unseen stars were out in the infinite I knew. Perhaps I’d already joined them and my mind simply hadn’t caught up with the rest of my body. I could hear the river gently lapping against my legs and watched a snowy egret take flight from one of the barges. “It can’t be over”, I told myself and waited for the numbness to wear off.
In the distance I heard a siren getting closer. Some loud yelling from the river levee behind me. “Over here! OVER HERE!” The crashing of branches and Marino’s voice, “Down here!” Blue uniformed paramedics carrying a stretcher and first aid kits surrounded me. “I didn’t have any money on me so went to Boggs’ place. Thank God he was home”, said Marino, breathlessly. “I’m Mark. Boggs’ brother”, said one paramedic. “Take it easy now. We’ll get you out of here”. Another paramedic had fashioned a sling with a couple cushions to immobilize my head and strapped a blood pressure cuff on my insensate arm. “There must be some way to get the ambulance down here”, said Mark. “Yeah, here. We’ll drive it around these trees and back it in”, stated the other paramedic confidently.
Mark unhinged the specially made stretcher and parted it on both sides of me. “You lift gently”, he directed the other paramedic, “And I’ll close it under him”. I felt his strong arms under my shoulders cradling my head and Mark managed to clamp it together. The ambulance backed up to us and Mark threw the back door wide open. “Easy now, on my three. One, two, three”. I was hoisted into the air and slid into the ambulance. Marino jumped in the front seat while Mark and his co-paramedic attended to strapping down the stretcher. “Let’s go!” called out Mark. The driver gradually eased the ambulance forward and it lurched to a halt and the wheels spun into the soft sand. “Shit!” cried Mark. Marino and the other paramedic jumped out and began rocking the ambulance forward and back to try to get out of the rut but only succeeded in getting it dug in deeper. “Call a tow truck, Stat!” Mark shouted to the driver. The radio crackled, our position relayed and help was on the way. “I can’t feel anything”, I said, looking into Mark’s eyes.
Within moments, a tow truck had backed up to the ambulance, hooked onto the reinforced bumper and gently eased us out of the sand and onto the firmer ground of the levee. Mark held both sides of my head as we crossed over the railroad tracks and the siren was ignited. “What hospital should we go to?” said the driver over his shoulder. “Charity has the best trauma center”, said Mark, looking down at me. “Yeah, let’s do it”, I said.
The driver called ahead with our arrival time and Mark was securing the rest of me to the stretcher frame and setting extra cushions on either side of my neck. The other paramedic was checking my pulse and staring at his watch. Marino looked back from the front seat every few seconds. The siren kept screaming.
Out of the corner of my eye I recognized the front of a business on Canal Street where I had recently changed the neon sign’s transformer. I wondered what Douglas and my fellow employees would say on Monday.
We pulled into the Emergency Room entrance and a small army assailed us. Mark never left my side and Marino was walking on the other side as we were wheeled into the treatment room. I looked over at Marino. “I wish this was you instead of me”, I said and instantly regretted saying it. The world had changed completely. All I could think of was, “Why me?”
Mark relayed the events to the duty nurse and I was gingerly transferred to a fresh gurney while other nurses took blood samples and began a saline drip. “Marino and I have to leave now. You’re in good hands”, said Mark. Marino put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, I’ll call home and get help”, and he was gone.