Authors: Neige Blanche
Copyright © 2014 by Neige Blanche
Two Harbors Press
Avenue North, Fifth Floor
Minneapolis, MN 55401
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written prior permission of the author.
For my family,
without whom I am nothing.
“Damn it, Mom. Where’s my car?”
“Don’t worry about it. Steve just took it to run errands.” Her voice, coming from behind her bedroom door, was thin.
“You know I have to be at work in a half hour.” I paced the narrow, cluttered hallway. “I can’t keep my job if I’m late all the time.”
“Susan, don’t worry, there’s plenty for you to do around here for Steve. He’ll be back in a little while,” she said.
I kicked the dirty laundry out of my way, opened her door, and let it bang against the thin wall that held up the trailer we lived in. I knew the doorknob would make a hole in the cheap drywall, but I didn’t care. Steve had already punched a few through.
“I’m sick of this, Mom. I’m sick of seeing you like this.” I stood in the doorway. “Look at you! You’re not even forty yet and you look like an old hag, lying there, waiting for your next fix. I’m sick of taking care of you.”
She sat up and the blankets fell to show her rail-thin, pale body. Bruises dotted her upper arms and track marks were left behind from injecting heroin. The strap of her dingy white tank top dropped to her boney left elbow. Her fair hair was matted, and so dirty it almost looked brown. She said wearily, “It’s only for a little while longer until I can get it together.”
“You’ve been saying that my whole life. How many men, Mom? How many times do I have to watch some asshole beat you to a pulp? How many times have I hid in fear or protected you, only to receive the beating meant for you? And you do nothing! I’m done. You’ve made your choice, Mom. You love getting high more than you love me.” I turned to leave.
“Susan, please understand . . . ,” she began, but I slammed the door in her face, went to my room, and sat on my bed. It would have been easier for me if she had physically abandoned me, left me on some doorstep. The idea of being born only to experience her absence was more than I could take. Now that I was twenty-one, I understood that she would never choose me; sobriety was too difficult for her, even if it meant she could then love me. My heart had been broken so many times; no one could find the pieces, let alone put it back together again. Instinctively, I reached for the small glass pipe and ball of cocaine I had in my nightstand. I was shaking so badly that I could not manage to place a bit of the cocaine in the pipe, so I reached into the drawer to find a diazepam tablet to dull the pain. Breathing deep and trying to relax, I knew I had to leave this place; I saw my future in my mother’s eyes.
I put the cocaine back in its small plastic bag, grabbed another small plastic bag of heroin, along with the pill bottle and pipe, and placed it in an old sock I found on my floor. I threw the sock into the bottom of my backpack that I’d had since middle school. I packed some clothes and my toiletries and went into the kitchen where I knew Steve kept his stash in a big blue storage bin behind the fridge, the stash that I knew he would require me to sell that week. Guilt and shame entered my psyche. How many lives had I ruined because of this man? The bin was filled with bricks of marijuana and a couple kilograms of cocaine. Powdered heroin made up about one-fourth of the stash. A gun lay atop the drugs. I pulled the gun and the stash to one end of the bin and discovered a brown paper sack full of money, the earnings from my last week’s ugly work. Blinded with emotional pain dulled to an ache thanks to the diazepam, I was sick and tired of being a junkie. I decided it was a great day to make my escape.
In 1987, Kansas City was dirty. Anyone worth his or her salt had moved on to the suburbs or left for cities that held more promise. I tried the suburbs for a while until the lily-white bread culture about decimated my identity. Working eight to five Monday through Friday and pushing my stepfather’s drugs on the side left me empty, guilt-ridden, resentful, and addicted to pills, heroin, and cocaine, that great 1980s answer to a world that moved too slow for those of us ready to move fast.
I left without saying good-bye to my mother and walked to work. I was two hours late by the time I arrived and my boss was waiting in his office. He was a kind man, maybe fifty years old. I contemplated telling him the whole story, but decided against it. I knew he would want to help me, but I had to get away.
“Susan, I think you know what’s comin’,” Mr. Clementon said as he sat down behind his desk.
“Yes, sir. That is why I’m here. I have to quit, sir. I mean, I know you’re gonna fire me anyway, so let’s just call it quits.” I sat in the chair opposite his desk.
“Susan, you’re a bright, hard-working young lady,” he said earnestly.
“Thank you, sir, but I’ve decided to relocate, to go to—” I had to think quickly of a place, so I glanced at the map of the United States on his wall and read the first city I saw. “I’ll be relocating to New Orleans to go live with my cousin,” I lied.
“I see,” he said as he rose from his chair. “If you give me a few minutes, I can have Joanne draw up your termination papers and we can get you set up for some severance pay to tide you over until you find a new job. You’ll at least let me do that, won’t you?”
Mr. Clementon told me he had a delivery in the area of the airport, so he was kind enough to have one of his drivers to drop me off that afternoon. I cashed my two-hundred-dollar severance paycheck and blew out of Kansas City on a leafless, cold St. Patrick’s Day buffeted by a northern wind. I landed in a green, damp, noisy city filled with unfamiliar floral scents. Brilliant azalea bloomed everywhere. The heart of the city, the French Quarter, was old. The leftover garish hues of Mardi Gras season hung on musty old buildings. The smell of cooking, stale beer, and urine floated through the air like the music: clarinet, trombone, a guitar, a trumpet, a voice singing,
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
A Mardi Gras clown smiled at me. He was dressed in rags, with a pure-white painted face. Bowing, he handed me a pink carnation; when I handed him a half-dollar and looked into his eyes, I saw real tears blended with the painted ones.
The youth hostel was near the old rice mill. For $12 a night, it was adequate, with a view of the river if you went out on the fire escape and looked beyond the wharf. The Mississippi River was so wide here that barges the size of small towns passed by like prehistoric monsters on sentry duty. This was a good base for my job search. My Midwestern sensibilities told me that as long as I could earn, I could live. I gave myself a week to get out of the hostel and into an apartment or other living arrangement. I wondered if anyone back in Kansas City missed me or even knew I had left. I doubted it. Junkie friends would only miss me when I was not there to make their connection. I thought about the clown and wondered if anyone missed him. If worse came to worst, I could be a clown. I crushed the pills and inhaled them through my nose using the airplane boarding ticket that I had rolled up into a cylinder. The world sunk and spun in heavenly escape.
My sleep, if you want to call it that, came in fits of visions and voices in languages I could not understand: Clowns, tears, Mardi Gras masks, and food haunted me. It did not help that I slept in my jeans and t-shirt because I was not comfortable taking my clothes off.
I checked my watch. It was about 4:00 a.m. and I was hungry, so I tied my long blond hair up, packed my stuff, slung my pack over my shoulder, and inhaled the last of my cocaine before I headed for the door.
I checked the mirror in the bathroom at the end of the hall. I looked thin, pale, and strange with my newfound curly frizz, but the whole scenario was odd and exciting. Somehow, I felt okay venturing out alone in a strange city at four o’clock in the morning. My body needed motion and my mind needed something to occupy it.
The yellowish light from streetlamps punctuated the darkness as I made my way through mostly residential neighborhoods—the Bywater and Faubourg Marigny, as I would learn later. It was quiet except for the sound of crickets and a far-off trumpet . . .
. The sweet, heavy smell of jasmine was intoxicating and the sound of my footsteps on the sidewalk echoed among old walls and garden gates. The narrow streets were almost claustrophobic; magnolia, jasmine, and crepe myrtle brushed against my head and shoulders, giving me the sensation of hands reaching from the shadows to lead me on. I had no idea where I was going, only that somewhere up ahead there was light and that trumpet.
“Whatchyoo hustlin’?” The male voice came from behind a wall of fragrant jasmine and I stopped in my tracks.
“Nuthin’. I don’t hustle. I can’t see you and I don’t like it,” I said to the jasmine blooms.
A lithe young man stepped out from behind the wall with star-shaped jasmine flowers stuck in his dark silky hair, which fell in short ringlets all around his face. He was about five inches taller than I was, and even though his olive skin was yellowish in the lamplight, it was perfectly clear that he was terribly handsome. His exotic pallor against his white linen shirt coupled perfectly with the dappled jasmine flowers that dotted his hair. Any fear I felt melted away. I guessed he was younger than me, maybe fifteen or sixteen.
“What you doin’ out here dis time of night?” he asked. “Not many white girls venture over here even during the day.”
“I just got into town and I’m hungry. I figure there must be something open for business up ahead.” I pointed toward the light and noticed the trumpet had stopped playing. His gaze followed my hand and the lamplight silhouetted his chiseled features. I had assumed since he was black that his eyes would be dark brown, but I could almost see through his light amber irises. Certainly this had to be a trick of the lamplight.
He stepped back and looked at me from head to toe and cocked his head. “You don’t look like you have much money, and you goin’ the wrong way. Come on. I know a place where we can get some good food fo’ free, but you gotta let me do the talkin’.” I followed him around the corner of jasmine. “This be a shortcut and don’t worry. You can trust me. I’m done hustlin’ fo’ the night and ain’t playin’ no games. I’m hungry too, and girl, you really shouldn’t be round here.”
His long legs created a quick pace and I worked hard to keep up. My exposed skin felt dewy and refreshed in the damp air. It made me feel like a flower petal, soft and sweet.
The close residential street gave way to a wide thoroughfare lined with ancient live oaks with branches covered in Spanish moss. The shadows under those trees were as dark as pitch. We sprinted across into the French Quarter district. Here, the trees were gone and the lights were brighter; people were dancing about in drunken revelry. I glanced back the way we came.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked breathlessly.
“Tyrone. My friends call me Ty, though. Man, you were so goin’ the wrong way back there.”
I smiled in thanks. “I’m Susan, and thanks for helping me.”
“You have no idea how thankful you should be. You need a map of dis place so I can show you where not to go. Come on. My cousin should be gettin’ ready to open her stall at the market. She have somethin’ fo’ us to eat.”
Wow, an instant friend willing to give me something to eat and show me the ropes without my even asking. No wonder they call this town The Big Easy. We followed the split road for a few blocks and came to a large brick building.
“That’s the mint,” Ty said in reference to the building. “Not sure why dey call it dat because there ain’t no money dere. What time is it? Is it six yet? She won’t be here till six.”
My watch told me it was five-thirty. I had been wandering around for ninety minutes already. “It’s only five-thirty. What now?”
“We wait. Nuthin’ to do but wait. Most folks is closed just now so they can clean up da mess. This town never sleeps, so they always a big mess.” He chuckled. “And sometimes the people is what needs clearin’ out.”
Suddenly a large garage door sprung open behind us. The noise startled me, and Ty laughed. Men began loading crates of fruit and bread on dollies, wheeling them across the narrow street under a permanent concrete pavilion. Mostly they spoke Spanish. Another bay opened up and more men, crates, and dollies poured out, but this time they spoke in a language I had never heard before.
“Hey, Ty, what language is that?” I asked.
“You ain’t from round here, cher, I can tell. Those men be speakin’ French. Look at ’em. They ain’t black, they ain’t white, and they ain’t brown, neither. Like me.” He smiled a gorgeous broad white smile.
“Ty, whatever you are, I gotta say, it is pretty!” I smiled back. “How old are you?”
“How old you think I am?” He held his chin high and flexed his bicep, fluffing his curls with his left hand.
I had never seen a young man, especially a black one, with such a feminine display of vanity. I lifted up a ringlet to appreciate the perfection of his skin and his light amber eyes with green specks.
“I’ll guess you are around seventeen.” I added a year to my actual estimate because I did not want him to be offended if I thought him too young.
“I love you, girl,” he laughed. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, cuz my youthful good looks is my game and you just proved I still got it.” He slapped his knee. “You ain’t from here, but you alright.”
“Well, hell, Ty, how old are you?”
“My birthday’s in February and I be twenty-six! Did you really think I was seventeen?”
“To be honest, I thought you were fifteen or sixteen. You fooled me.”
“That’s the gig, that’s the gig. Where you from, girl?”
Another garage bay opened up and a female voice yelled out something indecipherable. I felt as though I were in another country or on another planet.
“Hey, Mizz Dee! Whatchyoo got all up in dere dis mornin’?” Ty said with his charming smile.
“Who’s that you got wit you?” Her voice sounded harsh. “Now you thinkin’ you all high and yellah hangin’ wit white girls?” She laughed and hugged Ty with thick black arms squeezed into her green t-shirt. I just smiled and shoved my hands in my pockets. Mizz Dee had kind eyes that were as dark as Kansas dirt and her hair was short and covered in a red bandana. “I reckon you is hungry again. Ty, when you gonna settle down and go legit, son?” She went to the back of her old rusted Ford truck and rummaged through a well-used cardboard box.
“I dunno, Mizz Dee. It don’t feel right yet,” Ty said apologetically.
“You know your momma and ’em shoo like ta hear it,” she said as she sifted through paper bags in the box.
Their conversation suddenly changed to Creole French. Periodically, an English word popped up before they slipped back to Creole. N izz Dee would glance over, give me a polite smile, and Ty would distract her.
“Okay, okay, N izz Dee, I know. I know. I will someday, but that ain’t no place fo’ me. I don’t fit. Never have, cher. Nuthin’ against the folk. I just don’t belong.”
“I love you, son. We all do.” She sighed and handed Ty a brown bag full to the brim with something that smelled delicious. “You better feed that girl ’fore she eats you for breakfast.”
I didn’t know how to take her comment until I saw her smile. “Cher,” she said to me, “any friend of Ty’s is a friend of mine, but you min’ dat boy. He a heartbreaker.”
Ty bowed his head in thanks. “N izz Dee, I love you too. Thank you, sister. Bless you.”
“Yeah, bless yo heart, bless yo heart,” she said and shook her head.
We waved good-bye and Ty took my hand and led me across the street through the pavilion bustling with the men, crates, fruit, and dollies. I estimated it to be about thirty or forty feet wide and its length went for blocks. “What is this place?”
“You in the world-famous New Orleans French Market. Dey open at seven.”
He brought me across a wide road, through a broken wire fence, over some railroad tracks, and up a hill where the mighty Mississippi River greeted us under a low moon.
“Sun’s gettin’ ready to rise and this da best spot.” He ushered me to a bench on a boardwalk along the river. It was strange to look back and see the city lower than the riverbank.
“Hey, how is it that we came up a hill to the river?” I asked.
“See dat?” He pointed from where we came. “We just come through da levee. If it floods, they close da gates.” He handed me a big fluffy biscuit and a thick hunk of bacon. “See dat?” He pointed to the boardwalk to the left of us a few feet away. The biggest rat I had ever seen scurried across and hid under the boards.
“Jesus Christ!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, and it gets worse,” he giggled. “Look here.” He pointed to our feet. Hundreds of cockroaches skittered about.
“Fuckin’ hell!” I lifted my feet. “What the hell, Ty?”
“Hey, don’t worry, girl. Dey go to sleep when the sun rises. You better get used to ’em cuz you real low now and all these things, they just be part of the family down here.”