It was four in the morning. I was nineteen and standing in the kitchen on the curling linoleum, rolling a yo-yo down and up the string. It was the kind that lit up while it was spinning. Elisa was leaned up against the stove staring at the luminous toy.
“Let me try.” She said, and I gave her the string. She’d been my best friend since the beginning of high school and it made me feel lucky. She was sweet and sarcastic and she did this thing with men, she listened and played it cool and curved around them, drawing out their yearning and tucking it around her like a dark blanket and I learned too, drafting off her like trucks do on the freeway, one nosed up right behind the other, sheltered from the rushing air. She could have had any of them, but for some reason always picked ones with a meanness in their hearts.
Little Erica and Val sat drinking bottles of Mickey’s Big Mouth by the window that faced into the alley, and none of us had slept. We were waiting for Big Erica to come with the van so we could go to Mardi Gras, a twenty-four hour haul down into New Orleans. I picked up my camera, an old Cannon with a manual light meter and detachable lenses, and rolled it up in a sweatshirt so it wouldn’t get rattled around on the road. My photography project was due in two weeks, and I was looking for carnival inspiration.
“When we get there, I’m getting a Bloody Mary.” Said Val.
“I’m going to eat a pound of crawfish.” I said.
“I want six pounds.” Said Little E.
“I want six Bloody Marys and a crawfish etouffe.” Elisa said, rolling the yo-yo across the floor.
Then Big E sauntered through the front door, holding the car keys and a hammer.
“Let’s go.” She said and we all got up.
Big Erica was six feet and Little Erica was five ten. Val was close to that with furls of hair curling down her back, and Elisa had a fish tattooed to her shoulder the size of a fist. They were the kind of girls who made bets and bought their own drugs. Bold, beautiful girls, and I was one of them.
When I was with them, I had a sense that I could be always rising, full of the thrum of being young in a world that was glossy. I could throw myself carelessly into the dark crazy places where something small and oddly shaped inside my heart wanted to be, but still be protected from pain. I could learn to be myself without being alone, abandon without being abandoned, and it seemed then, that if we stayed together, we would be safe in all our recklessness. Somewhere inside I knew this was just a story, but I liked it.
We loaded the van for the trip, and by then the sun was up and shining. Little E jammed the cooler in last and Big E popped the hood and hit the starter motor with the hammer. The van stumbled to life behind me as I went back down the alley to lock up the apartment. Inside, the phone was ringing, and I almost didn’t get it but at the last second I did.
“Laura?” It was my mother. She sounded angry and I got nervous and immediately felt bad for being me and doing things that would make her afraid if she knew.
“Carl Lowry is dead.” She said. She said it flat out of nowhere in that bleakest coldest sentence, and then she started to cry.
The words caromed around in my head and I tried to put them in order but they wouldn’t stay down. “What?” I asked like some dumb animal, because it was a beautiful day and we were going to New Orleans and my cousin Carl was not supposed to be dead. I sat on the arm of the pleather couch and looked down at the cracks rivering through it, dirty and aimless.
Carl was scrawny and played bass in saggy brown corduroys, his hair hanging down in strings, and wanted to be a rock star. He was an ivy leaguer who had just gotten out of rehab for heroin, but none of this explains how bright and fierce and tiny he was. At Christmas time, Mom told us about his ‘drug problem’, and got so upset she couldn’t swallow her chicken and went on about him and kids and drugs, and I told her not to worry because I knew about drugs and she didn’t. Besides, he was smart and just like tons of people I knew and nothing bad ever happened to them.
“He came back to New York for the weekend.” She said through the phone. “He went downtown with this girl and they drove by this – I don’t know ‘haunt’, or whatever they call it— and seeing it was too much for him, I guess. He stopped in to get something, and when the girl woke up in the morning, he was blue and dead in the bed, next to her.” They were words that didn’t fit in her mouth, and they came out like stones, ugly and cold. When she was upset, she got mean,
The word stones hit like some familiar forgotten smell on the street, when it yanks you from that place and back into another, with all its brutal sharpness. Carl Lowry is dead hit with charcoal smoke and the smell of sweaty polyester, and my mind yanked. Then it was Carl and me behind his parents’ summer house running for cover during a game of kick-the-can and him playing me in chess even though I didn’t know how, because he was smaller than the others, like me. Him writing ‘smoke dope’ on his lacquered blue skis in liquid silver pen. And the white piano and the cat and the black and white floor tiles in the kitchen of his apartment just up the street from the Dakota Hotel. The images thrashed in disordered neon out from the dark, without grace, because consciousness is only a baby in the world; so when memories try to speak, they can only cry.
Little E honked the horn on the street and I looked out the window at them laughing and smoking in the sun, and it was me alone in there with that terrible black telephone.
“Come on, Peeper” Val cried. She called me Peeper because of my photographs.
My mother heard Val through the phone, and I told her I had planned to go to New Orleans with my friends.
“Go ahead.” She said.
“Go and have a good time. Funerals are lousy, anyway.”
It took forever to understand what she was talking about but then I got it that she meant me going to Carl’s funeral wouldn’t make it better, because he was dead and I should go with my friends, because we were all alive. I got it that she was telling me to go because she loved me.
“Just think about him some time while you’re down there.” She said.
I said okay, and told her not to cry and put down the phone.
“What took you so long?” Asked Big E while she gunned the van down the shattered streets of West Philadelphia. I shrugged and watched Little E rub balm on her lips in the visor mirror.
We drove down through the coal towns and blue ridges. We were driving south, so it got warmer and the red buds on the red-bud trees pushed out into the world, getting fatter by the mile, and it was like each hour was a day flipping forward and we were driving into the future, which we were, only faster than usual. I didn’t say anything about Carl at first, because I didn’t know how. I started drinking in the back of the van and pricked myself with his name and each time it hurt and I wanted it. The black-barked trees were whirring past the window and the redbuds were growing and bursting on the other side of the glass, but it was also Carl kicking-the-can over and over.
Finally, somewhere in Tennessee, Val told a stupid joke, I mean a really terrible stupid joke, and I started to laugh. I laughed and then I didn’t stop.
“It wasn’t that funny.” Said Val.
But I was shaking and laughing about this joke where a clown laughs his head off, he’s laughing, ‘ha ha ha’ and then his head falls off and bonks down onto the floor. “What goes ‘Ha ha ha, Bonk?’ A clown laughing his head off.” I tried to tell her that this joke was that funny, and there came tears streaming out of my eyes. Everyone got quiet then, and looked at me, so I told them about Carl.
Elisa put her hand on my arm, and I fell asleep. I woke up somewhere in Alabama with my head lower than my heart, so my face was flushed and I was dreaming my brains were made of silly-string. They were leaking out of my head and being stuffed back in again by someone I couldn’t see, but who I knew was a true and loyal friend.
Finally we crossed the Pontrachain Bridge and coasted into New Orleans. The air was hot and heavy and smelled like dirty steam. There were people clotting the streets and balconies, and a river of floats streamed up Canal Street. Ribbons and banners flapped on the buildings in purple, green and gold which are supposed to be the colors of justice, faith and power in some order. Partiers in coruscating colors and joker hats drank beer and shouted in the streets, their necks loaded with dozens of strands of sparkling plastic beads. The locals surfed the French iron balconies in frothy dresses and well-worn tails with glasses of mint and bourbon. And there were these religious types darting around the edges, calling for repentance. One was shouting that Mardi Gras was their idea in the first place, which it was. They carried crosses and used all these loaded and epic words like the rapture and smite and hell, but no one was listening and they seemed to me like those little dogs that bark at cars.
“Fuck crawfish etouffe,” said Elisa. “I want a Hurricane.” And we descended into the feeding crowd.
We stayed up all night drinking and dancing to the music that spilled from the bars and clashed in the streets. On the beer-slicked street, we skitched on a fire truck and we flashed out tits for beads, so soon our necks too were loaded. We thronged and surged, until our shoes were covered with beer and black and we could hardly stand. I kissed a coltish-boy-man in the crowd, with eyes like green crystal rocks, and my stomach fish-flopped with the rush of living. But then the crowd shifted and the man-boy and I slipped from each other, off in opposite directions. When I turned to look back, the street was dark and it was the country again with Carl and me running for cover in that game where winning and losing sit glisteningly together in a dented, chancey can.
We slept off the morning in the van, and in the afternoon shreeped around the old city looking for vampires. Big E saw one sleeping under a rock on Prytania Street and pointed him out.
“We’d need a stake.” Said Val.
I took a picture of him, instead. “If that picture doesn’t come out, then we’ll know he’s real.” Said Little E.
“But then it will be too late.” Said Big E.
“Too late for what?” Said Little E, but Big E was already up the street, and didn’t answer.
We wandered on, and I took my photographs. We turned down a cobbled alley and I shot an old mule-driver driving this rattling mule cart towards me, his face slack, eyes glassy like there was nothing for him to look at in this world, at all. Later, a fat red man, dressed like the Pope, leaned out of his balcony and cried, “Show us your tits!” and poured a cheap bottle of Popov down on the half-naked girls below. A group of men holding crosses and wearing sack-cloths that covered their faces picked their way between puke and passed out fraternity boys, trying to get on with what they originally intended, and I shot them all. I took pictures of old madams with painted faces who looked like attic dolls.
In the mossy afternoon, we walked through the Lafayette cemetery, and I stopped and watched as my beautiful girls were walking away from me, linked arm in arm between the stones. An image of retreating girl heads, dappled shining hair and dappled lichen stones. They got farther and farther away and I wanted to run after them because watching them go made my chest hurt, but I stood there and took a picture of them, instead. There were an impossible million of things to see in New Orleans but these were the pictures I took, because Carl did too many drugs and he left me behind. No more chess or running in the dark, I held those memories alone and somehow I was photographing that.
That night, the streets were blocked off with blue wooden police barriers and the people were channeled like salmon. A Cherokee Jeep nosed through them on Chartres Street, the people inside looking out the windows at the crowd, smiling and snug in their rolling fortress. It was a family from Ohio somewhere and the father was playing little-big-man and honked and horned his way into the wasted crowd, which made the girls inside laugh, until the drunks on the street started rocking the Cherokee back and forth and their smiles straightened into grim little lines. Gently at first they rocked, then the crowd swarmed up over the jeep and pounded the windows and heaved the thing back and forth like a boat thrashing in the wake of some God-awful whale. The man at the wheel gunned the jeep but the drunks had picked it up off the ground and were carrying it down the street like a float, wheels spinning uselessly against air.
“Let’s get out of here.” I cried as the salmon surged and the Cherokee lurched towards us.
I jumped the police barrier that was blocking off the main street for a parade. Elisa flew right behind. I was flying towards that open, empty street when a bull-necked cop snatched me out of the air by the throat. I was so startled that I pissed in my pants, an incontestable hot stream runneling down the seams of my jeans. My poor mother. Another cop grabbed Elisa as she flew and they started dragging us across the street. I looked back at the crowd for the others, but they were gone.
Elisa, who didn’t always do things that were the best for her, took a swing at the huge cop who was hauling her off. He threw her to the ground and ripped off her mantle of hard won beads, leaving bruises the shape of little synthetic pearls across her neck. Then my cop was on her and they slammed her into handcuffs, leaving me behind. They pushed her up against their car and I stood there dumbly, pleading.
“She’s good. I promise you, she’s good.” Over and over, smelling like piss and beer. “She’s good.” I cried and pleaded over and over like a lost lamb who only knows one word, baaa.
Finally, the cops got tired of us and my bleating and they let her go. She stepped through the wreckage of her beads and rubbed at her wrists and I figured we’d better get back to the van. When she was twenty-three, Elisa had a schizophrenic break and now walks around on Thorazine every day and sometimes I wonder how something like that gets started.
By the time we found the van, the sky was graying up towards morning, and the others were already there. We decided it was probably a good time to leave. We drove in half-hour shifts because we were each too spent to follow the bewildering yellow line for any longer. We stopped at Graceland and the woman at the gate squinted at us through cat-eyed glasses and told us the place was closed the first Tuesday of every month and acted surprised that everybody doesn’t know that. We walked around the house and Val tried to climb into the graveyard by the kidney-shaped pool, but an alarm went off and the cat-eyed lady came running out of the guard shack and Little E got fed up with us all and drove us the rest of the way home through three different rush hours.
Back at school, it was colorless and foggy, and sad mounds of dirty snow clung to the lampposts and the shadows behind the library. The bruises on Elisa’s neck healed over quickly and the carnival seemed impossibly far away but I still couldn’t stop thinking about Carl. I developed the pictures in the darkroom, but the chemical bath was too cool and the negatives turned out pale and hazy. I used red filters and high contrast paper, but the pictures kept coming out gray and fuzzy, like they were taken through gauze. But the images were there, startling and ghostly, and it seemed that Carl was in them all. He made the mule driver’s eyes look like pupil-less holes and the girls in the cemetery look just like the stones.
I handed in the photographs in an expensive black box made of acid-free fiberboard. I was proud of them for all their grayness, because for the first time I felt I had captured some meaning in images on film. Becky gave me a C. The pictures didn’t have the gloss of studio lighting and the blacks and whites that express technical prowess and the proof that I had arrived. I told her that the images, to me, seemed to be worth something in themselves.
And she said, “To you.”
Becky was a teacher with boxes and categories to check off. She wanted prints that spanned the gradient. She didn’t like gray negatives. Her face was gray. It wasn’t the images, but the prints she was after.
“No one who hires you for a wedding is going to care about your pictures if they can hardly see them.” She said. “I’m sorry.”
“I wasn’t planning on taking wedding pictures.” I told her.
But she still invited me to the year-end party at her apartment. She lived by herself in a walk-up just south of the bridge. She had converted her bathroom into a darkroom with a sink running the full length of one wall. The shower and the toilet were still in there, and I imagined her dressing in the red light, her mornings reduced to faint, but crisp, blacks and whites.
I left the girls at the corner of Twenty-Second and South. “Don’t be long.” Little E cried. “We’ll meet you after at Al’s” and Big E waved. Elisa pulled a leaf out of her hair as they headed out, and I didn’t know it yet, that she would get lost. I didn’t know it then that we wouldn’t always be five and there would be no more drafting, and the links between us were fragile and precious.
I climbed up to Becky’s apartment. We ate apples and a fat white cheese cut into squares on toothpicks and drank jug white wine. We chatted and this guy Jake showed his boring, proficient images of eggs piled up with children’s alphabet blocks, but he looked lovely and reminded me of the colt-boy in New Orleans. Afterwards, Becky showed us a series she did of her cat. In every one, her cat was asleep in the same exact, lazy pose – sprawled on his left side, head resting on his curled paw—whether he was in the window or a wheelbarrow or under the bed, but the blacks and whites struck out of him, sharp and clean as a bar code.
Later, after most of the wine was gone, Becky showed us another set of photographs, pale faded pictures of her twin sister’s death at the hospital. She told us it was when her sister began to die that she started taking real photographs. I looked at her ghostly images and the back of my neck flushed up and I felt like I’d been had. Her pictures and my pictures were really the same thing and she didn’t see it at all.
Becky was maybe a little drunk and went on to tell this story about how she was bringing her sister’s ashes to the memorial services in a suitcase and put it down on the curb to hail a cab when some gutter punk ran by and snatched the case. I got creeped out, and went into the kitchen with a plastic cup holding the last of the warm white wine. I opened the freezer for some ice, and saw her cat in there beside the ice cube trays. He was lying in that exact, photographic pose –striped head on white paw—and I realized that the cat had been dead in all her photographs. I think I looked at that cat for a long time.
“I couldn’t put him in the dirt like that. So I kept him, and I take his picture and it’s almost like he’s here.” Becky said to me from the doorway.
The way she said it was so lonely I though if she could have, she would have kept her sister in there. And maybe Carl’s mother would have liked to put him in that freezer, too. Because to want to preserve something is love.
“He does look like he’s sleeping.” I said, standing there looking at the cat’s stone frozen tail, and it occurred to me that maybe everyone was born heartsick, not just me.