93 Nola

by Pamela Perlman

We are somewhere north of Tupelo driving south on the rough pavement of a two-lane parkway and flipping FM channels to avoid the relentless grunge music. Sometime in the next three years, he will cheat on me, propose to me, leave me, and then return. But for now, we are new and chasing jazz along the old Natchez Trace, a modern-day Jamie and Rosamund without robbers or bridegrooms.

Heat shimmers up from clumps of broken asphalt; his little Nissan cuts hard to avoid potholes but there are more pits than pavement. It’s hard to care. We have four more days off work to spend in pursuit of truth, beauty, and music. Nashville. Memphis. New Orleans. 

We don’t know each other well. He is newly divorced and dating me in transition and oat-sowing. The first night on the road we spent with his friends flying down a back road to Nashville, thirty miles over the speed limit, too many drunk people packed into too small of a car. I told him my mama didn’t raise me to die in a car on a backroad between Kentucky and Nashville. He laughed. He pouted. Mick Jagger in acid-washed jeans.

At the Bluebird, a band called the Chickasaw Mud Puppies beat their toes into the floor. You had to like them just because of that name really. There they were playing at the Bluebird and there we were listening to them.

The Mud Puppies are acolytes of Michael Stipe out of Athens, full of sound and fury. We are younger than I realize, signifying nothing.

This morning, we stop for chicken and biscuits at the Loveless Café, then he drives the state road out of Nashville because I want to see the world from two lanes. His cd player, new and top of the line with six changing discs, supplies us with Muddy Waters, Earl Klugh, Charlie Byrd, Pat Metheny; unfamiliar to me, lifeblood to him. He wants to quit defending criminals and play jazz guitar. I just want to be there with him.

Once we are in Memphis, we applaud ducks parading at the Peabody, we laugh self-consciously at the mirrored hallway that leads to the Jungle Room, groove a little to the constant Elvis soundtrack on play at Graceland. 

On Beale Street, we immerse in the low percussive heartbeat of the Blues, steady as sex against a headboard, with the occasional orgasmic trumpet wail. A slow, sensuous tempo, anything but sad. He air-guitars while I sway in time.

We walk down Beale, we drink down Beale, we absorb live music all down Beale Street until I’m too tired to walk, drink, or listen anymore. Just then, the Mudpuppies are there too, gigging at B.B. Kings or the Orpheum or some other blues club the name of which I’m too tired to see. 

We skip the Puppies and he half-carries, half-drags me back to the hotel and then up onto the roof where we sit in the dark and watch the Mississippi. I sing Old Man River he keeps rolling. He lights a joint and offers it to me, but I keep on singing to the river instead.

Why’s it called the Blues? I ask. It isn’t sad.

Ever hear of blue laws?

Yeah — ?

He tamps the joint against the brick wall of the balcony, extinguishing the burn. Blue refers to alcohol. The Blues are about drinking. S’what I heard anyway. He takes another swig of Amstel then takes me to bed and there are no more blues tonight.

When it’s morning, we roll back into the Nissan and back onto the road. The Mississippi asphalt cracks and breaks as we drive, crumbling beneath our wheels. We are part of its history now and it is part of ours, this this Natchez Trace to New Orleans. He drives 75 or 85 ignoring the speed limit signs, passing other cars as if jazz may leave the Crescent City before we arrive. 

A couple hundred yards ahead of us, a rambling ruin of a car weaves between lanes. Color gray, but more bondo than paint, taillights only a memory. The bumper hangs by fishing line, but its sticker adheres firmly. He slows so we can get a closer look at this moving miracle. A driver’s grizzled head of grey hair peeps inches above the wheel. We beep-beep our horn to safely pass and as we do, the sticker on the bondo car comes into clear view: HOSE MONSTER.

Hose Monster?

He guffaws. It means he has a monstrous hose.

Ooooohhhhh. Oh! We giggle like sixth graders in sex ed. 

Hope his bumper doesn’t fall off, he says. Hate for him to lose his identity.

John Coltrane blows real and true as we pass on by and I raise one hand in salute, Goodbye and Happy Hunting Hose Monster!

We drive deep into this land where literary treasure grows like cotton: Welty, Williams, Wright, Faulkner. The blanketing black soil must have some inspirational ingredient, or maybe it’s the blood and spirit and soul of lives lost on this ground. But these writerly musings are my thoughts and my things. I will return here, I promise. I will return to the words. Today is for him and for saxophones and sunshine.

With each passing mile, the funk of New Orleans edges closer and stronger. That peculiar city smell of sea rot, rum, perspiration, garbage, and freedom. That scent reaches into the car with muscled arms like it wants to grab and haul us directly into the fun as we cross Lake Pontchartrain. Windows down, T-Top removed from the car’s roof, we rove across this Causeway No-Man’s Land. 

Water, water everywhere with no land in sight. This great in-between — an evolution from one civilization into another world, a world with no graves, only graveyards. Where land has been culled from the water and the dead may live longer lives than the living. Legend tells of living souls paralyzed by the liquid isolation of this Causeway; surrounded by seemingly unending water, they stop and Stygian police officer must lead them to land.

Thoughts suspended across this water secede as the first building appears on the horizon. We grin at the fleur-de-lis’d Welcome to New Orleans sign.

Every passing human carries a large plastic shaker full of liquid hurricane. They lumber along, necks ringed with beads like super-sized pheasants even though we are halfway between one Mardi Gras and the next. Saxophone, trumpet, and guitar notes rumble through the streets. He pumps his head in time to each new rhythm as we pass. Tipitina’s tonight, he says, maneuvering the car along Prytania Street. I agree because here I am and it’s all the same to me.

The bed and breakfast host welcomes us to a grand old place somewhere on the outskirts of both the Garden District and the French Quarter. Lots of halfways to and halfways from in The Big Easy. Liminal spaces, between here and there, sleep and awake, dark and light. Life and death. 

No question this inn is haunted. The walls bend toward me with secrets to tell. The plumbing shivers. The hardwood floors slither away from their Turkish rug coverings. The room whispers secrets but we don’t stay to listen. There are other voices calling.

Whirling through the city, we hear a lesser Neville singing bluesy songs at her piano and watch Robbie Robertson eating a po’boy in front of a French Quarter grocery. We eat po’boys too. Shrimp. Hot little balls of crispy dough crusted in sugar. We drink the Chamber of Commerce-mandated hurricane. Too sweet and too much. Pink-stained mouths kiss in Jackson Square. 

A tarot reader squats on the grounds of the St. Louis Cathedral and I cross her palm with my silver. She deals a hand of queens and wands but foresees only that I will go on a journey. I thank her, he smirks, we amble along the Riverwalk where the Mississippi River we saw in Memphis has also arrived. All those drops of water morphing into this brawny delta.

The day is long. We wander through the Quarter and I find Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. A cauldron hangs in the entry way. Tribal masks, rain sticks, shrunken heads, tiny stuffed dolls. Beads, crystals. Skeletons. Card decks of blood red and swamp green. There must be a better tarot reader here. 

Oh, but there is. She’s a witch, the sign advertises. A witch who reads tarot. He moves on but I stay when she calls me. I sit on a lop-sided chair and look into her yellow eyes dressed in purple paint. Her tattooed hands spread an arc of cards across a round table and I choose five, as she requires. She examines the cards. The turban jewels on her head dance in a breeze I don’t feel.

A heart pierced by three swords, followed by a card, reversed, of a charging knight on a white stead, a sword raised above his head. A silver moon beaming down on creatures gathered below. A flaming tower bolted by lightning streaming smoke and flames. A woman in red and gold, surrounded by flowers and ten encircled stars.

This looks great to me but her tawny eyes flash in alarm. Don’t let this man rest his feet under your table. Then all will be well. And you will go on a journey.

He is down St. Peter’s, having a beer and doesn’t hear the advice. I pretend I don’t either but my feet itch. I buy a voodoo doll, skinny and brown-headed like him. Just in case.

The curtain is thin in New Orleans. The beyond closer, the dead nearer. You hear it in the wailing music, you see it in the grey mists off the river, you feel it in cold air radiating off sunbaked bricks. Tonight, at Tipitina’s, the spirits fit their spectral fingers atop the hands of the zydeco band, sliding syncopated rhythms off the accordion. The ghosts know me, smiling and nodding and riffing from a favorite song. 

He threads through the crowd to buy more beer. I dance with a ghost. He drinks with spirit. When the band leaves the stage for the night, we leave the bar and take our memories. Rain skitters across the pavement, a wire brush across a taut drum skin. He drives through a night darkening neon light by neon light. I watch the streets for shadows.

The night tumbles into day and back to night again. Creamy etouffees that coat your gullet. Pralines sweeter than time. Crawfish so spicy it makes you speak Cajun. Hurricanes, rum runners, Dixie beer. Dark wooden bars stained by the past. Cubbyhole bookstores with shelves too high to reach. The gothic mansion of a gothic novelist complete with verandas and a widow’s walk. Jazz, blues, zydeco, be-bop, ragtime, rock, standards. Music pouring amber and cyan and vermillion notes down every corner and every street. We are baptized in melody.

I hear the Pontchartrain Hotel call with a Streetcar’s clang and persuade him to drift with me beneath the crimson awning, through a grand front door and into a marble vestibule. Around a corner and down a hall we find the bar and order a gin fizz, Mr. Williams’ preference. Portraits cover the walls, stare down at us, play music, write plays. Another fizz and I see a willowy blonde in heels and a floaty 40’s dress waft through the door. She delicately wipes her brow with a lavender-scented hanky then disappears. I may have conjured her. 

After another gin fizz, or four, the ferns on the upholstery twist around our ankles. The bamboo cane legs of the chairs shiver with the breeze. A portrait of brown cheeks, bulging and blowing a horn, retreats from the wall then uncomfortably advances. Outside, a cloud passes across the sun. Inside, the worm turns.

We stumble back to our inn through overwrought landscapes. We sleep. We wake, we walk. For one last night we tune our ears to the sound of this city. Tonight, we drop in and out of clubs on legendary Frenchman’s Street. Fritzel’s, The Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, and more. 

A dozen years hence, the levee breaches and the waters flood, stopping the music and the world. On that future day, when we are no longer we, only the ghosts will remain untouched by the storm, beyond the frenzy. Death is already their certainty. 

Tonight, the streets are dry. The Gulf of Mexico stays within its allotted confines, tiding in and out, courting the moon. The Superdome is just a place where they play football and hurricanes are drinks. 

Tonight, tunes twine through Rues and Roads, across Saints and Squares. Our feet float with the melody but it’s the underneath that really gets you. That dark harmony beneath the dazzle. Like the roux makes the gumbo, the sadness makes the song complete. Before tonight I heard the melody. Now, I hear the song.

Music infuses us, tuning our bodies to a canon of themselves. His fingers arpeggio across the nape of my neck. His lips glissando along my spine. We dance together, in the pocket of this corporeal jazz, with none other than our spirit hosts to witness the crescendo.

It is morning. Decrescendo. Time to return home. We pour ourselves back into the Nissan after thanking the host of the inn and the ghosts who welcomed us. He removes the jazz c.d.s. We retreat down Prytania, the scent of garbage stronger now. I search for the ring-necked pheasants but see only drunks veering down the sidewalks. Crushed newspaper and plastic cups tossed by the wind. Dissonance.

I huddle in the seat, roll up the window, and look North as we recross the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. The wilderness of water hurts my eyes. Coming south toward us is a van we know: the Chickasaw Mud Puppies have arrived in NOLA just as we go.

Look. The Mudpuppies, I say. 

Hmmmmm. Blank face as if he’s never heard of Mudpuppies.

The Chickasaw Mudpuppies?

His eyes veer to my face then back to the road. Miles of Causeway to go.

It must be exhausting to live here, I say.

What? Why? He fiddles with the stereo sound.

Constant partying. Out every night.

His eyebrows spike. Hmmmmm.

Bruce Springsteen sings Born to RunI wanna know if love is wild . . .

Highway 10 to I-59, cross the Pearl River to Picayune. Traffic moves but conversation slows. We stop in Hattiesburg for a Coke. Not a single Hose Monster or Mudpuppy to be seen. Our return route steers clear of two-lane roads in favor of interstates; the magic of the Natchez Trace lost in homogeny. Meridian, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham — nothing but signs.

Come gather round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown . . . for the times are . . . Outside of Nashville. I’ve never liked to listen to Bob Dylan, I say. His lyrics are great. But his voice is hard to hear.

He answers by stopping at an Applebee’s for a beer. When we return to the car, he loads the c.d. changer with Bob Dylan, John Prine, Neil Young. I yearn for my Walkman, my headphones, and Sting. 

The car’s speed increases, but the trip slows. The spirits have abandoned us. So has the music. Caesura – an interruption, a break in the music. Silence.

Then, finally among the white plank fences dotting blue-green grass, I ask if he wants to stay the night when we arrive but he says he’s tired, wants his own bed. OK, I say. More time for Sting. The enchantment fades. 

Don’t let his feet rest under your table.

He drums his fingers against the window frame. He wants a beer. We are just south of Lexington, driving north in silence on an endless, anonymous interstate. Driving, but still miles from home.

Pamela Perlman is a native Lexingtonian, working and writing in Central Kentucky. Her work has been published in Nowhere Magazine, Still literary journal, AvantAppalachia. She is the winner of the First 500 Words Writing Contest at the Carnegie Center (Lexington) and has been a finalist for the Next Great Kentucky Writer contest twice.