Cal and I went to the same Catholic school when we were kids and received all the sacraments in the same church. I remember that I feared the church, that I was caught up in destiny and purpose, in fulfilling God’s plan and the whole deal.
But as I grew older I began to view the Devil as a very human figure, as a man who wanted the same things all people want and often need. Touch. Lust. Pleasure. Joy. Real joy here on earth. Soon, I no longer believed in hell. I only believed in heaven and earth. The earth was the place of his exile, where the fallen angel was banished and forced to live forever, amongst us people, and so naturally I felt a kinship with him.
Many of these things were on my mind during that first night of a great trip out to the west coast. That first night in New Orleans. The trip would take about two weeks. Though in many ways, and unbeknownst to me, it would last for nearly four years.
It all began a few days after graduation. The family of Louis Luchessi took their favorite son on their own 2-week trip to the Caribbean to celebrate. Sam Lyons went along with them in search, he said, of a beautiful Puerto Rican woman. And while the Luchessi’s invited all four of us, Cal Corso was determined to reach the west coast, and I decided at the last minute to go with him.
“I’m your best friend after all! You went with me to college to make sure I got into trouble. You succeeded. Got me wanting to do crazy things. So now I’m going with you to Los Angeles, to make sure you stay out of trouble. We’ll get you settled out there, then I’ll fly back.”
“Well alright then, cowboy. You young saint and squire, you.”
We left Gainesville early in the morning when the sky was still dark. Day broke when we reached Tallahassee. We reached New Orleans late in the afternoon and checked into the Del Armes Hotel across St. Louis Cathedral, the bright-white, gothic edifice of Jackson Square just off the Mississippi River. By the time we set out into the French Quarter it was already night.
On Bourbon Street there was a bar that looked like something straight out of a movie scene, though now I can’t remember the name of the bar, where an older, sultry black woman sang on the stage beside a piano player wearing a derby hat, along with a skinny old bass player and a Charlie Parker-looking man on the sax. Smoke filled the barroom air and there was a crazy yelling and catcalling all around us.
Cal sat at the bar and beat upon it as though it were a set of bongo drums. He liked things that were traditional, and he always wore old, torn t-shirts and beat-up black trousers. With his long and wavy blonde hair, he looked like some tattered descendant of Alexander the Great. Tonight, he was in his element.
“I’m in my element.”
He loved many women and loved being with them, the Angels of America he called them. He was a gentleman, but he could also be a scoundrel. Men had to be this way, he once said to me, because all people must protect themselves.
“There are two very young, seductive women across the bar, over yonder, if you just take a look see.”
There they were, sitting alone. One of them looked like the youngest daughter of Spanish royalty. She had long black hair and she wore a red dress. The other was caramel-skinned, Caribbean-like. Her hair, very curly and golden brown, fell to her shoulders. She looked directly at me.
Amidst all the commotion and rampant energy in the place they projected a strange calm. It was like no one saw them. No one could touch them. The light shone on their skin differently. The light belonged to them and shone on no one else.
“I see them.”
“We should go and talk to them.”
Cal walked up to the girl in the red dress. Her name was Scarlett. “The name matches the dress!”, proclaimed Cal. The other’s name was Lucy. She wore red lipstick and her eyes were deep, emerald green. When I walked toward her she smiled.
“Hi,” she said to me. Her voice was soft and smooth.
She looked deep into my eyes. “You seem like you have a lot on your mind.”
It wasn’t long until the four of us left and continued along Bourbon Street, dancing in the bars and nightclubs and street corners, and always talking to the bands, or to the various strangers, magicians and street performers. But mostly we danced. Lucy and I. Late into the night.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a Lucy before.”
“No you haven’t.”
I knew it was a strange response. There was something about her, something that I couldn’t identify, for everything about her would surely have intimidated the most confident of men, let alone me; and yet everything about her still, somehow, was strangely welcoming. Inviting in some way.
It wasn’t just her beauty, though, nor the eyes that I could feel penetrating my own. It was like she was challenging me. Trying to break me, or break through to me. She remained quiet the entire night, only not in a shy, arrogant or uninterested way. It was as though she were waiting for something. Waiting for me.
It was true that I’d loved one woman for the past three or four years; and while for many nights it’d been too hard to leave the memory of her behind, this night would be the last. Lucy looked at me as we danced. Her eyes aglow. Her body moved like smoke. She rested her arms upon my shoulders. She ran her fingers against the back of head and down to my neck, which she then gripped suddenly, gently as she leaned in to whisper, “Let go. ”
When we got back to the hotel room, Cal and the Spanish princess were still out somewhere in the night. It was very warm inside. A thin curtain separated the two beds. It was a strange, dark room with its old brick walls and its ancient looking torches by the door and near the windows.
Lucy leaned against the wall and smiled to me. I asked where she came from and she told me the stars. Her green eyes still gleamed in the darkness of the room. Like a cat’s eyes. She knew all the right moments, as if able to hear my every thought and sense every feeling. She was far beyond me, smarter than me, and she knew very well that I was young.
I’d heard stories of jazz musicians playing their instrument on a given night and afterwards, though they’d played well and made great music that night, still feeling as though they were the ones who ultimately got played; feeling so wonderfully in control the entire night and yet, at the end of it, moved in a way that was neither off-putting to them nor overwhelming, but harmonious with the exhilarating nature of the music, like a tranquil coda to the catharsis they’d just experienced. And they were stronger than they were when they first took the stage. No longer the same performer.
I dreamt that I was walking down an empty street. The surrounding buildings were cast in shadow, illuminated by a white glow coming from behind them. A voice told me to find a woman who travels often and who is an artist. I told the voice that I didn’t know what any of that meant.
“There are fewer women artists in this world.” it said. “Do you know why?”
“No,” I said. “Women are God’s great gift to the world.”
“But you’re a believer in the Devil aren’t you?”
Finally the voice laughed and I never heard it again. I couldn’t tell if it agreed with me or just thought I was a fool.