I should probably begin with talking about Cassandra. She was the girl. The one girl. The girl few might call the goddess, for she was every bit as beautiful and elusive as those described in the ancient mythologies and folklorish tales told all around the world.
Her name was Cassandra. Cal Corso knew her, and he was the only one who’d ever seen her and spoken to her. He’d fallen in love with her many years ago, spent one week with her and then never saw her again. I only had a picture of her in my mind, based on the things Cal told me.
Cal was an unstoppable wild child, a frenetic artist and a lyrical romantic. He might have seemed the type who’d freely call a beautiful woman a “goddess on earth” or “desert nymph” or something like that. After all, he liked to use that kind of language. But Cassandra was the only girl he ever specifically described as “goddess”.
She was the only girl he’d ever loved, the only girl who’d ever broken his heart; and just maybe, the only girl who still held it captive in some way. Cassandra was the one that got away.
I only mention all of this because Cal Corso would soon be moving to California right after graduation. According to Cal, that’s where Cassandra once said she’d be moving, to pursue her own dreams of becoming a movie star. Though it was certainly no uncommon thing for any young actor, like Cal, to move out to Hollywood; I couldn’t help but suspect whether there was more to the story than that. Either way, on the eve of graduation is where this story begins. Just a few nights before a still morning, when me and Cal Corso drove out west.
It was the night Bin Laden died, and we were watching the news of it on television. Me and Cal, Sam Lyons and Leo Quinby. I remember the long silence that followed between the four of us. Silence was rare in a group like ours. But even on a night like tonight, Quinby could only take so much of it.
“It’s a conspiracy.”
“What’s a conspiracy?”
“The death of Bin Laden. The truth is, he’s been dead of a long time. I’d say at least a year, maybe two. But the powers-that-be waited for the right moment to tell us. This moment. Tonight. This is the moment where they look to the people and say ‘Wake up and get with the program!’”
“Who are the powers-that-be?”
“Aha! Jude, m’ boy! Now you’re asking the right questions!”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“Does he ever?” said Sam.
I needed some air. I stood up and walked toward the door.
“Where you going?” asked Quinby.
“To get some air.”
“Alright well hurry back. The world’s changing before our eyes.”
“Yea, I know.”
“You alright?” asked Sam.
“Yea I’m fine.”
Both he and Quinby exchanged looks of concern, as if they didn’t believe me when I said I just needed some air. Then I looked at Cal, who remained in the far corner of the room with his arms crossed and his back against the wall.
“I’m fine,” I said again. “Be right back.”
I stepped outside and closed the door behind me, or at least I thought I did. When I didn’t hear it shut I thought maybe I’d turn back and close it all the way, but I decided not to. So I set out that night and took a walk down the street, not knowing when exactly I’d be back.
I hadn’t been sleeping much lately. I couldn’t remember the last time I went to bed at any reasonable hour. Reasonable, as in two or three in the morning. Lately I’d been falling asleep just before sunrise.
Sam was convinced that I was still torn up over a girl. Maybe I was. Or maybe yet, I was thinking about the apocalypse and the talk of Mayan prophecies predicting the end of the world. That was enough to make me lose a few winks. But no. It was something else. Something more than just the dark cloud of doomsday keeping me up at night.
As far as the girl went, I felt pretty good. I knew it was over. Like many aspects and memories of my past, it felt like baggage that I’d been carrying for too long, clothing that I only just realized belonged to some other person. Not long ago, when we went out to eat, a homeless man walked in with a comforter over his head and painted purple toenails. She turned to me and whispered her disapproval of him, like he was some feral beast tarnishing her evening. I asked her where her sense of public service had gone. Public service, like Kennedy said. What kind of lawyer would she be without it? We argued some more before she stood up and shook her head at me.
“Kennedy is dead,” she said, “Dead for 40 years.” And then she walked out. This time I let her go.
I’d always taken a strange sort of pride in being a mystery. My thoughts and emotions were always pretty well guarded, and I was always in control. I always listened far more than I ever spoke, and I thought it was a necessary skill for life and my career. But what I’d observed and listened to over the years hadn’t been enough, and the words I spoke came from a textbook, a bunch of old books and recycled words repeated by doctors and professors that I’d never see again. The words were never anything real. Never anything worth a damn. They were based on laws. The laws of other people. They weren’t my laws. They weren’t based on my experience. I wondered whether my defending the integrity of the homeless man was the first real thing I ever said in my life.
I first picked up the guitar about a year ago. An Olympia steel-string with a solid top. I learned fast, and I could even sing alright. Soon I began writing my own songs, right around the time I started listening to Bob Dylan and his hero Woody Guthrie. After that, things were never really the same. From there I started listening to old folk songs and country ballads, jazz standards and the American blues. Roots music with origins that could be traced back more than a hundred years. And though all these voices were scattered across those hundred years, though they sang for changing people and different generations, they all echoed the same tradition. They all seemed to tell the same story.
Suddenly there were no laws. I questioned everything, and the people around me and places I’d known all took on different shapes. I noticed every detail. Nothing was black and white to me anymore.
And so in the final months of school, I was up late every night and playing my guitar, thinking about the Mayan apocalypse while trying to make sense of a hidden world outside my walls. One far more real than what I’d been preparing for every year leading up to now.
I kept walking that night and I felt the air grow colder. It was unusually quiet. I wondered what sort of celebration might be going on closer to campus, or if there was a celebration even going on at all. There must be. I knew they were going all across America. I looked out toward the center of town. I couldn’t hear anything.
“Do you think you deserve to die,” I heard a voice say. I turned around and saw Cal Corso walking beside me in the night. I’d been sidetracked in my thoughts and didn’t notice he was there.
“You look like you’ve got a lot on your mind. What’s the story?”
“I don’t know. Bin Laden’s dead.”
“Oh,” he said. He looked away and then back at me. “So what?”
“No one here seems moved by it.”
“I am. Look at my face.” And he made a serious face.
“It’s funny…I don’t remember much. I know that I should. But I don’t. I guess it was ten years ago…I remember being in school that day…”
“I remember I skipped that day.”
“You skipped everyday.”
“This is true.”
Cal Corso hadn’t been sleeping for years. I didn’t know how he was still standing, let alone how he seemed to look no older than he did when we were kids. Then again, that might have been my own biased perception. He was my hero, after all, as best friends often are.
Cal was an actor, but he had a great interest in all the arts. He wrote poetry nearly every day and could easily recite Whitman, Blake and Shakespeare. His acceptance into the University of Florida, he forever insisted, was due to the greatness of his college admission essay, which he further insisted was poetry in itself.
His only remaining family were his mother’s sisters, both of whom he suspected were somewhat insane, though he loved them dearly, especially the one who raised him. The other sister lived out in California. His mother died long before he could remember and his father died before he was born, but he loved them both very much, as if he’d known them even in death. Cal was fascinated by death itself, which he reportedly felt looming at all times, waiting for him on the nearest street corner or dark alley.
He liked things that were traditional, and he always wore old, torn white t-shirts with beat-up black trousers. With his long and wavy blonde hair, he looked like some tattered descendant of Alexander the Great. He only went to college with me, he said, to make sure that I got into some trouble. He’d spent most of his time with a long list of women, who either loved him, obsessed over him or wanted him dead.
After graduation, Cal would be leaving for Hollywood. His plan was to stay with his aunt for only a brief amount of time until he was able to find a place of his own. He would finally claim everything he’d always wanted, which he said was to be an actor.
I didn’t know what I was looking for, I only knew that it was somewhere far; and the more Cal spoke of getting away, the more I wanted to go with him.
That night we walked down University Avenue in silence. The busiest street in the city was quiet and still as ever. Dead in the night. The street lights were flickering and failing. The moon was brighter than anything I could see and the night had grown very cold.
“What did you say to me before?” I asked.
“Just a minute ago, something about me deserving to die?”
“Well, who then?”
“Bin Laden. Do you think he was evil?”
“Yea. Well, I don’t know. I guess he was, right? Then again that’s not really my call. I think he was probably just a sick man. You know? Sick.”
“I just want to know what good is.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, and I don’t think he knew exactly how to follow it up.
“So,” he said. “What do you think happens from here?”
“After graduation. One might say it’s the dawn of a new era. I could go for a new era myself.”
“I think every generation has always felt the same way,” I said.
“Yea, sure. I think so.”
“What about this one?”
“What about it?”
Cal shoved his hands in his coat pockets and looked up into the night sky.
“I think some people like to put their head in the sand,” he said. “Especially when they feel like the end is near.”
I had very little money, but I had a small bag of clothes and an Olympia steel-string acoustic guitar with a solid top. That would be enough to get me across the country, I figured. I didn’t really know. But Cal Corso was going to Hollywood, and I decided at the last minute to make the drive with him.
“I’m your best friend, and you went with me to college to make sure I got into trouble. You succeeded. Now I’m going with you to California, to make sure you stay out of trouble.”
“Well that’s great! But do you have enough money for a flight back east?”
“Oh. Well alright then, cowboy.”
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 Hotel Gitane, just a block or so away from the Mississippi River. Cal wanted to stay in at least one hotel during the trip. Maybe two. One in New Orleans and one in Las Vegas. The rest of the time we’d be sleeping in the car.
Inside in the lobby, seated behind the front desk was an older man who wore an old beret, along with a wrinkled dress shirt and black suspenders. He looked like one of those papers boys from the 20s, only now a much older man. His hair was long and grey and he appeared to be blind in one eye.
“Morning,” he said cheerfully.
“Afternoon,” said Cal.
“Oh. Afternoon. That’s right,” he said. “Boy, the day just got away from me.”
“It happens, man.”
“My name is Cal Corso, and this here is Jude Moonlight.”
“Cal Corso,” he said looking down his list. “Ah, here you are. Cal Corso. Right.”
Then he looked back up at me with a look of concern. Then he turned to Cal. “There are two of you, then?”
“Oh yea my buddy decided to come along. To keep me out of trouble as I make my way to Los Angeles.”
“Los Angeles, eh?”
“Yes sir, I’m going off to Hollywood to be an actor.”
“Well, you’re only down for one person, for one night…which is tonight. But I suppose it’s no big deal if your friend comes along.”
“Great, thank you Mr…”
“Romeo. Name’s Romeo.”
“Good to meet you Romeo.”
“Likewise. Umm…let’s see now. Oh. Here’s your key and… yes, you’re all paid. If you need anything just give us a holler.”
“Will do. Thank you sir.”
We took the key and went to our room upstairs. Inside the room there were no windows and it was very hot. Old torches hung on the wall adjacent to the door and on the wall facing us we walked in. The beds looked like they might have been a hundred years old.
“This is perfect!” said Cal. “Kinda spooky.”
“Beds look comfortable. Maybe I’ll finally catch up on sleep.”
“You’re not going to be sleeping much anymore, my friend” said Cal with a mischievous grin.
I laughed. “C’mon now…you didn’t think I was serious, did you?”
“That’s the spirit,” he said, putting his bags down. “Anyways I’m hungry. Let’s grab something to eat.”
We went back downstairs and returned to the lobby. Romeo wasn’t there. Nobody was. The lobby had been deserted.
“Oh well,” Cal said. “I was gonna ask the ol’ man what places there might be to see ‘round town but whateva.”
“Where did he go?”
“Beats me. It’s cool though, we’ll find our way around town.”
We walked out toward Jackson Square and into the courtyard facing St. Louis Cathedral. There weren’t many people out. The air was still and very warm.
“Feels even hotter than Gainesville,” said Cal. “I love it.”
He hurried over to the bank of the river to admire the sights and the ships traveling north and south, while I walked closer to the cathedral. An artist nearby was finishing a painting of St. Michael the Archangel.
It was a long time ago when I chose the name of St. Michael for Confirmation, the conquerer of the Devil and all his army. Cal chose St. Jude in my honor, he said, though I wondered how much he ever identified with the name, or if he identified with it at all. St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes.
Cal and I went to the same Catholic school when we were kids and received all the sacraments in the same church. I loved the church, and I was all caught up in destiny and purpose, in fulfilling God’s plan and the whole deal, for the future was preordained. And it was all safe so long as you never strayed off and you stayed well beneath the roof of the Lord.
But the Devil stood opposed to all those things. In a world of strict and absolute law, he was a voice of unusual freedom, even if that freedom came with a price. Hell was seldom spoken of in the church, but I soon believed it couldn’t exist anyway. I only believed in heaven and earth. If heaven was for the saints, then the earth was for those who would not wait, for those who would have their freedom now; for now was what they cherished above all else.
On the earth these believers would remain, with the fallen angels and in the company of demons. As for the Devil, if he existed, then surely he walked here on earth with the rest of us, as a mere man. Or maybe as a woman. I thought a lot about these things that afternoon in New Orleans.
We had a quick bite to eat, then went back to the hotel to shower and change clothes. At no time, either coming in or leaving, did we ever see Romeo or anyone by the desk.
“What’s up with this place?”
“Spooky isn’t it?”
“It’s actually really cool, it’s just…where is everybody?”
“Out there,” said Cal motioning toward the door leading back outside. A smile broadening across his face.
We walked into the night and sure enough, as we approached Decatur Street, we saw that it was packed with people. There was a bar that looked like something out of a movie, though now I can’t remember the name of the bar, where an older, sultry dark-skinned woman sang on the stage beside a piano player wearing a derby hat, along with a skinny old bass player and a gigantic, shadowy figure playing the saxophone whose face I could not see. We went inside.
Smoke filled the barroom air and there was a crazy yelling and catcalling all around us. Cal sat at the counter and beat upon it as though it were a set of bongo drums. Tonight, he was in his element.
“I am in my element right now.”
Across the bar, two women sat alone, and they were easily the most beautiful women in the bar. No one spoke to them or seemed to notice them at all. Maybe everyone was too drunk to notice, or busy looking at their phones. I didn’t know how any man could be looking at his phone at a time like this. Then again, maybe I did. Maybe they were too intimidated. Maybe they didn’t know what to say and were only trying to figure out how to approach them, just like me. I heard Cal speak my name.
“There are two very beautiful girls sitting across the bar there. Do you see them?”
“Yea, I see them.”
The first girl wore a red dress. Impossible to miss. No matter how large the crowd, she could easily be found. In a dress like that, she demanded your attention. She had long, magnificent black hair; and her skin was tan and her eyes were thick with make-up, but not over the top. She wore everything well. The girl next to her whispered something in her ear and she laughed quietly, just enough to reveal a beaming, penetrating smile. Relaxed. Confident. Dangerous. The girl sitting beside her was sitting more in the shadows, and I couldn’t see her as well.
Without saying another word, Cal rose slowly from his chair and walked across the bar and approached them. He leaned against the bar and faced the girl in the red dress. Her name was Scarlett.
“The name matches the dress,” proclaimed Cal. “Well, not really, since your dress is more bright red, but you know what I mean—and it looks pretty spectacular by the way—”
He went on, but I stopped paying attention. My eyes were fixed on the other girl, whose green eyes stared at me through the shadows. I smiled and she smiled back.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi yourself,” she said. “You look like you’ve got a lot on your mind.”
“Yea. I’d say so.”
“Seems like everyone’s telling me that lately. I guess I do have a lot on my mind.”
I felt like she was messing with me. It was some kind of test. I didn’t really know what to say, but I thought I’d give the whole thing a try anyway.
“Well, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
She smiled. “What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled to me again. “My name is Lucy.”
I reached out my hand and she shook it softly. Her hand was freezing.
“Your hands are pretty cold.”
“Yea they often are.”
I heard laughing behind me as Lucy’s eyes shot toward Cal and Scarlett. I turned around and saw that the two of them were already much closer to each other than they’d been a moment ago. Scarlett was straightening Cal’s shirt collar while Cal was clearly transfixed and not going anywhere.
“Looks like our friends are hitting it off quite well,” said Lucy.
“You two are good friends?”
“Well…sure. She’s been going through quite a bit of trouble lately. She wanted to get out tonight. I’m happy your friend showed up. I think she’ll like the company.”
“Looks like she’s got him under quite a spell.”
“Is that what you’d call it?”
“Yea. Wouldn’t you?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Not that I mind. Gives me a chance to talk to you.”
Her eyes shot down to the ground, as though the cool confidence lifted and revealed a shyness she kept at bay.
“Well, why would you want to talk to me?”
The music grew louder. The saxophone blared and more people were filing in. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I recognized the song the band was playing. People say all blues songs sound the same, but I never thought so myself. I’d wanted to hear St. James Infirmary that night, but I figured it wouldn’t happen. It sounded best on the piano and it was a song that wouldn’t suit a place like this. The audience wouldn’t go for it like I would. They wouldn’t hear it through all the noise. It would go unheard just as these girls had been unseen by everyone but me and Cal.
I would never speak to Scarlett that night but I didn’t care. Soon she and Cal disappeared, and Lucy and I were alone. I never saw them leave, and if Lucy had, she never showed it. We spoke for a while more and then we left the bar.
I might have been a mystery to other people, but Lucy seemed to understand everything about me and everything that I was thinking. I was disarmed but I felt a strange relief in it.
“You’ve had your heart broken recently,” she said.
“My heart feels just fine. I’m more interested in you anyway. Like how you seem to know so much about me.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Where does a girl like you comes from?”
“Far from here.”
I looked around and saw that there were still many people out and celebrating. What they were celebrating I didn’t know. New Orleans could have been a city that celebrated something every night. On the street I saw card players, charlatans, fortune tellers and mimes. On a balcony overlooking Bourbon stood an opera singer belting it out into the night air. Nobody seemed to mind.
The crowds started thinning out as we made our way closer to the river. I had no idea what time it was. I also didn’t know where we were. I wasn’t drunk, I just hadn’t been paying attention, and at the time I didn’t notice that Lucy had in fact been leading the way the entire night.
We turned another corner and saw a nightclub standing at the far end of the alley. Nobody stood outside, but I could hear the music coming from inside. As we approached the door I looked back down the alley and saw the outline of something at the end where Lucy and I had stood moments before. It was a dog. It sat motionless with its eyes glowing. It was staring at me.
“C’mon,” said Lucy as she disappeared into the shadows of the entryway. I looked back down the alley one more time and then I followed her.
We danced late into the night, Lucy and I. She looked at me with her eyes aglow and her body moved like smoke. She ran her fingers against the back of my head and down to my neck, which she then gripped suddenly, gently as she pulled my hair. She leaned in to whisper that the whole world was mine. Of course I didn’t know what that was suppose to mean, but I liked the sound of it so I didn’t ask any questions.
By the time we left and started back toward the hotel, the night had grown quiet again. The air was cool. The dog had vanished, though I’d already forgotten about it anyway.
When we got back to the hotel, the lobby was still unattended. We walked quietly into the room only to find that it was empty. Cal and Scarlett were still out somewhere. Maybe at her place, wherever that was. I didn’t give it much thought either way.
Lucy leaned against the wall and smiled to me. I took her hands and brought her toward me and onto the bed. Her emerald green eyes gleamed in the darkness of the room, glowing as they had all night.
A guitar never holds less power than the man playing it. Like a beautiful woman, whether she’s the love of your life or a stranger, sometimes the guitar can be far more powerful than you realize. And sometimes, whether you know it or not, it can even be playing you.
I wasn’t a great guitar player. Music was still new to me and there was a lot to learn. I was getting better, though. More aware of something far greater than myself, something that always felt very near. Something that had to be found. A communion that had to be made.
Most musicians have got something inside of them. They know it’s there. They feel it. And if it’s not inside them, then it’s around them. They hear it. Sometimes every day. It wasn’t long before I did too, when I understood that my guitar would be the only thing in the world that could receive everything I heard in my head.
There’s always that possibility you may come out of the whole thing a changed man. Jazz musicians sometimes talk about it. People sitting in their seats watching the whole thing may think they’re being transformed, taken to some higher level of consciousness, but they’re not alone. Sometimes the sax player is changing right alongside them, if not more so.
I had a dream that night that I was walking down an empty street, with the surrounding buildings cast in shadow and silhouetted by a white glow coming from behind them. A voice told me to find a woman who travels often and who holds the answers that I seek, and 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 woke up in the middle of the night and found that Lucy was gone.
I woke up late. I didn’t feel the same the next morning. Cal sat up from his bed with his eyes barely squinting open and his hair a mess.
“Well good morning to you buddy boy. How’d it go last night?”
“She was here,” I said, “But she’s gone now. Feels like some crazy dream.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“What happened with the other girl, Scarlett?”
“Ah well, I might have stayed at her place for a bit. But then I came back here late in the night. I never saw that girl here with you. You were lying all alone.”
“Her name was Lucy. They were friends weren’t they? The two of them.”
“Not really, no.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well Scarlett never knew that girl’s name. Said she’d only met her that night—well, talked to her anyway. Not long enough to get her name. Tell you the truth, that Scarlett was quite a puzzle too. Said she was getting away. Getting ready to leave New Orleans. She wouldn’t tell me where she was going, or why she was leaving. It was all very mysterious, but I didn’t complain.”
“Anyway she’s Spanish. Just like I thought.”
I turned back to Cal and saw that he was smiling. Cal had a thing for Latin women and he was obsessed with Spain and all of Spanish culture.
“I think I love her, Jude.”
He laughed. “Alright, let’s get out of here and get on the road.”
We showered, got dressed, gathered our stuff and went down into the lobby to leave. A beam of sunlight came in through the window and lit up the wooden panels of the lobby floor. It smelled like breakfast. Fresh coffee and scrambled eggs. We got downstairs and there was no food. There was also, once again, nobody behind the hotel counter.
“Really?” said Cal looking all around the room and down the adjacent hallways.
“Sometimes I wonder whether we are the only ones left in this hotel.”
“Guess I’ll just leave the key on the counter here?”
“Might as well. Slide it under the guestbook.”
Cal took the key from his pocket and did just that. I looked at the guestbook and saw that we were the only names written on the page. Cal Corso, Jude Moonlight, #9.
“Ok Romeo,” said Cal looking up to the ceiling and all around the lobby, as if the old man were hiding somewhere in the walls. “Was good to meet you, mon ami.”
“Where’s that coming from? It smells like a delicious breakfast.”
“Must be coming from one of the rooms on this floor. Down one of the halls. Somebody brought some breakfast here this morning, I guess. Speaking of which, I could go for a bite.”
“Yea me too.”
“Let’s head over to Cafe Du Monde over there by the river. Scarlett said it’s real good. I could go for a good coffee right about now. We’ll see what kind of food they have.”
“I think it’s just beignets.”
“I could go for about ten,” said Cal grinning.
I laughed. “Well, I don’t know if I’m that hungry.”
“Let’s just drop this stuff off at the car and then we’ll head over there.”
We left the hotel and walked toward the car. I was already sweating. It was nearly 11 o’clock and the sun was beaming down without mercy. We put our stuff in the backseat, closed the door, locked it and turned around.
A man stood right in front of us. His eyes were wide and his hands rested at his side, and his fingers were stretched and spread apart from each other like a man trying with all his might to keep calm.
“You…” he said, looking right at Cal. “Been waiting all mornin’ for ya.”
He spoke in a thick southern drawl. His eyes were open wide but he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. He wore skinny white jeans and a blue sleeveless shirt that revealed his thin, muscular and tattooed arms. He looked like an anti-drug commercial, the sort of guy who might have been fairly handsome 5 or 10 years ago, before a whole collection of substances inevitably left their mark. Then again, he could have just been down on sleep. Finally, on his right arm was a tattooed heart with three names, though I couldn’t see what they were. On his left arm was Nosferatu.
Cal and I exchanged looks before he looked to the man and said, “Good morning, stranger. Who do I have the pleasure of speaking to?”
“Name’s Leon. Leon Loutrec.”
“Leon Loutrec…” said Cal, unalarmed but curious. “How long you been waiting for me?”
I got a better look at the heart on his arm. The heart bore two names, not three. Cal had to see it. He had to know who this man was before he gave any more away, at least more than what Leon seemed to already know. The tattoo read “Leon & Scarlett, Forever.”
“I heard she wore red last night,” said Leon in a growl. “How’d she look? My Scarlett?”
“You wife?! You got to be kidding me. How the hell did you get a girl like tha—.”
“Oh. I mean, I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
“I been lookin’ all ‘round town for that lady o’ mine, only to find out she’s left town. Off to the west coast. Oh I’ll find her, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried.”
“But,” he said, closing his eyes suddenly and raising his hands in the air. “I hear that last night she was runnin’ round. Runnin’ round with a blonde-haired boy, a boy stayin’ at the Hotel Gitane.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“You’re quite the talker. Told half the city last night where you were staying, goin’ on about how nobody runs the joint and how you thought it might be haunted.”
“Sounds like me. And it’s actually true, something’s up at that hotel.”
“Right before you started making out with my wife!”
“Well that doesn’t sound like me at all.”
“I always suspected she was up to something. Sneakin’ round my back. But I can’t—I won’t be mad at her anymore. Nah…cause it was you who corrupted my woman and made her run ‘way. You who made her run off to the west. And so here you are, walking right out of the Hotel Gitane this morning, matching your description perfectly.
“Dashing, handsome, intelligent-looking? A sight to behold aren’t we? Well Leon, it’s been a mighty fine pleasure to meet you. My buddy here is a soon-to-be-law-school dropout who plays guitar, but I warn you, he doesn’t play for free. All inquiries can me made through his agent…which, I guess would be me.”
“That’s enough out of you,” he said, revealing a six-inch blade strapped to his belt buckle. “I’m gonna find my woman. I’m headed west this very morning. But before I do…I’m gonna take care of you, boy. Nobody crosses me and takes what’s mine. And nobody messes with my honor. Nobody.”
Damn. Only a day on the road and we were already staring death in the face. I’d abandoned a bright future and a solid career for the sake of something new and this was what awaited me. A psycho stalker and a six-inch blade. I slowly turned to Cal.
Yet there he stood, neither afraid or surprised in any way. If he was, he wasn’t showing it. Instead he was grinning like a kid, well aware and accepting of his own guilt. He turned to me and he winked. Then he turned back to Leon.
In that moment I had an instinct to stop him, even though I had no idea what he was about to do. I knew it wasn’t good. Even if I’d wanted to stop him, I don’t think I could have; since it all happened fast.
Cal struck Leon in the face and shoved his knee straight into the man’s stomach. He fell hard to the ground.
“What are you doing?!” I yelled.
He immediately grabbed me and we both ran to the car. I swung the door open and slammed it so hard behind me that I thought I might have broken the damn thing. Cal started the car and immediately we took off, but we hit traffic and it kept us driving at a fairly slow pace, slow enough for Leon to chase us on foot and actually keep up, all while jumping and weaving through passerby and hollering about the two young punks who’d stolen his bride.
“This is not seriously happening,” said Cal, giggling as he sat behind the wheel.
After another ten minutes we made it out of the Quarter and back onto the highway, finally shooting out of New Orleans like a bat out of hell.
“Jesus H. Christ-and-all-the-angels-and-saints!” said Cal, laughing hysterically.
“What in God’s name was all that for?!”
“We had to make a move, baby.”
“Things didn’t have to get physical! We could have reasoned with the man! And don’t call me baby.”
“Would have taken too long. I want to get to LA and be an actor already.”
“He’s going to be chasing us all across America!”
“Don’t say that!”
“Not if you think about it.”
“Law of attraction, that is what the Secret says.”
“You think he caught our license plate?!”
“Probably, he was chasing our car for long enough. He was a fast little man, wasn’t he?
I wasn’t afraid, even though I knew that I should have been. Maybe seeing my best friend smiling and laughing behind the wheel as he gazed out toward the open road gave me a strange sort of boldness that had always eluded me.
Still, it wasn’t long before I got the feeling something was following us on the way to California. It could have been Loutrec. It could have been something else. A hell-bent, knife-wielding, scorned husband on a warpath, hot on our trail and seeking vengeance was a difficult image to leave behind. But eventually I was able to do just that, and I chose not to think about Loutrec again. I knew the man was probably all talk. He would never actually go through with any of his threats. The dramatic confrontation this morning was a fluke. Things like that didn’t happen anymore, I told myself. I understood this world to be far less adventurous and interesting. A world of stock brokers and business men, sitcoms and social networking, smartphones and reality tv. That was the world I’d come to know.
I looked out my window. Any trace of the city had disappeared and was replaced my ancient, gnarled and twisted swamp trees. I saw my reflection on the passenger side view mirror. My face was smiling back at me.
We drove for another two hours before finally stopping at a gas station just outside of Shreveport, right on the state border. A street sign stood at the side of the road that said ‘Now Leaving Louisiana.’
Cal went into the store to break change. I got out of the car and leaned back against its side. I closed my eyes. I felt a cool, quiet breeze brush against my face. I enjoyed the long silence that followed, taking solace in the fact that trouble was now far behind us.
I took a deep breath. It was then that I heard my name, so soft it was almost a whisper in my ear. I sprang up from against the car in a panic. I couldn’t see anyone. Cal returned from inside the store and started walking back toward me. The voice was familiar.
“What’s the matter, bud?”
“I could have sworn…”
“Did you hear…”
Cal smiled. “Sure you’re alright?”
“Yea, I’m fine.”
“Alright. Let’s get going.”
I thought of the dream I’d had the night before. I would forget most of what happened that night in New Orleans, even though I would still remember the music and the crowds. I would forget about the girl. I’d forget everything she said to me and everything I revealed to her that night without even speaking. The only detail that remained was the soft glow of her eyes, barely in my subconscious and so shrouded in darkness, like deja vu, that I’d question whether they were real at all. I’d remember those eyes, emerald green in the night, and I’d remember her name; like something in a dream that can never be forgotten. Something that, for some reason, stays with you. Like a familiar face.