quinta-feira, 3 de março de 2011
Jesus Out to Sea, by James Lee Burke
Esquire, August 22, 2010
Originally published in the April 2006 issue
I grew up in the Big Sleazy, uptown, off Magazine, amongst live-oak trees and gangsters and musicians and bougainvillea the Christian Brothers said was put there to remind us of Christ's blood in the Garden of Gethsemane.
My best friends were Tony and Miles Cardo. Their mother made her living shampooing the hair of corpses in a funeral parlor on Tchoupitoulas. I was with them the afternoon they found a box of human arms someone at the Tulane medical school left by the campus incinerator. Tony stuffed the arms in a bag of crushed ice, and the next day, at five o'clock, when all the employees from the cigar factory were loading onto the St. Claude streetcar, him and Miles hung the arms from hand straps and the backs of seats all over the car. People started screaming their heads off and clawing their way out the doors. A big fat black guy climbed out the window and crashed on top of a sno-ball cart. Tony and Miles, those guys were a riot.
Tony was known as the Johnny Wadd of the Mafia because he had a flopper on him that looked like a fifteen-inch chunk of radiator hose. All three of us joined the Crotch and went to Vietnam, but Tony was the one who couldn't deal with some stuff he saw in a ville not far from Chu Lai. Tony had the Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars but volunteered to work in the mortuary so he wouldn't have to see things like that anymore.
Miles and me came home and played music, including gigs at Sharkey Bonano's Dream Room on Bourbon Street. Tony brought Vietnam back to New Orleans and carried it with him wherever he went. I wished Tony hadn't gotten messed up in the war and I wished he hadn't become a criminal, either. He was a good guy and had a good heart. So did Miles. That's why we were pals. Somehow, if we stayed together, we knew we'd never die.
Remember rumbles? When I was a kid, the gangs were Irish or Italian. Projects like the Iberville were all white, but the kids in them were the toughest I ever knew. They used to steal skulls out of the crypts in the St. Louis cemeteries and skate down North Villere Street with the skulls mounted on broomsticks. In the tenth grade a bunch of them took my saxophone away from me on the streetcar. Tony went into the project by himself, made a couple of guys wet their pants, then walked into this kid's apartment while the family was eating supper and came back out with my sax. Nobody said squat.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, criminals had a funny status in New Orleans. There were understandings between the NOPD and the Italian crime family that ran all the vice. Any hooker who cooperated with a Murphy sting on a john in the Quarter got a bus ticket back to Snake's Navel, Texas. Her pimp went off a rooftop. A guy who jack-rolled tourists or old people got his wheels broken with batons and thrown out of a moving car by the parish line. Nobody was sure what happened to child molesters. They never got found.
But the city was a good place. You ever stroll across Jackson Square in the early morning, when the sky was pink and you could smell the salt on the wind and the coffee and pastry from the CafÃfÂ© du Monde? Miles and me used to sit in with Louis Prima and Sam Butera. That's no jive, man. We'd blow until sunrise, then eat a bagful of hot beignets and sip cafÃfÂ© au lait on a steel bench under the palms while the sidewalk artists were setting up their easels and paints in the square. The mist and sunlight in the trees looked like cotton candy. That was before the city went down the drain and before Miles and me went down the drain with it.
Crack cocaine hit the projects in the early '80s. Black kids all over the downtown area reminded me of the characters in Night of the Living Dead. They loved 9mm automatics, too. The Gipper whacked federal aid to the city by half, and the murder rate in New Orleans became the highest in the United States. We got to see a lot of David Duke. He had his face remodeled with plastic surgery and didn't wear a bedsheet or a Nazi armband anymore, so the white-fiight crowd treated him like Jefferson Davis and almost elected him governor.
New Orleans became a free-fire zone. Miles and me drifted around the Gulf Coast and smoked a lot of weed and pretended we were still jazz musicians. I'm not being honest here. It wasn't just weed. We moved right on up to the full-tilt boogie and joined the spoon-and-eyedropper club. Tony threw us both in a Catholic hospital and told this three-hundred-pound mother superior to beat the shit out of us with her rosary beads, one of these fifteen-decade jobs, if we tried to check out before we were clean.
But all these things happened before the storm hit New Orleans. After the storm passed, nothing Miles and Tony and me had done together seemed very important.
The color of the water is chocolate-brown, with a greenish-blue shine on the surface like gasoline, except it's not gasoline. All the stuff from the broken sewage mains has settled on the bottom. When people try to walk in it, dark clouds swell up around their chests and arms. I've never smelled anything like it.
The sun is a yellow flame on the brown water. It must be more than 95 degrees now. At dawn, I saw a black woman on the next street, one that's lower than mine, standing on top of a car roof. She was huge, with rolls of fat on her like a stack of inner tubes. She was wearing a purple dress that had floated up over her waist and she was waving at the sky for help. Miles rowed a boat from the bar he owns on the corner, and the two of us went over to where the car roof was maybe six feet underwater by the time we got there. The black lady was gone. I keep telling myself a United States Coast Guard chopper lifted her off. Those Coast Guard guys are brave. Except I haven't heard any choppers in the last hour.
Miles and me tie the boat to a vent on my roof and sit down on the roof's spine and wait. Miles takes out a picture of him and Tony and me together at the old amusement park on Lake Pontchartrain. We're all wearing jeans and T-shirts and duck-ass haircuts, smiling, giving the camera the thumbs-up. You can't believe how handsome both Tony and Miles were, with patent-leather-black hair and Italian faces like Rudolph Valentino. Nobody would have ever believed Miles would put junk in his arm or Tony would come back from Vietnam with helicopter blades still thropping inside his head.
Miles brought four one-gallon jugs of tap water with him in his boat, which puts us in a lot better shape than most of our neighbors. This is the Lower Ninth Ward of Orleans Parish. Only two streets away I can see the tops of palm trees sticking out of the water. I can also see houses that are completely covered. Last night I heard people beating the roofs from inside the attics in those houses. I have a feeling the sounds of those people will never leave my sleep, that the inside of my head is going to be like the inside of Tony's.
The church up the street is made out of pink stucco and has bougainvillea growing up one wall. The water is up to the little bell tower now, and the big cross in the breezeway with the hand-carved wooden Jesus on it is deep underwater. The priest tried to get everybody to leave the neighborhood, but a lot of people didn't have cars, or at least cars they could trust, and because it was still two days till payday most people didn't have any money, either. So the priest said he was staying, too. An hour later the wind came off the Gulf and began to peel the face off south Louisiana.
This morning I saw the priest float past the top of a live-oak tree. He was on his stomach, his clothes puffed with air, his arms stretched out by his sides, like he was looking for something down in the tree.
The levees are busted and a gas main has caught fire under the water and the flames have set fire to the roof of a two-story house on the next block. Miles is pretty disgusted with the whole business. "When this is over, I'm moving to Arizona," he says.
"No, you won't," I say.
"This is the Big Sleazy. It's Guatemala. We don't belong anywhere else."
He doesn't try to argue with that one. When we were kids we played with guys who had worked for King Oliver and Kid Orey and Bunk Johnson, Miles on the drums, me on tenor sax. Flip Phillips and Jo Jones probably didn't consider us challenges to their careers, but we were respected just the same. A guy who could turn his sticks into a white blur at the Famous Door is going to move to a desert and play "Sing, Sing, Sing" for the Gila monsters? That Miles breaks me up.
His hair is still black, combed back in strings on his scalp, the skin on his arms white as a baby's, puckered more than it should be, but the veins are still blue and not collapsed or scarred from the needlework we did on ourselves. Miles is a tough guy, but I know what he's thinking. Tony and him and me started out together, then Tony got into the life, and I mean into the life, man--drugs, whores, union racketeering, loan-sharking, maybe even popping a couple of guys. But no matter how many crimes he may have committed, Tony held on to the one good thing in his life, a little boy who was born crippled. Tony loved that little boy.
"Thinking about Tony?" I say.
"Got a card from him last week. The postmark was Mexico City. He didn't sign it, but I know it's from him," Miles says. He lifts his strap undershirt off his chest and wipes a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose. His shoulders look dry and hard, the skin stretched tight on the bone; they're just starting to powder with sunburn. He takes a drink of water from one of our milk jugs, rationing himself, swallowing each sip slowly.
"I thought you said Tony was in Argentina."
"So he moves around. He's got a lot of legitimate businesses now. He's got to keep an eye on them and move around a lot."
"Yeah, Tony was always hands-on," I say, avoiding his eyes.
You know what death smells like? Fish that someone has buried in a garden of night-blooming flowers. Or a field mortuary during the monsoon season in a tropical country right after the power generators have failed. Or the buckets that the sugar-worker whores used to pour into the rain ditches behind their cribs on Sunday morning. If that odor comes to you on the wind or in your sleep, you tend to take special notice of your next sunrise.
I start looking at the boat and the water that goes to the horizon in all directions. My butt hurts from sitting on the spine of the house and the shingles burn the palms of my hands. Somewhere to the west of us I know there's higher ground, an elevated highway sticking up on pilings, high-rise apartment buildings with roofs choppers can land on. Miles already knows what I'm thinking. "Wait till dark," he says.
"There won't be as many people who want the boat," he says.
I look at him and feel ashamed of both of us.
A hurricane is supposed to have a beginning and an end. It tears the earth up, fills the air with flying trees and bricks and animals and sometimes even people, makes you roll up into a ball under a table and pray till drops of blood pop on your brow, then it goes away and lets you clean up after it, like somebody pulled a big prank on the whole town. But this one didn't work that way. It's killing in stages.
I see a diapered black baby in a tree that's only a green smudge under the water's surface. I can smell my neighbors in their attic. The odor is like a rat that has drowned in a bucket of water inside a superheated garage. A white guy floating by on an inner tube has a battery-powered radio propped on his stomach and tells us snipers have shot a policeman in the head and killed two fish-and-game officers. Gang-bangers have turned over a boat trying to rescue patients from Charity Hospital. The Superdome and the Convention Center are layered with feces and are without water or food for thousands of people who are seriously pissed off. A bunch of them tried to walk into Jefferson Parish and were turned back by cops who fired shotguns over their heads. The white-fiight crowd doesn't need any extra problems.
The guy in the inner tube says a deer was on the second floor of a house on the next street and an alligator ate it.
That's supposed to be entertaining?
"You guys got anything to eat up there?" the guy in the inner tube asks.
"Yeah, a whole fucking buffet. I had it catered from Galatoire's right before the storm," Miles says to him.
Toward evening the sun goes behind the clouds and the sky turns purple and is full of birds. The Coast Guard choppers are coming in low over the water, the downdraft streaking a trough across the surface, the rescue guys swinging from cables like anyone could do what they do. They're taking children and old and sick people out first and flying without rest. I love those guys. But Miles and me both know how it's going to go. We've seen it before--the slick coming out of a molten sun, right across the canopy, automatic weapons' fire whanging off the airframe, wounded grunts waiting in an LZ that North Vietnamese regulars are about to overrun. You can't get everybody home, Chuck. That's just the way it slides down the pipe sometimes.
A guy sitting on his chimney with Walkman ears on says the president of the United States flew over and looked down from his plane at us. Then he went on to Washington. I don't think the story is true, though. If the president was really in that plane, he would have landed and tried to find out what kind of shape we were in. He would have gone to the Superdome and the Convention Center and talked to the people there and told them the country was behind them.
The wind suddenly blows from the south, and I can smell salt and rain and the smell fish make when they're spawning. I think maybe I'm dreaming.
"Tony is coming," Miles says out of nowhere.
I look at his face, swollen with sunburn, the salt caked on his shoulders. I wonder if Miles hasn't pulled loose from his own tether.
"Tony knows where we are," he says. "He's got money and power and connections. We're the Mean Machine from Magazine. That's what he always said. The Mean Machine stomps ass and take names."
For a moment I almost believe it. Then I feel all the bruises and fatigue, and the screaming sounds of the wind blowing my neighborhood apart drain out of me like black water sucking down through the bottom of a giant sink. My head sinks on my chest and I fall asleep, even though I know I'm surrendering my vigilance at the worst possible time.
I see Tony standing in the door of a Jolly Green, the wind flattening his clothes against his muscular physique. I see the Jolly Green coming over the houses, loading everyone on board, dropping bright yellow inflatable life rafts to people, showering water bottles and C-rats down to people who had given up hope.
But I'm dreaming. I wake up with a start. The sun is gone from the sky, the water still rising, the surface carpeted with trash. The painter to our boat hangs from the air vent, cut by a knife. Our boat is gone, our water jugs along with it.
The night is long and hot, the stars veiled with smoke from fires vandals have set in the Garden District. My house is settling, window glass snapping from the frames as the floor buckles and the nails in the joists make sounds like somebody tightening piano wire on a wood peg.
It's almost dawn now. Miles is sitting on the ridge of the roof, his knees splayed on the shingles, like a human clothespin, staring at a speck on the southern horizon. The wind shifts, and I smell an odor like night-blooming flowers in a garden that has been fertilized with fish blood.
"Hey, Miles?" I say.
"Yeah?" he says impatiently, not wanting to be distracted from the speck on the horizon.
"We played with Louis Prima. He said you were as good as Krupa. We blew out the doors at the Dream Room with Johnny Scat. We jammed with Sharkey and Jack Teagarden. How many people can say that?"
"It's a Jolly Green. Look at it," he says.
I don't want to listen to him. I don't want to be drawn into his delusions. I don't want to be scared. But I am. "Where?" I ask.
"Right there, in that band of light between the sea and sky. Look at the shape. It's a Jolly Green. It's Tony, man, I told you."
The aircraft in the south draws nearer, like the evening star winking and then disappearing and then winking again. But it's not a Jolly Green. It's a passenger plane and it goes straight overhead, the windows lit, the jet engines splitting the air with a dirty roar.
Miles's face, his eyes rolled upward as he watches the plane disappear, makes me think of John the Baptist's head on a plate.
"He's gonna come with an airboat. Mark my word," he says.
"The DEA killed him, Miles," I say.
"No, man, I told you. I got a postcard. It was Tony. Don't buy government lies."
"They blew him out of the water off Veracruz."
"No way, man. Not Tony. He got out of the life and had to stay off the radar. He's coming back."
I lie on my back, the nape of my neck cupped restfully on the roof cap, small waves rolling up my loins and chest like a warm blanket. I no longer think about the chemicals and oil and feces and body parts that the water may contain. I remind myself that we came out of primeval soup and that nothing in the earth's composition should be strange or objectionable to us. I look at the smoke drifting across the sky and feel the house jolt under me. Then it jolts again and I know that maybe Miles is right about seeing Tony, but not in the way he thought.
When I look hard enough into the smoke and the stars behind it, I see New Orleans the way it was when we were kids. I see the fog blowing off the Mississippi levee and pooling in the streets, the Victorian houses sticking out of the mist like ships on the Gulf. I see the green-painted streetcars clanging up and down the neutral ground on St. Charles and the tunnel of live oaks you ride through all the way down to the Carrollton district by the levee. The pink and purple neon tubing on the Katz & Besthoff drugstores glows like colored smoke inside the fog, and music is everywhere, like it's trapped under a big glass dome--the brass funeral bands marching down Magazine, old black guys blowing out the bricks in Preservation Hall, dance orchestras playing on hotel roofs along Canal Street.
That's the way it was back then. You woke in the morning to the smell of gardenias, the electric smell of the streetcars, chicory coffee, and stone that has turned green with lichen. The light was always filtered through trees, so it was never harsh, and flowers bloomed year-round. New Orleans was a poem, man, a song in your heart that never died.
I only got one regret. Nobody ever bothered to explain why nobody came for us. When Miles and me are way out to sea, I want to ask him that. Then a funny thing happens. Floating right along next to us is the big wood carving of Jesus on his cross, from the stucco church at the end of my street. He's on his back, his arms stretched out, the waves sliding across his skin. The holes in his hands look just like the petals from the bougainvillea on the church wall. I ask him what happened back there.
He looks at me a long time, like maybe I'm a real slow learner.
"Yeah, I dig your meaning. That's exactly what I thought," I say, not wanting to show how dumb I am.
But considering the company I'm in--Jesus and Miles and Tony waiting for us somewhere up the pike--I got no grief with the world.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 19:28