A Novel Serializationby Skip Horack
The varied grips la Cosa Nostra once had on New Orleans were largely broken long ago, but even well into this millennium Lino Puglisi remained somewhat powerful in his own (localized) way. The obese, pushing-eighty, pants-to-his-tits youngest of maybe three hand-to-God oath-of-omertà geezers still shuffling around as free, if discreet, men within the 504.
For almost two decades, the latter half of the 1975–2015 First Life of Mikey “Monkey” Zak, Lino was his boss. Not the Boss—again, New Orleans isn’t a town for such a closed-city, territorial-rights king anymore—but a boss nonetheless. Lino’s only son became a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, raised from birth to step outside and upward. Mikey, he was an errand boy for a muffuletta dinosaur.
As for yours truly, Reader, I am the fly on the wall, the mouse in Mikey’s pocket. More about me will be revealed eventually, but for now I’m an invisible narrator telling a story. His story.
So the final September of that First Life, to begin near the end. Mikey alone with Lino. Sitting across from him in the modest, on-the-quiet office the old man kept in the back of a Royal Street antique shop.
“Monkey,” said Lino, wheezing the word out, “you’re a sorta Jew, right?”
Lino’s thing, or at least one of his things, one of his senior-citizen quirks, was asking questions to which he already knew the answers. Sure, he had indeed persevered well past even the twilight of LCN relevance and clout in his hometown, no minor feat, but the unenlightened and incognizant frequently underestimated him. He used that to his advantage.
And this—that is, the benefits of hovering under the radar—was perhaps the most valuable lesson Mikey ever learned from the guy. So Mikey just scratched at his beard and sat there, waiting for Lino to tell him why he’d been sent for. The office in Bonsoir Antique had no windows and was a perfect ten-by-ten-foot square. An exposed duct ran across the ceiling, and Lino’s desk was situated under a vent. Late summer, but as always Lino was dressed like a hatless chauffeur. Air from the AC was riffling some of the newspapers stacked in front of him, and the few thin strands of hair left at the sides of his bald dome were dancing. This room a cube of cool in a lake of Vieux Carré lava.
Lino stood and waddled over to a wall calendar. “Saw tonight begins your Rosh Hashanah, rabbi. All I’m getting at.” He stabbed the September Sunday with his finger. “What’s with that, really?”
“The new year, I think,” said Mikey, without actually thinking. “And Adam and Eve somehow.”
Lino grunted in a way that suggested even he—a Catholic, of course—could do better, but when he realized his minion wasn’t about to ask for a theology tutorial he trundled himself back down. There was a small towel on his desk. He used the rag to mop at his sagging neck, looking tired from the effort of trying to educate a Hebe simpleton.
As I said already, even twilight was yesterday for that clique . . . but however loose-knit things had become, nicknames were still common. And yet, incredibly, Lino Puglisi lacked an aka. “Fat Lino” would have worked, obviously. Or “Sleepy” Puglisi, on account of the permanent circles etched under his somnolent eyes. The Panda, Mikey often thought, to my Monkey.
“You have a car?” Lino asked.
“You know I don’t.”
“Don’t tell me what I know, okay?”
“I don’t have a car. Just the motorcycle.”
“A grown man on a bike.” Lino shook his head. “Rent you a car.”
That caught Mikey’s attention. It had probably been a year since he’d ventured more than fifty miles beyond Orleans or Jefferson Parish. “I’m going somewhere?”
“Missouri. Tomorrow. And nothing caviar—ask the Mez for a cash Kia or such. Tell him no paperwork.”
Lino smiled, baring milky teeth that, to Mikey, looked fake in that big, liver-spotted face. Maybe they were.
“The Show-Me State,” said Lino. “Heard of her?”
The Mississippi River makes a sharp turn to the north as it crescent-cradles New Orleans, and though to the eye the chocolate current keeps sliding by, going up for a mile before rounding the horn at Algiers Point, Mikey had been told that here—but far beneath the surface, two hundred feet down, the deepest soundings on the entire river—the Mississippi is a confusion. That the water closer to the bottom loops back on itself in a vortex along this stretch. That some ancient, sodden logs have been locked in sunken orbit there for centuries.
Sal Paradise, the Jack Kerouac On the Road stand-in, riding the ferry to sleepy Algiers: “On rails we leaned and looked at the great brown father of waters rolling down from mid-America like the torrents of broken souls—bearing Montana logs and Dakota muds and Iowa vales and things that had drowned in Three Forks, where the secret began in ice.”
And those logs of legend had Mikey wondering about the English girl. For a while he’d thought of her as somewhere out in the blue of the offshore Gulf. Tumbling like a killed mermaid among dolphins and sea turtles and tuna. But now—packing his duffel bag, waiting behind a texting family of pasty androids at Messina’s Rent-a-Car—he was picturing her as trapped in a sort of New Orleans purgatory. Five weeks earlier she had dropped from one of the twin US 90 bridges that form the Crescent City Connection. Tied as the fifth-longest cantilever bridges on our planet, and the final two spans over the whole of the Mississippi. Slapped unconscious, the girl floated north as she drowned but was then sucked into the circling under-under and dragged upstream to where she’d started, the CCC. Then again she went north and again she went south. She was stuck traveling that mile of tortuous river forever, though on each melting revolution there would be less of her. In due course she would only be a carousel of bones, and a day would come when she would be nothing at all.
Mikey had recently learned that bit of perhaps true, probably not even close to true, trivia regarding the Mississippi’s hydraulic workings from a bovine tugboat captain named Charlie Flynn. A man who, when he wasn’t placing reckless bets, specialized in carrying on about: (1) moving to Tamarindo, Costa Rica; and (2) other things nobody cared about. Charlie Flynn was a bum. Mikey was constantly having to track him down for money, but Sorry Charlie got his revenge. He planted the seed that sprouted the ensnared-and-rotting girl simulacrum in Mikey’s head, and Mikey was afraid that might be his to live with until he was as dead as she was. Sorry Charlie Flynn, voodoo priest.
In those First Life days Mikey Zak was what a cop on a cop show would dismiss as a “small-time hood” or mere “mob associate.” (And the second only if said cop was being overtly and overly sensational. A TV cop insisting, incorrectly, on still referring to New Orleans as a town with a “mob.”) He had a normal forename—Michael/Mikey—yet to much of his world he was Monkey (though never once had he introduced himself as that). And while, for most, his last name no longer registered on the respect scale, it was one certain geriatrics recognized and assigned weight to.
As a Prohibition teenager in Manhattan, Mikey’s grandfather Zuriel “ZeeZee” Zak had come on board for the concluding years of the Bugs and Meyer Mob street gang, then rose through the Jewish Mafia, Kosher Nostra, ranks under Meyer Lansky himself. Two Russian-born landsmen from the Lower East Side . . . Lansky some fifteen years older but seeing promise in young ZeeZee . . . beytsim but also brains . . . and so, in the forties, Lansky sent ZeeZee to New Orleans to keep an embedded eye on his stake in the gambling racket there . . . a racket born of a deal to bring slot machines to New Orleans negotiated, at Lansky’s direction, between Senator Huey Long and actual, Jews-need-not-apply Mafiosi (i.e., NOLA boss Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla and the Luciano crime family in New York) . . . a racket overseen by Luciano padrone Frank “the Prime Minister” Costello’s transplanted-to-the-South associate Phillip “Dandy Phil” Kastel and, eventually, by Carolla successor Carlos “the Little Man” Marcello, a Tunisia-whelped, Louisiana-raised five-foot-two Sicilian who spoke in a subliterate Cajun-flavored patois.
So ZeeZee went, a Lansky-loyal Jew allied with Kastel and then pockmarked, neckless Marcello, who soon became the last genuine don of New Orleans, and most books about the golden era of organized crime in the city will likely come around to mentioning Zuriel Zak at least in an offhand way.
But Mikey never knew him. In ’63 ZeeZee, along with Mikey’s grandmother, died intestate in an early-hours Elysian Fields house fire. That went down three days before President Kennedy did, and within the tinfoil-hat set, some exasperated Marcello-waxed-JFK people think those Zak deaths must be significant. Who can say? That’s just more trivia.
My point is this: given Mikey’s pedigree he was only small-time because of the bullshit times he was brought up in. He was born in ’75, so yes, he never knew his grandfather. Never had ZeeZee there to coach him, groom him. But Mikey did know Reuben Zak, sole child of Zuriel and Rashel Zak. A sixteen-year-old kid when he was orphaned, in a partial but undiagnosed state of shock for the rest of his life, any substantial possessions/monies he might have inherited either incinerated or hidden without a treasure map for him to follow, the suddenly destitute Reuben took every handout he was offered; dropped out of high school; found an apartment in Gentilly; worked menial manual labor into his twenties, shuttling around slot machines, jukeboxes, and coin-operated whatnot for Marcello’s Jefferson Music Company; got drafted into the Marine Corps at twenty-two—but never really did become a man. All Reuben ever said to Mikey about the fire was that he thought he heard his parents in the front yard, calling for him, before he bolted outside. He never would have left them otherwise.
Mikey loved his pop, but Reuben was famously dull-witted. A guy who convinced himself at the start of each and every football season, for example, that the Saints would win the Super Bowl. A guy who couldn’t even come up with a middle name for his “sole child.” So a damaged and unskilled laborer, at best. But once Vietnam was through with Reuben, the Creole tomatoes of New Orleans—Carlos Marcello and that lot (probably as a mitzvah for retiree/fugitive Lansky, then very much occupied with resisting Israel’s attempts, the Law of Return be damned, to deport him to the United States)—continued to watch out for him, putting Reuben in a job over at the Fair Grounds that didn’t require him to do much of anything.
Then at the dawn of the disco days Reuben got a Cajun/Chitimacha girl who worked the betting windows pregnant. They married, bought a house in Mid-City, had Michael _____ Zak. And though it’s possible they never copulated again, they somehow stayed together. In ’93, Mikey’s senior year as a “white boy” at 99 percent black Warren Easton, and ten years after Lansky kicked the bucket in Miami Beach, Reuben died of pancreatic cancer—still at the track when he got the stage IV death sentence, attending to this, that, and whatever even at forty-five. A charity case, just as his hoodlum son would become.
Which, when she paid Mikey any attention at all, was the type of barb his coonass-Indian mother liked to stick him with. He had her to thank for “Monkey.” C-sectioned Joan Zak (née LeBlanc) saw his matted head of slimy hair, and though Reuben never realized it, don’t think that mean woman wasn’t being hateful, getting one of her digs in at Reuben, when she dubbed her own son that. Monkey, as in Jew Monkey, even if Reuben wasn’t all that hairy himself. And so her OR slur became the baby’s pet name, then nickname. A nickname spread far and wide by naive Reuben and diabolical Joan before panicking kindergartener Michael was able to fully appreciate what was being done to him and ask, in paraphrased essence, Why the ever-loving fuck, Daddy? Can’t you and Mama just go with “Mikey”?
And they did, even Joan. But too late for too many. That Italian crowd, in particular. You get called something as a little boy and think one day you’ll grow out of it, but that wasn’t what happened for Monkey. If anything, he grew into the name. Ape-armed and bow-legged. Small dark eyes and an unruly mane of fluffy curls. Handsome, but in the style of hockey players and longshoremen. Those same geriatrics I spoke of would say that Reuben was a mirror image of wiry ZeeZee but that neither of them ever much resembled this descendant. Even in 2015, full-bearded and on the cusp of middle age, Mikey could out-tussle most any man and, until he was thirty-five or so, stand flat-footed and do a backflip. There’s no way around it. See rugged Mikey come traipsing down the street—six feet tall, 220; thirty-two-inch waist and size 44 jacket—he looked quite simian.
Anyway, due to a continuing sense of responsibility on the part of a few nostalgic old-guard crooks (Lino Puglisi, first and foremost), after a high school career marred by various acts of delinquency, and no college, then some rambling and a turn in the military, Mikey gave up trying to make his own way and was taken under a similar wing as his pop. Allowed, even, to live for the next nineteen years in a tiny but furnished, gratis-save-for-utilities apartment in a quieter section of the French Quarter. The pied-à-terre of a ruthless, locked-away-in-a-federal prison, Greatest Generation scamster Mikey thought of as the Horse Killer.
Mikey was a flunky. A gofer and a schlepper. One day selling cartons of smuggled tax-free cigarettes for the bars to toss at eight bucks a chop, on another catering a high-stakes Royal Sonesta–suite faro party for a debauched subset of Pickwick Club douches. Montecristos and Cohibas. Bourbons and single malts. A professional dealer from Harrah’s to fling cards for those wilding Southern gentlemen. (And moonlighting Rick’s Cabaret courtesans to flirt with them, maybe take them into bedrooms later for a good pickwickin’.)
So a flunky but also a bottom-feeder. The Quarter, Mikey’s gingerbread sewer pond. Yes, instead of a car he had a dual-sport Kawasaki parked in the ceilinged brick passageway that ran, like a culvert, alongside his beneath-a-balcony-apartment apartment—but he had no need, or want, for a car. He made around fifty thousand a year, entirely in cash, and that was plenty for a rent-free monkey like him.
And Mikey didn’t really mind that most of the money he handled got passed on up the line. If he had any complaints as that summer of 2015 wound down they had to do with feeling bored and lonesome and caged. Forty is often the age when such an anxious malaise hits men the hardest, and that unexpected inclination toward despondency is no doubt what had him so fixated on the girl in the river. She’d been underwater since August, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her.
Missouri is a fairly straight shot north on I-55, and Mikey left New Orleans on Monday morning, driving a charcoal Ford Focus, playing the ill-informed package boy. He’d been entrusted with the transportation of a shoebox to New Madrid—an on-the-Mississippi town roughly a hundred miles above Memphis. Fifty grand in neat twenties stacked in an orange Nike casket. Two thousand dollars in each purple-banded shingle. That was about all Mikey knew of the matter, and that was all Lino wanted him to know. Drive to New Madrid, drive back, then Lino would throw him fifteen hundred bucks for his sweat and expenses.
It wasn’t even clear to Mikey whether he was breaking any laws, and that’s what I meant when I called him small-time. Pugnacious ZeeZee Zak once assisted, while on a business trip with Lansky, in the bouncing of a blitzed Papa Hemingway from the Hotel Habana Riviera casino. Grandson Mikey? He drives for a day to give a shoebox to some hick named Woody Coyne—reflecting, sporadically, on the fact that the fifty thousand (again, all the money he himself made in a typical year) took up no more space in the world than a pair of Jordans.
Ten o’clock, Mississippi. Two o’clock, Tennessee. In Memphis the interstate crossed over the river into Arkansas. To the green east was all floodplain farmland, and Mikey saw a tractor bogged down in a field, a man in full denim just standing there gawping at his Kubota, praying for a miracle. Mikey rolled on. Even minding the speed limit he would be in New Madrid in two hours. He couldn’t see the river anymore, but he could smell it. The smell of mud.
The English girl had been one of those malnourished Jackson Square gutter punks. Scuzzy dreadlocks. Marker-scrawled army fatigues. Her grubby face pincushioned with metal studs and bars and rings. She was maybe eighteen, and Mikey wouldn’t have even noticed her, had she not tried to lift his wallet. New to the Quarter, probably. Didn’t yet savvy who best to rest crosshairs on and who best to let walk. And though gutter punks tend to covey, she was alone on that night.
A weekend, late, but the Quarter was still busy. The Thai Wet Massage sat above a daiquiri shop, right on Bourbon Street, and Mikey would swing by there twice a month to collect for a silent partner of the nocturnal mama-san. And he was done and hiking for home, weaving through a swarm of conventioneers and SAEs, alcoholics and bucket drummers and sloshed bachelorettes, when she tried sliding her hand into the hind pocket of his jeans. Mikey grabbed her wrist and spun her around, sent her stumbling into a Lucky Dog cart. He was more annoyed than mad, and since he had a bundle of rub-and-tug bills on him he wasn’t looking to make a scene. He just kept on heading to his Dauphine Street apartment, away from the bacchanalia, and it was not until he’d gone a few blocks that he realized she was following. Lagging back, but shadowing him all the same. A mad gutter punk will do some ghoulish shit, slice you with a box cutter or jab you with a needle, so Mikey kept one eye on her as they paraded.
Dauphine was empty, and before long the girl knew Mikey had made her. She started screaming, calling him a cunt, telling moon and stars he was ripe for a bashing.
Like over a hundred and fifty thousand other residents of 2015 Louisiana, Mikey had a concealed-carry permit—and unless he planned on drinking, he concealed-carried a tucked revolver much of the time. A compact, hammerless, in-case-of-emergency .38 S&W. Two-inch barrel, the five-shot cylinder loaded with hollow points. But if he drew his dwarf wheel gun on that berserk Brit she might force him to shoot her. So all Mikey could do was continue easing toward Dauphine, letting her shriek enraged-nanny things, his pride not allowing him to run and promptly lose her. She’d know where he lived but, well, he had cop friends in the 8-D. If Mikey leaned on them to hassle someone, they would.
What Mikey didn’t count on was her pushing the issue. He was about to open the gated passageway leading to his apartment when he heard her black soldier boots smacking the sidewalk. The key was in his hand, but since he didn’t think he could be quick enough with the lock he whirled around to meet her. He was up on his toes and dancing, like a wrestler, like an ape man, and there she was, weaponless but coming. And she was almost atop him when he did a sidestep and put out his foot. She went sprawling, ass over elbows till she was flat on her back.
Mikey stood there watching, waiting to see what she might do next. “Fucking A,” he said. “Settle. I’m buds with Nomad, know him?”
And then—even though Nomad, lord of the local gutter punks, quite possibly only knew him as Monkey, willing fencer of shiny items—Mikey added, not unkindly: “Tell him you tried robbing Mikey Zak. He’ll set you straight.”
“Piss off,” said the girl, sucking air from her short dash. “Piss off, piss off, piss off.”
There were at least a dozen steel beads welded into her face. Her lip was split, and Mikey could see blood on her teeth. He had decided, on a hunch, and despite never having been to England, that her accent was what gets called Cockney. She looked like an alien, dying.
“This was an awful choice, Mary Poppy.” Mikey unlocked the gate, so should conditions continue to deteriorate, he could duck inside the passageway in a hurry. “You ought to be nipping tourists. Let them sponsor your next fix.”
The girl sat up, spat gore at his Top-Siders, and began wiping her mouth with the frayed cuff of her army jacket, those piercings catching threads. “I need a hotel room. A loo with a shower.”
“You think you’re on holiday? Ring Mum, love.”
“I got raped,” she whispered.
If there was a rule Mikey lived by in New Orleans, that he thought he must live by, it was this: don’t ever get involved if you don’t have to. Nothing original or profound, but that one rule had kept him out of dutch for most of his miscreant life. Other than some messiness during his brief military stint, he was a known criminal with no criminal record. That’s not easy to pull off.
What I’m saying is Mikey didn’t do anything for the English girl. Instead he slipped behind an iron gate and shut her off from him, and though at some point she obviously gathered herself up and went hobbling away, he wasn’t there to see that.
Maybe she was the same girl, maybe she wasn’t, but a Jane Doe would be dead before sunrise. That much is certain. Traffic came to a stop on the eastbound CCC that night, horns blaring as a young woman parked a stolen car to mull doing what she’d come there to do, the streaking Mississippi a hundred and seventy feet below her. Then she jumped. Mikey read about the leaper a few days later. There wasn’t a photo. There wasn’t an age or a name or a body, even—but he hadn’t seen the English girl since, and in his mind Jane Doe was her.
And if he was wrong it didn’t matter. If she wasn’t dead yet, she was as good as dead. He could’ve helped her, but now it was as if she had never existed.
Still, I think primarily it was that malaise I mentioned, not guilt, that had the English girl haunting Mikey even before Sorry Charlie Flynn’s lecture on the paradoxical, south-to-north eddies and currents between Gretna and Algiers turned her into an aquatic phantasmagoria. A realization he moved through the world as a man of no consequence. That people who bumped against him were usually left neither worse off nor better off. The English girl is irrelevant. I’m only using her to show how Mikey used to be. Who he used to be. What he used to be. That he was a spectator. All around him folks were living their lives. Some were content, and some, like her, were doomed—but Mikey was simply going through the motions.
On the Road Sal Paradise, leaving Algiers for French Quarter bars: “Strange to say too that night we crossed the ferry with Bull Lee a girl committed suicide off the deck; either just before or just after us; we saw it in the paper the next day.”
Yes, that’s enough talk of the English girl. There isn’t anything more to say about her.
Welcome to New Madrid. On Mikey’s same river, but a nothing town of three thousand people. Main Street was a row of low-slung buildings that ran from the levee for several blocks, and Mikey pulled over across from a funeral parlor to get his bearings.
The scribbled address Lino had given him, long since memorized and thrown away, was for a house on a Virginia Avenue. Mikey’s citizen smartphone was in New Orleans, innocently pinging a CBD cell tower, but he’d done enough Google Maps homework to take it from here. One man’s cut-corner convenience can wind up being another man’s evidence, so every month Lino had him buy two disposable prepaid burner phones from the sad, soul-crushing RadioShack on Canal Street for their shady and sensitive matters. A new burner and a new number for Mikey. A new burner and a new number for Lino. No need for them to leave any tracks they could avoid.
Mikey drove on, businesses succumbing to homes, and there it was, the very next street, Virginia Ave. A right, then a stop sign later he saw a dented mailbox with the number he was searching for.
La Casa de Woody Coyne. A white clapboard and a weedy lot. A red Chevrolet 4x4 parked in a gravel driveway. Linger too long on a microscope slide like New Madrid, and the villagers begin to notice you, so instead of making stakeout circles Mikey just backed the Focus into the driveway, parking a few feet behind the pickup.
The Focus had proven to be a sipper, and this was the first Mikey had been out of the car since refilling the tank at a Faulknerian Phillips 66 west of Ole Miss. Gas, then a gritty Whopper in a less-than-regal Burger King. It was five o’clock now but almost as hot it had been in Yoknapatawpha. As windless and roasting, the Hawaiian shirt Mikey was wearing already sticking to his back. That shirt and a pair of Levi’s; leather boat shoes and a rental car—if necessary he was merely a lost, black-bearded traveler. I’m looking for a clean motel around here, sir. Any assistance would be much appreciated, ma’am. Depressing river towns of the Lower Mississippi are my freaking jam, officer.
The house had three concrete steps leading to a screen door slanting crooked on the frame, and Mikey was nearing when hinges screeched. The guy peering out at him was just a twenty-something kid with bloodshot eyes and stringy brown hair to his shoulders. Shirtless and barefoot and shivery. Blue jeans cuffed up his calves. Cheeks rat-shot with acne. Meth. You wouldn’t have to be a whiz to see that. Tough times are tough times for most everybody, and you have to change with the times, but Mikey was definitely surprised. As in, what possible commerce could old-school “leave the junk to the moolies” Lino have with this twitchy mongoose? Evolve or die, as they say, and evidently gluttonous Lino was branching out. Trying new tricks. But if Mikey would be returning home carting nothing after this give, who would be making that give?
Those cherried eyes swept slowly across the ugly yard, then darted back to Mikey. The kid had one hand on that flimsy screen door, but the other was hidden behind him. He’d been awake for God knows how long.
Mikey smiled. “New Orleans has cometh. Rejoice, Woody.”
The kid flinched when Mikey said the name, but then he collected himself. Sort of. He still looked like a diseased and frazzled critter. “Lift your shirt,” he said. “Spin around.”
The snub-nose .38 was in the glovebox (and the fifty large in the trunk), but the only mortal Mikey was willing to let boss him around was in New Orleans. He smiled even bigger. “Not the way danger comes for you, child. I’m just the mailman in whatever this is.”
“My bro said you’d be coming on Monday. I should call him.” Then the kid looked up at the sun for some reason. “Fuck. Is it Monday?”
So a collaborative enterprise with some brother or bro person, but Mikey wasn’t about to let things complicate. “I must have the wrong house,” he said. “Take care.”
Mikey had started walking to the Focus but didn’t get far. The kid was down the steps now, no gun in his hand after all. Or not anymore. The thought of Mikey driving away with thousands had him scared even worse than the thought of this visitor shooting him did.
“Whoa!” the kid hollered.
Across the street was a trailer with a don’t-tread-on-me Gadsden flag in the window—a woman in periwinkle velours sitting on the porch, swaying gently on a swing and watching them, calico cat by her side.
“Whoa to you. Keep your voice down.”
The kid spotted the woman and nodded. “Okay,” he mumbled.
“Deep breaths, relax, be smooth.”
Another furtive, ferrety nod.
“Terrific,” said Mikey. “Here’s how this unfolds. First, I have to be sure you are who you are. Go inside and come out with your driver’s license. Got one of those?”
“Don’t fuck with me, dude. I’m the brother. I’m Woody.”
“Nobody’s fucking with nobody. Now git.”
Once he was gone Mikey went to the Focus and popped the trunk, blocking watchful Velour Woman’s sightline, then he looked around to see if anyone else might be tuned to this channel. Didn’t seem to be, so Mikey placed the Nike box in the bed of the Chevy.
The kid returned wearing work boots and a Mizzou T-shirt. Neither “I’m Woody” nor Mikey wanted to be any closer to the other, but at last the kid moved next to him and slapped a license in Mikey’s hand. WOODROW KEVIN COYNE, JR. BIRTHDATE 02-15-1992. The photo was of a past him. Groomed, healthy, cheery. But on 09-14-2015 Woody smelled like fast food and wet cigarettes, twenty-three going on river-trash zombie. He wasn’t quite ready to be a before-and-after FACES OF METH billboard yet, but give him a few more years.
“Congratulations,” said Mikey. “It’s in back your truck. Remember to tithe.”
Woody shoved his license into his jeans. “Hold on—”
Mikey could guess what Woody was about to say, so he cut him off. “I know it’s there, and I also know it’s all there. I’m the one my master trusts, Woodrow. Not you.”
And then Mikey disengaged, withdrew. He was in the Focus and part of him was thinking, Great, mission accomplished, I can make it to Memphis before I’ll have to rest for the night. By lunchtime tomorrow, the apartment in the Quarter, and maybe he’d ask if Lino would limit Monkey Zak participation in this shameful new mischief because, well, consorting with chemical cases is like trying to dance with someone who can’t hear the music.
Mikey was turning from the driveway onto Virginia Avenue when he checked on Woody. The kid was dangling over the pickup bed, stomach balanced on the tailgate, boots in the air.
A boy falling into a hole. A boy disappearing.
Mikey had said goodbye to New Madrid—hopefully forever—and was on the along-the-levee highway that would take him to the interstate when he began to wonder if, today, his mother had rung the citizen smartphone again. Whether she had made another unexplained call to New Orleans. She and Mikey had “important stuff” to discuss, apparently. At least according to the irritated voicemail she’d left over the weekend from her home amid Central Florida pasturelands.
But after nearly two years of not speaking to her, Mikey hadn’t much cared.
Following Reuben’s death Joan had successfully spliced herself to an elfish and jug-eared, but fetchingly prosperous, jockey she’d met at the funeral. A man who soon hence, upon wrecking his back in a sloppy-track spill, and hanging up his silks in perpetuity, would move his widowed fiancée to horse-farm-abundant Ocala in order to pursue a second career as a freelance pony trainer. Ah, Mrs. Bill the Hoof. Mikey had gone the entire summer without purposefully thinking of her—but something about that Missouri town now had Florida Joan blinking on his dash, demanding his attention. She was from a nothing place herself. Drop New Madrid into the Atchafalaya Delta, swap a redneck with a Chitimacha LeBlanc, and that swinging Velour Woman could’ve been a long-lost SISTER OF JOAN.
Reuben Zak had been a flunky same as Mikey, but nobody could deny he hailed from a rich and interesting history. Joan? She was mostly an enigma. Mikey didn’t know the specifics about her parents or her past, about what she was fleeing or leaving behind when she came to New Orleans from St. Mary Parish as a teenager. And though Mikey suspected his looks had a lot more to do with her genetic code than Reuben’s did, she never would have admitted that, of course.
The Italians thought of Mikey as Jewish, but in fact they were wrong there. To Jews you are what your mother is, and his father appeared to have agreed. Because until Reuben found religion in his final few, desperate, postdiagnosis months, hospital-circumcised Mikey had never been inside a temple or a synagogue or the JCC on St. Charles. His last name, the one he was born with, was the only connection he had to any of that. Yes, Mikey mostly owed his strange modus vivendi to his father and grandfather—but, lately, a growing sense told him he was indeed his mother’s son. A shape-shifting escape artist biding his time. That despite his present inertia, on some without-warning day he too would pick up and run.
Mikey drove with one hand as he punched around for the lone number programmed into the burner. He would tell Lino the drop was done, and if that was that, they’d both send those current RadioShacks to cellular heaven. Mikey also deciding, in a compromise with himself, that once he was back in New Orleans if his mother did ring the citizen smartphone again he would answer—but he would not call her. This was mostly him being passive-aggressive . . . though calling her did mean Bill the Hoof might catch the phone, and a conversation with croaky, two-packs-a-day Bill had always been rough sledding.
Five rings, then Lino—“Well, Monkey?”—just as Woody’s red truck showed up big as a strafing spaceship in the rearview mirror, headlights flashing.
“Shit,” said Mikey. “I’ll call you back.”
He tossed the RadioShack aside and tried to get moving. It was souped, that truck, and the Focus didn’t stand a chance. Woody swung wide, surging Missouri-bushwhacker level, and Mikey slammed on the brakes half expecting a shotgun-blast Easy Rider death. But instead the Chevy swerved to rejoin the right lane after the pass, then went fishtailing off the shoulder and into the grass. Mikey was at a complete stop in the road, and he watched Woody and his long hair come jumping from the cab, arms out like a crossing guard, gesturing for him to pull over.
Mikey reached into the glove box for the .38 and, creeping forward, spun the little Smith once or twice like a toy in his hand, thinking that acting the part of icy-veined gunslinger might calm him. He could have driven on by, but it was his sacred duty to Lino to find out what this was about.
(And also—I believe—because he had been pushed too far in a dark, Joan-still-on-his-mind moment.)
Mikey idled to the shoulder and pressed his left foot on the brake, keeping his right touched to the gas in case he needed to scoot. Woody was already midway to him, coming through the dirty cloud raised by the truck. Just like that, Mikey reckoned, after all these years, his first killing, self-defense or otherwise, might be of a kid with Jesusy hair. He rolled down the front windows and pointed to the other side of the Focus, the .38 resting on thigh when Woody latched on to the window strip and poked his bedraggled face into the car.
Woody immediately spied the pistol. His hands stiffened, and Mikey saw nickel-sized knuckle-scabs rupture blood. Stigmata.
“Dude,” said Woody. “I called Cripper. I just gotta talk to you.”
Mikey shook his head. “No. All we need is for Barney Fife to coast by.”
Woody was sweating like a spent Olympian, as if driving fast had somehow sapped him, and Mikey was wishing for a .44, figuring it could take a brain shot to stop this tweaker with a .38.
“Tell me that money isn’t in the truck, Woody.”
“So what if it is or ain’t?”
“For fuck’s sake. Say what you have to say, but quick.”
“Cripper’s in the Zarks cooking,” said panting Woody. “But he done had to swap kitchens twice since Friday. And that runner he was gonna use for New Orleans, that hillbilly’s been flaking. All that got Cripper behind schedule, meaning he’s sorry but delivery tomorrow’s not gonna happen but give him through the weekend for the batch—cool?”
Mikey laughed. Among the few gifts he had was an ability to separate what he needed to know from what he wanted to know. A survival skill. They say knowledge is power, but Mikey understood that isn’t always true. Knowledge could put you in the ground, return you to the dust.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Woody. “So, yeah, he needs another week to get that shipment down there.”
“But you’ll be keeping the fifty?”
“Want some advice?”
“Not from you.”
Woody backed away from the car, but he wasn’t looking at Mikey. His eyes were on the horizon, in the direction of the river, above the levee that traced the highway—as if he were actually wise enough to be searching for what might soon be coming for one or both Coynes. Not an ordinary monkey next time. No, a winged monkey. The avenging angel who might descend upon Missouri.
“You sure?” Mikey asked. “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.”
Woody didn’t answer straight away. Instead he got himself all worked up jabbering about the Brothers Coyne leasing land across that river. Kentucky acreage where they hoped to raise cattle. Angus, Herefords, maybe Beefmasters. “But, dude, we really need the cash,” he said finally.
Even citified Mikey supposed there was no money for the little guy in growing steaks anymore, yet Woody wanted to be a cowman. Mikey looked past him through the open window of the Focus. The sky was enormous and slightly dimming. This Woody was the only other person with drone-strike certainty as to exactly where Mikey Zak was right then, and Mikey had never felt smaller in his life. He didn’t know it at the time, but he could feel it: Woody was him and he was Woody. Two bedeviled primates on the side of a Monday highway, opposite a levee, a short ways from a river neither of them could see.
“Oh, child,” said Mikey. “This is breaking my heart!”
They were in the puny courtyard of ferns behind newly separated Hank Robertson’s newly acquired apartment on Chartres Street. Mikey, Hank, Edmund Gremillion, and Wes Locatelli. Just room enough for a wrought-iron table and four wrought-iron chairs, a concrete fountain no bigger than a bird bath. Hank had brought out a stainless-steel bowl of ice cubes and cut lime, then a tray with rocks glasses and a black bottle of Hendrick’s, squat duckpins of Schweppes.
Mossy bricks and babbling water, the coolness of a shadowy courtyard at the onset of evening, those spidery ferns pressing against them. They were colonialists in the near tropics, dosing themselves with quinine, calmly discussing the recent unrest after another sweltering, powder-keg day.
This was their Lonely Fools Club thing, to meet once a month, always on a Wednesday, and after ten years the gatherings themselves had become regimented and predictable as well. Personal status reports followed by a rundown of current events local, regional, and national. Alcohol-fueled nostalgic reminisces of Hurricane Katrina times before, finally, protracted debate between Edmund and Hank over the itinerary, and date, for the next month’s Wednesday. Typically that meant a bar for predinner rounds, then Muriel’s or a Brennan restaurant—but Hank had been eager to show off his green thumb, and his autonomy, so there they were in that brick box of a courtyard.
Though Mikey was no society-page popinjay, had no real thirst for things fancy, he could already tell they had chosen badly in agreeing to this. That the fernery of a gone-stag one-bedroom, one-bath had little to recommend over French 75 or the Napoleon House or even the breezy balcony of the Pontalba apartment Hank had fled from. Hank was unabashedly pleased to be presently, maybe permanently, free of marital bonds—and therefore had yet to recognize the dumpster-fire mistake he was making. But for now Mikey, Edmund, and Wes were more or less biting their tongues, drinking what Hank felt like they should all be drinking on a late-summer late afternoon, feet tucked under them in the manner of crouching gargoyles and schemers, elbow to elbow around a small table that jostled with any grand movement or gesticulation.
In truth there was no good reason for any of these four to be friends other than the fact they were all fairly longtime residents of the Quarter who had whiled away the hours together, and aided each other in various (mainly trivial) ways during those three weeks in ’05 when their historic streets were a sparsely populated island of humming generators and nonevacuating flashlight people. There was plenty of chaos and depravity to be witnessed in New Orleans during that Katrina tenure, but Mikey’s memories of those days still tended toward the sanguine. About the closest thing he had ever known to the mankind-affirming pleasures of communal living. And though Mikey knew being fortunate enough to say such a thing marked him as a tone-deaf asshole—lucky, at least, if not all that monetarily privileged—not everyone has a rising-waters, ax-in-the-attic Katrina horror story, even those who tell you they do.
So yes, by and large, Katrina wasn’t something Mikey would like to do again, but a positive experience for him all the same. Perhaps the best vacation of his life, and from his life, up to that point, and these were the guys he had shared it with.
And yet, that being said, their monthly get-togethers likely would have come to an end years before, or never even have come to pass, were it not for Edmund and his la-di-da penchant for fraternal alliances, both formal and irregular. Edmund Gremillion. A rod-and-gun outdoorsman, but there’s your Perlis, fleur-de-lis popinjay. Though most of his breed lived in oak-tree New Orleans, he was the founder and all-intents-and-purposes head of the Lonely Fools Club—and, at forty-eight, the oldest of what had tragically become (on Mikey’s big-four-o birthday in May) a quartet of forty-somethings. Edmund was a gentleman stockbroker like his father and grandfather before him. Boston Club, Mistick Krewe of Comus, Easter to Labor Day seersucker. Tall, tan, and trim with bouncy chestnut hair, he was of that cultured, persnickety, dilettante species of aging Southern bachelor many assumed to be a closet case. Mikey had seen enough New Orleans ladies sashay by on Edmund’s arm to occasionally question that—but who knows, who cares. This witty man-about-town was always good for a laugh or bit of honest assessment. One Katrina morning, Mikey and Edmund watching from a rooftop as National Guard peacekeepers came marching down St. Philip: “Quick, pimp,” said Edmund. “My spyglass.”
If Edmund was the aristocrat and Mikey Zak the criminal, the underworld ambassador of the Lonely Fools Club, then Wes Locatelli was its blue-collar representative. A bullnecked cinder block of a cabinetmaker, finish carpenter, and LSU fan. The type who could mosey through the Home Depot on Claiborne with complete confidence and comfort—“Tapcom screws? Aisle 13.”—sipping black coffee and knowing the names of things. And with a handle such as “Locatelli” Wes also couldn’t avoid knowing of Lino Puglisi . . . but just by reputation and Sunday Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. To be crystal clear, Reader: the Department of Justice has estimated that fewer than .0025 of Italian Americans are involved in organized crime, and in his business dealings measure-twice, cut-once Wes was as upright as they come. A definite 99.9975 percenter. Sure, he made money hand over fist after the storm like all his sawdust-guild brethren, yet Mikey had never heard anyone complain about the caliber of Wes’s work or character. Wes was “the Wank,” Westbank-reared but lived with his wife, Roxanne, and their teenage son, Wesley, in a partitioned loft above his shop across from the French Market. And, for Mikey, monitoring young Wesley’s Quarter adolescence was like having front-row seats to a cat swim. I’m in Mexico, Dad. Help me! Those kinds of phone calls. And of course Wes dieseled up his white truck and got rolling to Boy’s Town that same night. Nothing he wouldn’t do for his wife and his kid.
That brings me to Hank Robertson. Midforties, like Wes, but different in most every other respect. Despite his league-bowler name, Hank was their nerd bohemian. A trilby-wearing, Tulane-alum black man from San Francisco who frequented the art galleries, bookstores, and music spots. Rail thin and preferably dressed in the wrinkled suits of a Cotton Club trumpeter, that airy Home Depot would have been his idea of halogen-lit, Geaux Tigers hell. As an out-of-nowhere twenty-seven-year-old Hank had written a race-in-America novel—The Wandering Beat by H. T. Robertson—that people still remembered and asked him about. Followed, at long last, ten years later, by a mopey, rather monotonous, and mostly unnoticed Quarter-during-Katrina memoir that was lost in the deluge of grim literature milked from the storm. But if Hank was still trying to write books, that was his secret. Near as the other Lonely Fools could tell, both Hank and his interior-designer wife, Susannah, must have been born into money. The class of family in which children choose passions instead of mere occupations to engage them from graduation to grave. And there are decent odds Hank and his Garden District–cultivated, decidedly un-nerdy Susannah—mother to Chance and Marcus Clark-Robertson, their six-year-old twins—were the first African Americans ever to own one of those hallowed, Jackson Square–overlooking apartments in the Pontalba.
But now here Hank was, by his Hank self in a month-to-month rental and three weeks into dating a third-year UNO grad student he’d been exchanging flirtatious emails with ever since the New Orleans Film Society gala that March. A young woman who: (1) paid her bills guiding Vieux Carré ghost tours; and (2) looked like a Caucasian anime sprite.
All because in August, Hank Robertson and Susannah Clark, ever the avant-garde couple—feeling the Clark and Robertson marriage slipping into something more like androgynous siblinghood, seeing the writing on the wall—had recalled a “Modern Love” article in the New York Times about “open separations” and reached an agreement. Hank and Susannah would give each other until the end of the year to decide if divorce was really what they wanted. Courting and fucking around with impunity, their wedding rings in a drawer, but per the guidelines of that Modern Love article, staying away from anyone who was friends with the other (which, as to Mikey, was the rub).
And month-to-month Hank seemed pretty damn happy with his rumspringa, smoking hash and watching the Criterion Collection beside a pajamaed film-production scholar. Or that was how Mikey imagined their nights. None of it made sense to him. In The Wandering Beat we meet an affluent, erudite, and road-tripping hip-hop DJ MC from Sausalito who is light-skinned (like Hank, but more so) enough to pass as white (unlike Hank). A blessing? A curse? Neither? Trust-fund Terrence Conroy is twenty-one and conflicted. An Atlanta-bound rhymer and record scratcher whom I have come to see as a latter-day Kerouac, or even Tocqueville, taking the temperature of America as he bears down on the get-crunk ATL, his T-Con demo tracks at the ready. But in a moonlit pinewoods-and-kudzu honky-tonk he finally detonates after talk turns to black women. “Shebas,” a peanut farmer calls them, saying: “Think about how so many bucks go for white girls but not so many white boys go for twerking sistahs—don’t get me wrong, I’d fuck the dog shit out of Halle Berry but she ain’t no pure-blood Sheba anyhow so give me a Georgia blonde any day.”
Then the bottle-struck peanut farmer dies, killed by Terrence, the covertly (since Tamalpais High, at least) biracial, Budweiser-brandishing son of a (black) Marin County congresswoman and the (white) San Quentin escapee who had raped her. There’s a trial, more things happen.
Mikey hadn’t bent a novel since his own high school years, but because Hank was his friend, as well as husband to a woman Mikey had been obsessed with for a considerable chunk of that friendship, he eventually read The Wandering Beat. (“This month we lost Burroughs—and in April, Ginsberg—but the Beats go, and wander, and live, on. Fierce and wrenching, electric and thrumming . . . a racially charged book that asks many important questions.”—Chicago Tribune.)
And you’d think (white) Mikey would also have asked himself a racially charged question or two. Might have questioned why, the winter following Katrina, with his first sight of (black) Susannah Clark on a Pontalba balcony, vintage ermine stole draped over her shoulders as she surveyed the square from on high, he’d been so completely and specifically captivated by her, an older-woman gal he didn’t know from Eve (or Sheba). Yes, that important question might have made him—should have made him?—squirm. But no. Not mellow Mikey Zak. White, black. He just thought she was hot. Hot and, as he did get to know her, growing hotter. Her irreverent brassiness and intimidating intelligence. And sexy, sexy, sexy. Chic, clingy dresses. That big ol’ Nubian ass—a racist joke, their racist joke, because in actual fact she was a classy and refined Ursuline Academy, Howard University lady who was built like an acrobat . . . but a jesting pillow-talk thing that Mikey, lying across tangled sheets with Susannah in his apartment, would say to make her bite at his chest and laugh. Snowflake, she would call him—her pet gorilla. Susannah already knowing, from Hank, that people throughout New Orleans had a similar spirit-animal sobriquet for him.
Their affair (dalliance? fling?) lasted two months before Susannah put a stop to it—telling Mikey, with the rationalizing perspicuity of many a straying spouse before her and since, that she had been able to live with herself because those two months had felt like an exciting and reinvigorating farewell to the grueling, desexualizing, infant-to-preschool interlude that had followed the birth of the twins. Exciting and reinvigorating until, that is, she couldn’t live with herself, and the time came for that farewell to conclude. We have to chill, boo.
Poor Mikey, poor Mikey. But now, three years later, with this open separation between Susannah and Hank, those soul-searching libertines, an unexpected crack in the door? Something like hope? Was a suppressed longing—both for Mikey and for her—about to be unleashed and rekindled?
Again, Katrina was responsible for the Lonely Fools Club . . . the reason they all first met, ten years earlier, thirty-somethings then. Mikey was living alone in the apartment on Dauphine. Edmund was living alone in his St. Philip condo. Hank, Wes—their families (Hank’s pre-twins Susannah; Wes’s Roxanne and seven-year-old Wesley) had been sent away to tarry with relatives in Baton Rouge and north Louisiana, respectively, before the storm made landfall. Wes staying behind because the Locatelli Cabinets and Finish and Trim shop, beneath the Locatelli loft, contained umpteen thousands of dollars’ worth of carpentry equipment and wares; Hank, no doubt, because he felt as if bear-witness slumming was the shrewd thing for a writer with embryonic designs on a memoir to do. A book about him that could also be a book about Katrina, giving it that “me and something else” I’ve been told all great memoirs require.
So four “lonely fools,” but, to be honest, remaining in the Quarter was no extreme act of bravery, or even stupidity, because in New Orleans there is a high-ground explanation for why the oldest neighborhoods are the oldest neighborhoods. And for the Quarter that meant the Monday morning Katrina swept by (the storm now a downgrading Cat 3 trained on Mississippi) was mostly a wind-and-rain, but light-flooding, event. That, even once levees began to breach in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward and Lakeview, this eldest area of the city would endure. The power failed early on but Mikey figured, as many of the Quarter ride-outs figured early on, he’d just have to spend a day or so running his fridge off a generator, drinking bottles of Kentwood water, and sweating, definitely sweating, but sitting atop enough food and supplies to be more than fine for the most part.
And such was the case for all four of them, hibernating in self-sustaining lairs, similarly situated but still unknown to one another. But there’s more to life than food, water, shelter. A hundred-handful of Quarter others had also remained, and while the lushes and übereccentrics and ferals were overrepresented and as nettling as ever, I suppose it says something about humans that with no TV, Internet, or consistent radio only a reclusive few of us can shut ourselves off from gossip and colloquy for any significant stretch.
Which explains why, very soon, once that strong rain and strong wind quit on Monday and hoary, anemic skies arrived, Mikey was outside roaming the streets of a New Orleans without tourists. Yelling up at a chinless, mayonnaise-legged, bathrobed patrician wanting to chat with him from a dripping balcony. Hearing this rumor and that rumor from a paint-flecked artist-tramp wobbling along beside him on a corroded bicycle. Haggling with gutter-punk Nomad for a jerry can of Marigny-siphoned gas to feed that four-stroke Honda generator—Mikey now concerned about petrol because, as he was slowly but steadily ascertaining, things elsewhere in the city were much, much worse than he had thought. Days might be weeks.
Plenty has already been reported and written about Johnny White’s, the twenty-four-hour Bourbon Street trough that stayed open all through Katrina and her aftermath. And because when Mikey drank he preferred not to be in an empty, stifling apartment, he passed his share of aft-storm time in Johnny White’s as well. And it was there, on Katrina Wednesday, enjoying ice-cooler-cold beer by candlelight, that a stocky, flat-topped carpenter with hands like mallets slid onto the stool next to his. Though the man looked familiar, Mikey didn’t know him—but as in the auld lang syne, when there were no e-leashes to stare at, and still the occasional saloon that didn’t have a television, they got to talking.
Mikey’s vague answer for normals and the IRS as to what he did for a living was “property management”—
Cf. “Obituary: Carlos Marcello, 83, Reputed Crime Boss In New Orleans Area,” New York Times, Mar. 3, 1994. (“By the 1950s and ’60s, the police and national publications were calling him the head of organized crime in Louisiana and along the Gulf Coast, although he always insisted he was just a tomato salesman.”)
—and though I’m sure “property management” is an honorable profession for many, Wes Locatelli was perceptive enough to suspect, appropriately enough, monkey business. Or maybe he had heard of Mikey “Monkey” Zak. None of the Lonely Fools (not Wes, not Edmund, not Hank) would ever ask Mikey much about his work beyond the most elementary of questions. (Unlike, later, Susannah. Susannah wasn’t shy.) And because they weren’t honest-to-God fools, or lacked curiosity in general, to Future Mikey that would suggest they had a grasp of the basic score.
Anyway, that Wednesday, Mikey drinking beside Wes. Day Three, poststorm. Air Force One does a flyover. Eighty-five percent of the city is flooded (nearly 10 percent of the Quarter, even). Cell service wonky, of course, but back at the loft, with an assist from a borrowed satphone, Wes had gotten through to Roxanne. Had learned that a homeowner association in Bossier City was accusing their second-grader (!) of bobsledding a zero-turn mower into a retention pond.
“Wesley the friggin’ hellion,” Wes was saying now, “so that’s one more thing”—when there was a commotion out on Bourbon. Escalating voices, two people motherfucking each other at dusk. Something to see, so Mikey and Wes went to go see. And there, another familiar-faced stranger. Trilby Hank. He was standing in the middle of the darkening street in one of his darker suits, hollering at a sawed-off Yat in a Saints jersey. They’d been gabbing about happenings in the convention center and the Superdome, the Lower Nine, and the Yat was of the opinion, brah, that the wet-city hordes would be coming to loot and burn. That, be ready, we about to find ourselves on the wrong side of a war been a long time coming . . . but my Glock be waiting, ya heard?
(“Yat,” Reader, as in a native speaker of the celebrated Yat dialect of many New Orleans working-class whites. And while that selfsame diction, syntax, and accent could certainly be detected in the speech of Mikey and Wes—and even, slightly, in that of African American transplant Hank Robertson and crisp stockbroker Edmund Gremillion—a distinction is being made here because with some, as with this Saints zealot, the Yat talk, and walk, is “Who dat?” supercharged. For the uninitiated, a line from A Confederacy of Dunces: “Mrs. Reilly called in that accent that occurs south of New Jersey only in New Orleans, that Hoboken near the Gulf of Mexico.” Or, decades previous, this quote from William S. Burroughs: “The New Orleans accent is exactly similar to the accent of Brooklyn.”)
And though the Yat was voicing a possibility all of them, including Hank, had been contemplating, hearing those fears out loud meant hearing how they sounded. The us-against-them of them. Hard not to be feeling some survivor’s guilt. Hard not to be feeling as if they should be rushing toward the unlucky neighborhoods, trying to save lives (or trying, at least, to spread a dab of good). But then, from a barstool, some inebriated vet or other expert on crises and natural disasters would argue the best thing was to stay out of the way and let the cops and firefighters and military and what-all first responders and soldier-of-fortune security contractors do their jobs—and one by one all would nod at the practical wisdom of that.
Yes, obviously, the right and proper thing was to sit there drinking in stoic camaraderie, Quarter folk looking out for Quarter folk and beating the laissez les bons temps rouler hurricane party drum.
But the Yat was no artful debater, and a heavy reliance on words such as thugs and bangers and simply dey and dem had Hank seething. The Yat upping the ante with “fuckin’ savages,” which led to Hank woodpeckering an index finger betwixt the gold 5 and 7 on the Yat’s Rickey Jackson throwback. And sawed-off or not, once you put your hands on a drunk Yat, well, he might do anything—this one entering into a weird, arm-swinging, figure eight of a capoeira dance, then hurling himself at skinny Hank like an Acadiana gamecock. They clenched and went to the ground.
On any other August 31st this would have been excellent entertainment for the crew at Johnny White’s, and after a measured-in-seconds spell of uninspired grappling, NOPD gendarmes would push through a throng of whoopers to separate and cuff exhausted, Bourbon-grimed combatants now destined to wear orange togs in central lockup, peeling at Saran-wrapped bologna sandwiches while they waited for their arraignments. But on that night? No whooping throng. Just Mikey and Wes and a dozen other hushed Johnny White’s patrons. And as for NOPD, even if there had been any prowling nearabout, they had bigger wrongs to right in the new Atlantis. You can forget about any cheering, or cheer even, because watching the scrawny black man in the black suit and the short white man in the white Saints jersey roll around and growl wasn’t doing anything but making everyone sad. The grand Quarter-as-cooperative experiment was already in peril.
Not that Mikey et al. were willing to get their hands dirty and intervene. Often as not, breaking up a fight means enrolling in that fight, and since it seemed unlikely these evenly matched warriors would to do any real harm to one another, Mikey was content to head inside and reclaim his spot at the bar.
Or that’s where Mikey was angling when he heard the telltale clattering clack of hard plastic hitting hard asphalt. No cops around but a cop-popular heater, the vaunted Glock 22 itself, once shrouded by that blouse of a Saints jersey but now lying beside H. T. Robertson and the beta (and honky) Rickey Jackson. Hank had the Yat’s left arm cricked in a sort of chicken-wing hold, but the Yat was reaching out with his right, trying to get at the pistol and turn a mild playground wrangle into at least a picayune Times-Picayune footnote for that day of woe. And though, in his defense, despite bragging about the precious Glock in an abstract way, the Yat hadn’t done a quick draw to open things, appearances implied he was done fighting fair. So, for maybe the first time, but only because to pick up that Glock before the Yat did seemed sage, the sole way to guarantee Mikey wouldn’t be catching a .40-cal. round to the heel during some prying-fingers-from-the-trigger struggle, Mikey stepped forward when everyone else stepped back.
And there was Mikey, figuring he now had to call it a night—the .38 at the apartment, concealed-carry permits being meaningless in bars (a law that, like most laws Mikey deemed to be in his own best interest, he obeyed . . . even Katrina wouldn’t change that)—but walking off with a gently used Glock in recompense, knowing there was street money to be had for a throwaway piece of such rank, when he heard another telltale reverberation. Onomatopoeia again. The meat-hitting-bone Bam! of a fist to the jaw. Apparently the Yat had un-chicken-winged himself from Hank and started coming for Mikey in a silent charge. And since Mikey’s new shirtless-under-overalls chum Wes Locatelli didn’t want to risk stopping a stray shot with his Achilles, or elsewhere, any more than Mikey did, Wes had gone ahead and ambushed Mikey’s would-be assailant before there was any Yat-on-the-back silliness.
Mikey spun around. The Yat had taken what had sounded like a stone-crusher of a punch amazingly well, only went to one knee, hand to chin like the thinking man cast by Rodin. “Brah, just give me my Glock,” he was saying. “That’s mine.” And since the fight seemed to be out of him, and because otherwise the Yat would probably still be there today on the seven hundredth block of Bourbon, ranting and raving from St. Peter Street to Orleans Street about weapon theft and race relations, Mikey went ahead and skated the magazine into a burbling storm drain, jetsam detritus for Mistress Katrina, then laid Glock at Yat feet. No bullet had been chambered, so in the end Hank had perhaps been more in jeopardy of being pistol-whipped than shot—and the last any of them ever saw of the Yat he was corkscrewing his way down Bourbon, into the shadows with the empty cop gun holstered, jersey bloodied as if he were two sacks and ten tackles into a slobberknocker with the Falcons, off to the locker room and in need of a brain scan. No 911 calls, no sirens, no police, no nothing. One of the most famous streets in the world was now largely boarded up and all but deserted.
Fast-forward fifteen minutes. Full dark, the Yat gone. All safe and joyous again in candlelit Johnny White’s. After closer review, perchance this social experiment was on the right track. Justice had been meted out. Order had been restored. And Mikey and Wes were feeling especially good about themselves. Wes, especially, especially—being long past the age when a person can punch another person, deservedly or undeservedly, and not expect consequences and court dates to rain down. Wes couldn’t stop grinning. He was a brawling Wank teenager anew, feeling the Axl and Slash, pre-Nirvana days when those Thor mitts wreaked havoc in Solo-cup-strewn lawns all across Westwego and Harvey and Gretna.
And Mikey was telling Wes if that punch was indeed “it” for him, his last real session of best-a-Yat violence, then in Mikey’s biased and appreciative estimation he had gone out on a great note. So yes, all was secure and jolly in Johnny White’s as the city around them drowned. Even Hank, the rawboned Spartan in the ruined suit, was one elbow on the bar with a Scotch neat, hand-painted tie loosened like Kid Denzel Sinatra as he tipped his street-dented trilby and thanked them for meddling once a gun got dropped into the mix. Hank pleased enough to have had something like a Neal Cassady, Dean Moriarty moment to not care, all that much, that he’d been less than triumphant even before that clack on the asphalt sent Mikey into gallant motion. The three of them were swapping turns buying, bathed in flickering and buttery light, the conversation and laughs coming easy, and by and by a tall guy dressed in what looked to be saltwater fishing apparel from Orvis or Puglia’s asked if he might join them. Just one more example of that communal vibe I was speaking of before.
The man in quick-dry, wicking pastels was, of course, Edmund Gremillion. He’d missed the earlier excitement. Had only sauntered down to Johnny White’s seeking, like all of them, a little fellowship and any intel that might have filtered down from the frontlines—and presto, one stool over, the lone free seat left in the place.
“Sure,” said Wes. “Take a load off, Annie.”
“Fanny,” said Hank.
And forthwith, because Wes was still thumping with testosterone, he couldn’t resist busting this rich fop’s balls further, unaware that in due course they would be fast friends and even business partners: “Land any tarpon, cap?”
They were so young then! Wes kicked the vacant barstool, yukking affably, and Edmund sat, tossed his shuck of bangs, smiled. “Tarpon? Nice overalls. How’s the coon hunting?”
“Uh-oh,” said Hank. “Careful. Coon meaning raccoons?”
Edmund twirled a finger. “Raccoons indeed, sir. Sharp chapeau. Meyer the Hatter?”
“Oui, monsieur. Oui.”
They looked at Mikey. He wearing what he almost always wore: faded blue jeans and ratty, three-eyelet Sperrys; a plain T-shirt or, as in New Madrid, a short-sleeved button-down with not-observed-in-nature floral patterns. And perhaps, though probably not on that steamy evening, a brown-leather, artifact-from-the-seventies racer jacket he had salvaged from an abandoned house before burning the place to the ground (thereby concluding his management of that property). Mikey’s first and only foray into arson, and somewhere in the top five worst things he had ever done. No one got hurt but Allstate, and no one but Allstate was supposed to get hurt. But still. Flames licking skyward from a big camelback shotgun on a blighted Bywater corner. Memories of his traumatized and pyrophobic father. Of Lino smirking about Jewish lightning. Mikey had nightmares for weeks about some imaginary, hide-and-seek kid he’d somehow missed. A child cowering in a closet, smoke sliding under the door.
“Bring it on,” said Mikey. “The old Cat Stevens?”
“Can’t see that,” said Wes.
Hank shook his head. “Frank Serpico, more like.”
“I’m Edmund,” said Edmund, and the four got acquainted. Stockbroker, writer, carpenter, property manager. But Edmund wasn’t just there for companionship and tittle-tattle, actually. “So,” he said, “the thaw wars. You gents know anything about generators? I can pay, of course. Or wine and dine, at a minimum.”
And that is the why of why, with nothing better to do, their party of four trekked from Johnny White’s to Edmund’s condo on St. Philip. Wes on one side of a balcony, turning wrenches; Edmund on the other, grilling last year’s Folsom-shot dove over charwood. Mikey and Hank (the once-meteoric, cub-lion novelist Mikey would later cuckold) between them—talking about the memoir Hank was, now, absolutely planning to write. The memoir that soon, sure enough, Hank would in fact write, devoting several pages of A Boy Never Wept to portraying that Bourbon fight as a much more enthralling episode than it had been in the real . . . in a chapter in which Edmund and Wes would be introduced by name . . . in a book that Mikey “Monkey” Zak, as a result of sitting Hank down one day to make a delicate but insistent request, would never be mentioned even by alias or pseudonym . . . Mikey erased from moment after moment in which he had been present . . . many of his deeds, actions, and commentary integrated into the A Boy Never Wept “character” of Wes Locatelli.
But for now Mikey was only half listening—instead standing there during a catastrophe and smelling bacon-wrapped dove breasts, drinking pinot and still existing, not yet erased, pondering when he would be returned to air-conditioned regularity.
Which is to say (and as he would admit): if Mikey was selfish and self-centered at forty, hell, you should have seen him at thirty.
They were on their second microcourtyard progression of what Edmund insisted on plurally referring to—incorrectly, Hank kept telling him—as gins and tonic when a triangle-shaped face appeared in the porthole window cut into the back door of Hank’s apartment.
Tuyen Phan. MFA student, home wrecker, ghost-tour shepherdess. She had been tucked away in the bedroom, Mikey realized, hidden like a twenty-six-year-old version of that Bywater scamp he’d immolated in a hundred nightmares.
Mikey had met her already, had happened upon Hank and Tuyen that very morning—the two of them strolling across Jackson Square after eating beignets at Du Monde. A hackneyed rom-com take on the Big Easy, just begging for work-from-home Susannah to happen upon them as well. And the six-year-old he-twins too, for that matter. (Rubbing Clark and Clark-Robertson noses in the powdered sugar on Tuyen’s pert chin, basically.) But until now Tuyen Phan had just been a name to Edmund and Wes, so engaged in side-hustle shoptalk, earlier, about: (1) their newly formed LLC; (2) the flipping of real estate; and (3) a condemned Algiers bar . . . Edmund as purchaser, Wes as renovator . . . that Mikey hadn’t had the chance to gleefully describe all her bizarro glory to them from behind the indigo-suited back of their host.
Edmund’s brow furrowed. “Wait. That’s her? She’s white?”
“Christ,” said Wes—who, though forty-five and still flat-topped (and now modeling, like Mikey, his oxford, blue-blazer, and blue-jeans best), was an aficionado of heavy metal and evidently, to some extent, third-wave feminist punk. “She’s a damn riot grrrl.”
True enough. A white girl with longish jagged black hair streaked with pink, much of the right side of her head shaved down to her natural-blond prickles so as to flaunt a full-scale tattoo, seen that morning by Mikey but not yet within view of the others, of a curled shrimp done in Mardi Gras dyes. A good-sized shrimp. Sixteen to twenty count, Mikey reckoned. The girl had a boyish body but pale, dollish features. That triangular face with eyes like a tragic kitten. Earlier she’d been wearing a plaid dress—but now, staring at them through the round window, just a comely, if dystopian, visage.
Hank lifted his trilby and beckoned her. Poof, she disappeared.
“Later on,” said Mikey.
“Shoot,” said Hank. “She must be writing.”
“Writing what? Potions?” Wes stirred at a pretend cauldron. “Feels like haint just passed through me.”
“We’re doing a screenplay together. Man, I done gone over this.”
“No,” said Edmund—bow-tied, thrilled, and already on record that self-respecting couples have affairs, not “open” anything. “You done not.”
Hank looked up from the sheet-score clefs and notes boogying on his own silky (but Windsored) tie. “Well, we are. And I apologize, but Tuyen can be intro with strangers.”
“Intro?” Mikey asked.
A peculiar quality, Mikey thought, for a gal who, even with the recent arrival of rich (boyfriend?) Hank, screamed goblin stories at rum-swilling tourists for her income. But, indeed, she hadn’t said three words to Mikey in the square.
“Xin chào,” she had said.
“Hola,” he had said.
Mikey leaned back in his chair, ready to enjoy the coming interrogation but also wondering whether he shouldn’t be pulling for Tuyen to eventually win across-the-board acceptance and approval. Whether, in his perfect world, she’d be in Hank’s life to stay.
Then Hank, lest the others think this screenplay business was a fifty-fifty effort between artistic equals, began to elaborate. “The plot’s all mine,” he said. “But film, telling stories visually, is a new medium for me. So Tuyen’s right there to help with the formatting and such. There’s special screenwriting software, for one, and, you know, other things most prose writers don’t have much experience with, and—”
“Cut,” said Edmund. “You told us she was Vietnamese.”
“I told you her name was Vietnamese.” Hank had switched to his dad voice—the tone both patronizing and scolding. “She was adopted. People of color are allowed to adopt white children, believe it or not.”
None of them said anything for a moment. But then, Wes: “No, they aren’t.”
“Never seen it. Where was this? Canada?”
Hank stopped feigning aggravation. “She’s a unicorn,” he conceded. He turned to Mikey now, and like every time Hank focused on him, Mikey partly expected to be asked how it felt to fuck another man’s wife. “A unicorn, I should add, who had me promise to put her in touch with you.”
“Let’s rap later. After dinner.”
Edmund huffed. “More secrets. He means once you and I are gone, Wes.”
“Yup,” said Wes. “Rude.”
Here it is, Mikey decided. The girl with the shrimp tattoo was a violation of some small-print open-separation prohibition against May–December romances, and Susannah, learning of this infraction, had launched the warhead she’d been hiding from Hank ever since that Friday, three years back . . . self-employed Susannah flying solo at Jazz Fest 2012 . . . Hank at home, parenting . . . Mommy’s day off . . . Susannah smiling tipsily as she spots Mikey up by the Congo Square Stage . . . a tallboy raised liberty-torch high in her hands . . . Susannah nudging her way his way through a crowd gathered to hear Ziggy Marley . . . then pressing herself to Mikey when she sees he is alone too . . . her sticky knee between his own sticky knees . . . her beery lips at his ear . . . the music so loud, so loud . . . “Is This Love,” the son covering the dead father à la Mikey with Reuben . . . Susannah saying, I’ve noticed how you look at me . . . Dance, Mikey, dance.
Or had she said Monkey? Regardless, he came back at Susannah in kind—ultimately taking her for a dicey motorcycle ride that would precurse rough, up-against-the-bricks sex in the mildewed passageway to his apartment.
2015 Susannah to 2015 Hank: Chew on that while your film minx is outgrowing ya, my hubby.
So, bombs away. DEFCON 1 initiated all because Hank had gone wild this year. And in this Tuyen-intensified state of apprehension concerning his Susannah liaison (yet, oddly, zero guilt still) Mikey couldn’t bear the thought of suffering through dinner on edge, waiting for the “later” when Hank would take a limp swing at him, and/or demand he confess his sins, and/or call him a scumbag sociopath, and/or whatever else Hank planned on doing once they were alone together.
Mikey sighed. Time, finally, as Bob Marley wrote and Ziggy Marley sang, to throw his cards on the table. “No,” he said to Hank. “Now’s fine.”
“What’s this about?”
Hank shrugged. “Okay. You collect the rent from that fish market on Rampart, don’t you? This hits on what you do for a living. People you could know.”
Another slight sigh, but one of relief. Not that Mikey would permit this to become an interview—name any names that mattered, etc.—but going down this road with Hank for a few more steps was certainly better than the path Mikey thought they might be taking.
Edmund rubbed his long hands together. “Fantastic. I may have inquiries myself. Wes?”
“Not me.” Wes covered his ears. “Locatelli was never here.”
“Go ahead, Hank.”
“Have you heard of Mancuso Seafood?”
“And some things on the Northshore.”
“I’ve heard of them.”
Hank nodded. “Well, Tuyen’s family, her Vietnamese American family, they’re shrimpers. And I guess her brother had a falling out with the Mancusos. A misunderstanding she was hoping you might be able to smooth, you know, in the off chance you and the Mancusos had friends in common or you—”
“Cut,” said Wes. “She was adopted by boat people?”
Edmund laughed. “Now I’m with Wes. Impossible.”
But Mikey wasn’t laughing. “Let me ask this, Hank—you been telling your girl about me?”
Which, as a thing to say, sort of quieted the courtyard.
“Man, only for my movie,” said Hank. “But it’s set fifty years in the future. A destroyed New Orleans. Anarchy. Interesting peeps of various stripes. Resourceful peeps. So you aren’t a character or anything, Mikey—but yes, there is a character, a character who very quickly became very, very different from you, but who, in the beginning, yes, was nonetheless inspired quite a lot by you. As a starting-off point in the creation process, I mean. So okay, yes, mea culpa. Maybe in spitballing with Tuyen I did say more about you, the actual you, than I should have.”
“Because you’re in love with her.” Wes lifted his glass, clearing the air with a grin. “May their first child be a masculine child.”
Hank reached over and put a slender arm around Mikey’s shoulder. His breath was cold, smelled like juniper berries and lime. “So would it be copacetic if she called you? I am sorry—but, honestly, I couldn’t have told her much, am I wrong? I think we can all agree you’ve never shared a lot there.”
Edmund nodded in solemn solidarity. “Agreed.”
(And Wes, Wes was being Wes, not letting it go, muttering, Get real, no US of A adoption agency would give a white baby to Asian shrimpers.)
Mikey, though, had tuned out. Hank wasn’t wrong. They hardly knew shit about him as a pseudo-“mob associate.” Mikey had always made sure of that. So this seemed harmless enough. No serious breach of confidence or trust. (Not that Mikey was one to chuck stones—i.e., Susannah.) So yes, sitting there, Mikey wasn’t feeling peeved anymore. He had no right.
Instead, Mikey was feeling surprisingly flattered. Flattered that Hank saw him as resourceful. Of the type who might still be standing during the toxic end of days, when a talent for getting by and surviving would become the most important skill set to have.
Purely hypothetically: Under apocalyptic circumstances, even if just a fiction, what more could Susannah want in a man?