New Orleans is a city of dead lights. The glow emanates from keyhole windows in the skulls of shotgun houses, hangs dreary over the streets in the oppressive musk of evening.
Sara coughs, like static on radio.
Inside the houses, she says, no one is there.
The cherries of our cigarettes pulse like exit signs outside the front door, drive away flies. Inside, through the glass panes in the painted wood, TV mellows the porch, a sick manifestation of white light. It’s playing, between commercials for auto insurance and breakfast cereals, a reality show filmed at some drug rehab facility. Sara gazes at it uncomfortably then looks away.
Please, she says, her eyes assuming the very real ambiance of a pleading child. I really need this.
Inside the apartment, past the built-in bookshelves overflowing with paperbacks of Burroughs and Leary, scattered pens, translations of the Pali Canon, absinthe glasses still ringed with sick green, a hookah, a postal scale, past the old records labeled Millions of Dead Cops falling against a Mayan calendar round, our child sleeps on a small mattress on the floor – eyes twitching in delta sleep under the humming fluorescent of a fish tank, right hand drifting near her face with a wet thumb stuck out.
I don’t want to do it. I hate the interstate. And Janie’s asleep.
The shallow discoloration under Sara’s eyes is consumed in street shadows as her cigarette burns lower. For a second I imagine her skin has become yellow, jaundiced the way the face of my dead aunt looked before the coroners zipped closed the body bag – giving the lost child look again, coupled with a mischievous, hinting smile.
B will sell me a gram for 50. You know that normally costs a bill.
Yeah, I know what it costs. But why can’t we just stay at home, turn down the lights… be ordinary people.
I’ll share it with you, she entreaties. We could be home in 40 minutes.
God, I feel so disconnected. I just want you; you know that? I don’t want to drive anywhere.
Once we get home, she says, I’ll give you anything you want.
The truck takes 5 minutes to start without killing, shuddering its low, hacking growl then coming to life, and our child wakes drowsy from a dead sleep. We creep past the cemetery’s chain-link fence; shadows slant across the windshield like criminals, the shine of headlights on mausoleums.
When you died, whispers Sara, I didn’t know what I’d do.
The street signs have been twisted into the wrong directions – bent from some collision – but I know the way.
The doctors told me you would never be able to remember anything again. Never be able to remember my name –
I had lost oxygen flow to my brain for seven minutes, I tell her. My knuckles tighten on the wheel.
Until they restarted your heart. With the norepinephrine shot, or whatever it was called. You had started to turn yellow.
Like my aunt.
And purple. You looked so different. It was as if you weren’t even there anymore –
I break at the stop sign on Fern Street for a passing car that has no right to share our world.
And so you can’t really blame me for not telling you I was using. I was so scared you wouldn’t come back a second time …
Our child stirs in her seat and asks for juice. I cast a free hand around the cab feeling for it, and say
Do you know what I saw? When I died? It was like everything started to fall away, like pixels on a screen – one at a time. I was receding from the world, the sweat tinged mattress and off-white walls. Then I felt hands grabbing me, and looked down –
Maybe. But the way I saw it, then, the hands belonged to a crowd of midgets, lifting me over their heads, and carrying me out into the street, down the sidewalk and down inside of this gaping, rusted drainage pipe. As I’m being pushed inside the pipe, I realize there’s shit everywhere; it’s a sewer – the sewer is a microcosm of this life, this earth – I can smell it close around me; I’m choking on it, struck by waves of nausea. And, down at the end of the shit pipe, in the distance, I can clearly see a pure white light. Radiant, intense. I am getting close to it. The light could have made me, made everything, disappear. I was close to reaching it, I think, when they gave me the shot.
In front of us the on-ramp to interstate I-10 is ominous, calling. The radio is broken and is vacillating between classic rock and talk radio through epileptic fits of static.
There was blood everywhere, Sara whispers.
The interstate crescendos to a built up overpass; we reach its peak, my engine guttural, struggling, and clear the slope. Below, we can see the lights of homes and businesses in New Orleans East, spreading out before us in a sprawl of happenstance – still patchy and half deserted from the Hurricane that wiped clear and rotted our memories – heartbreaking lights, jaundiced yellow, encapsulated in the bleak body bag of night. I think of cops waiting to snare us, a fatal accident on the concrete edge of the elevated highway.
In the seat between us, Janie opens her eyes, and asks
Daddy, where are we going?
I don’t know.
I just need one last fix, admits Sara. I’m going to quit, like you did four years ago, when you went to that rehab.
I notice, again, the shadows under her eyes. It’s like the eyes are dying fluorescents, flickering, moments from burning their filaments and going out.
This time things are really, really going to be alright, she says. I know it –