Posts Tagged ‘New Orleans’

Read in Tooth and Claw…

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I watched a toad being eaten alive by a snake in the swamps of New Orleans a few years ago.  It was such a forgotten moment, it only came back to me just now – I don’t know why, no reason, it just did.

I was taking a leak in the swamp as my friends walked ahead of me. I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I made my excuses and asked them to walk on while I stopped to relieve myself. There’s no greater pleasure in life than being busting for a piss and suddenly getting the chance to go, so I let loose the juice and rolled my eyeballs up to the sky in pleasured satisfaction.

Half way though, I looked down to see where my streak of piss was falling and I saw the drama unfolding. Toad half caught in the snake’s mouth, slowly being digested. My streak of piss was hitting the snake on the forehead and he wasn’t best pleased about it, but the toad was looking up at me with hopeful eyes that I was suddenly giving him an unexpected ‘get out clause’.  The whole thing was such a moment of nature that I’d stumbled upon, something that happens a billion times every day, all across the world in all species on our planet – except for humans, because ‘Survival of the Fittest’ – (thank god) doesn’t apply to us for some reason, otherwise I’d be screwed.

So I was watching this kill, trying to aim my piss streak away from  the snake and the toad now I’d become aware of their struggle, not wishing to play God to either.  The snake was gumming down on the toad, no teeth, no instant kill, just a slow and implacable swallow. The toad was screeching out with each gulp of the snake’s jaws each time the pressure hit its stomach, a high-pitched and involuntary squeak like one of those rubber toys a dog bites.

I continued to relieve myself against the mangrove tree, breathing in the evening air heavy with scent. Should I have stopped this secret murder? I had the power to play God and fix the odds in this unseen moment. But I reminded myself that either way I’d have been interfering with nature’s order. I’m not sure who I even wanted to win anyway. So I zipped up my pants and walked on, the sound of the toad’s gurgling matched to the guzzling gulps of the snake getting ever softer, echoing against the tree bark.

At the limit of my hearing as I reached my friends I heard what sounded like a snake coughing.  Maybe it had worked out for the toad after all?

Who knows? I never read the result in the papers…

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Going Down in the Drinks Elevator

 

21:43. A Thursday two weeks after Mardi Gras. Decatur Street. French Quarter, New Orleans. Present Day.

With the job gone everything else had followed with a certain inevitability, like a Louisiana mudslide gathering speed and swallowing everything in its shit-coloured path. To Saul Barstow it had seemed more like a car crash in slow motion only he’d long ago taken his hands off the steering wheel and petulantly folded his arms in defiance to the gods. When the impact of how he’d been living finally crashed home, Saul found himself without an airbag or insurance.

In the days that had followed him walking out on his job he’d initially felt a certain rush of freedom, but this was soon replaced by a lethargy. He told people who asked him, less and less now, that his get-up-and-go had got-up-and-left and he couldn’t be bothered to go look for it. Despite the absolute freedom that came from being answerable to no one he found he still needed a routine. But after the first year even maintaining that came to feel like a job. It was so boring buying the same old things each day, milk, bread, something for dinner, it became like a treadmill. Do the washing up, just more to do tomorrow, have a shave, the stubble always grew back. The absolute futility of it all! Why did it always end in lost these days, never found?

So he just stopped. He stopped looking, he stopped it all.

Only there was one thing he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop…

‘Hit me up again, barman, the booze is flowing like molasses round here…’

It was round this time he discovered The Drinks Elevator. It was usually to be found in the Apple Barrel, a bar half way down Decatur street, but these days he could mostly find it anywhere. He didn’t have long tonight, he had something to deliver. He picked up the massive rucksack and slung it on his back. He hated it, stuffed full as it was with unpaid bills, unfulfilled dreams and the general detritus of life washing round in a stagnant harbor like so much fetid flotsam. How much heavier the backpack felt when he thought of it in those terms. He became Bunyan’s Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, but his only progress recently had been paying off his outstanding tab at the local liquor store. The nylon straps on the rucksack had become twisted and now cut into his shoulders as he prepared to leave the apartment. Hang it all he needed a drink! Now the weight was on his back again, he knew it’d be a miracle if he could remove it without one.

‘Fuck it. I’ll treat myself to the elevator. It’s a smoother ride and I deserve it today.’

Miracles are to be found in the little things he told himself as he tied the laces on his pumps. They don’t have to be thunderbolts or old men parting the sea with heavy stone tablets. Miracles happened everyday if we could only stop to look, but most of us were too busy or self-absorbed to ever notice. This thought always made him feel glad he was without gainful employ. He had the time to stop and look and catch a glimpse of the divine plan in the overlooked cracks. He recalled an incident from his childhood growing up on his parents homestead in the Ozark mountains, a frog was being eaten by a snake. He’d been darkly fascinated, unable to look away like the urge to rubberneck a car-crash, not really wanting to see the smashed bodies but transfixed all the same. It hadn’t been a fair contest, the snake had the frog bang to rights clamped between its reticulated jaws, and was slowly digesting it. The frog was reversing down the snake’s throat and each time it squeezed on the frog’s belly the amphibian let out a squeak much like a dog’s chew toy, getting more desperate with each life-draining squeeze. It wouldn’t be long now. The meal was taking place in the long grass at the back of the homestead, no-one else on earth was supposed to see this. Then for no reason the snake seemed to sneeze and let the frog go. The frog kissed its teeth to the snake and hopped off towards the mangrove swamp. A miracle for the frog, but of no real importance in the scheme of things, but a miracle nontheless. This was how he viewed the Drinks Elevator, it was his own little miraculous secret, his second chance away from the serpent’s jaw.

He walked towards the Art Deco elevator admiring as he always did the ornate doors. His phone began to ring, he didn’t need to look at the screen: whoever it was he didn’t want to speak to them, not now he had set his mind to the wheel. He pressed the button to call the lift, there was only a down button, there only ever had been a down button. With a groan of cables and badly oiled cogs the lift gently rose to meet him.

Inside, the attendant reached eye-level with him, touching his cap in respect and resplendent in his neatly pressed shirt and collar with jacket buttons so polished that Saul paused to check he hadn’t left any turkey sandwich between his teeth in their reflection.

‘Good afternoon, sir. A little early today aren’t we?’

Saul swung the backpack as he got in, intentionally hitting the man for not minding his own business.

Going down I assume sir?’ said the attendant, pulling shut the grayling. The interior was spotlessly clean, with paintings of great historic battles on each side surrounding a central relief of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

The elevator descended to the next floor and came to rest with an almost imperceivable bump. Through the grail Saul could see his ex-work colleagues busying themselves in what looked like a hotel banqueting suite. He could hear the chink of crystal glass and the deep murmur of convivial bullshittery. He didn’t usually bother getting off at this floor anymore, finding it far too formal, but he managed to swipe a large glass of white wine from a passing waiter without even having to step fully out of the elevator. The lounge speakers droned out a Burt Bacharach beat and the whole thing just screamed flakiness at him from his vantage point safe inside the cage. Those that were dancing did so in nervous jittery movements like the spasms of shot deer, all the while trying to hold on to their drinks and the next conversation, never really listening, using the time the other person was speaking to think about what they were going to say next. Saul didn’t feel up to mingling with any of them and instructed the elevator attendant to speed on down to the next level, resisting the urge to go straight to the basement, knowing that may well come in time.

As they rattled down to the next level the light became softer and the music more relaxed. Saul visibly exhaled with relief as he saw three of his acquaintances leaning against the bar. He exited the elevator and headed over to the polished wooden counter. He hadn’t seen any of them in a while and quickly fell into an easy conversation once the ice had been broken with a few swift shooters of Jameson’s. At the appointed time he returned to the elevator with a spring in his step, bouncing into the carriage so that the floor yawned on the metal cables.

The attendant was leaning against the picture of Venus, collar undone and buttons seeming a little less reflective.

‘Feeling a little better sir?’

‘Jack, I’m feeling a million dollars. Take me down to the third floor immediately.’

Saul took his phone from his inside pocket and rested it on the horizontal metal bar of the lift. He reached his left hand out to the room in front of the lens as if trying to grab all his friends and everything else in that moment, freezing time.

‘Good luck to you, sir’.

‘Luck’s just the door, you got to come in through the window.’

‘Well said, sir’, the attendant seemed to hiccup as the last syllable trailed off into a burp.

Saul felt like he was flipping a silver dollar whilst having his spats cleaned on the corner of Chartres Street as he’d seen his father do when they used to go to the races on a Saturday morning. Saul’s phone started ringing again, only this time faint from inside his pocket like an embarrassed cough, inconsequential, the signal fading as the lift descended.

Saul had become talkative and barrel-chested. ‘I’m like a stereo see? And the booze and the drugs are like my graphic equalizers, I adjust them up and down, trying to find the perfect alchemy of buzz with which to get stuck in to the action.’

The attendant moved Saul’s jacket out of the way of the closing doors. He flipped down the pulley lever and the elevator once more began its descent.

Saul heard the musical baseline before he could see his friends dancing in the dimly lit club. Green and blue strobes shone through the elevator door to cast strange shadows over his face. The air was thick with weed and tobacco.  Fairground music and gunshots.

Saul ordered up another round of shots and tried to dance. He almost convinced himself he was having a good time, but something felt missing. The more he tried to hoof it, the emptier he felt. Instead of feeling loose he began to feel a pitching queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He looked up at his friends who were gurning up at the strobe lights. How could he be feeling so separate right now? He could feel the hot salty lava building in his osophegus burning its way up, hellbent on an eruption. No, what was this bullshit? It was far too early! He hadn’t even drunk that much as far as he could remember. He tried to tell his friends that he was feeling a little off colour but they just seemed to look straight through him lost in their private dancing, only wanting to know about the next round of drinks and happy stories. Saul knocked back a large one for the road then on the excuse of finding the rest room he instead found the elevator. The attendant seemed surprised to see him back so soon.

‘Everything alright sir?’

‘Take me down Jack, life should be lived on the knife’s edge but I’m feeling as soft as rancid butter all of a sudden.’

‘Perhaps you should slow down a little sir? Take some water on board perhaps?’

Saul waved him away with his hand.

‘Fuck it. Don’t tell me my business. You’ve been doing it all evening. What are you, my wife now?’

The attendant didn’t answer. He simply closed the sliding door and yanked on the down lever. With his back turned to him, Saul couldn’t see the sly smile on the increasingly aging face of the elevator attendant. Saul was looking into the reflective glass of the elevator doors. Not for the first time he didn’t recognise his own reflection. He stared into the bloodshot eyes and didn’t get any flash of self. How he imagined himself to look in his mind’s eye was at total odds with the reality now presenting itself. When did he get so old? Some haggard version of his father looked back through the frosted glass as the outside neon lamps streaked past as the elevator fell further.

His heart always skipped a beat as he approached the fourth floor and saw the orange sunset strike him in the ankles like a welcoming searchlight through the slats of the elevator door, gradually ascending to his thighs, then his chest and face as it reached level. He saw her silhouetted against the sun coming through the roof-terrace, vines thick with succulent grapes and her looking like the most succulent of all fruits. Saul’s feet left behind the sticky metal floor and touched pampas grass. The Mexican evening felt hot on his bald patch as he walked towards her. He was suddenly overcome by nerves, he hadn’t planned on stepping off at level four tonight, he’d felt too self-conscious and worthless to delve into this memory, and yet, here he was, walking towards her, the sound of the ciccadas mixing in his ears with his own pumping heart, but as he got closer he fancied it was actually the croaking of frogs.

She was pouring some of the new season olive oil onto an end crust of the morning’s bread now hardened in the dusk. Her usually jet black hair had found the heart to melt to a russet in the strong sunset. He walked across the veranda and pulled back a metal chair making it grate on the dirt floor.  He sat down, facing her, feeling the bougainvillea wrap itself around him as he lent against the fence.

He stared straight into those blue whirlpool eyes, he knew she saw him even though she continued to stare off across the valley munching on the oil-soaked bread. Feeling keenly the inadequacy of words Saul tried pure telepathy. He looked at her and tried to find the honesty of himself to connect with the honesty of her.

‘We couldn’t even be in the same room to begin with, do you remember? It was so strong, the electricity between us, it was like bringing two lightning bolts to a magnet, the whole room would get so electrified people’s hair would stand on end when we kissed.’

He studied those eyes trying to see a flame get started, but all he saw was his own memory of the two of them intertwined like a medicine snake in those black pupils, from that black past. Nothing more. Fuck it, now he had a new medicine and a new snakebite he didn’t need her. Time to get back to the thing he could always rely on. Memories were lies anyways, like old movies he could re-edit again and again in his mind choosing with each viewing what scenes to leave out until they played perfectly, according to his iron will.

He walked quickly back to the elevator unhappy with this surge of unwanted emotion. The attendant was there as usual with a kind word:

‘I wouldn’t dally here if I were you, sir. Time is a-wasting’.

Saul tried the same telepathic look into his eyes, but they were opaque and emotionless, like a snake about to slough it’s skin. He suddenly felt like a frog unable to escape the jaws of the elevator. He allowed his gaze to lose its intensity and fall down the attendants uniform. It was looking bedraggled, what buttons hadn’t fallen off were now sullied, none of their proud sheen remained. They were unpolished and unloved; yet so was he. Damn if he didn’t need another drink already. The sweat had broken out on his forehead and he tried to rally the woozy attendant.

‘I like your style Jack, respectful. You know what, I’m gonna tip ya right now, just send me down quick, uh?’

Saul rooted around in the pockets of his slacks. Feeling nothing folding he moved to his jacket inside pocket and pulled out a cheque book. The cover had been torn into neat rectangles from the rolling of numerous joints. He flicked open what remained to find nothing but stubs.

‘I seem to be a little light tonight, I’ll get you on the way back up.’

The attendant continued to stare blankly at him.

‘Ok then, good… I always say…’ Saul’s voice had been battered down by the booze to a mumble and he gripped the handrail to steady himself. Caught in the sickly glow of the elevators strip lighting he cut a broken figure, cowed by every bottle he’d ever drunk being smashed over his head in the morning.

‘…Just take me down the drain, Jack…’

The eyes of the attendant flickered open like a TV screen being switched on. He reached his hand up to the lever, now carved in the shape of a snake’s head and let it hang over the snout.

‘Are you sure sir? It’s still early. I was told you had business to attend to?’

‘No, the basement is best ways tonight, Jack, the game’s not worth the candle.’  .

The attendant’s legs buckled as he raised himself up on his haunches to depress the lever.  He still looked a little queasy round the gills but a good belch seemed to correct it enough for normal service to be resumed.

‘Mind the doors please. Going down.’

He reached for a rope cord hanging  from the wooden slats and yanked. The meat-packing service lift closed horizontally. And as it slammed shut, Saul saw that the attendant was now just wearing an off-white vest. the hairs on his sunburned back turned silver in places.

The elevator felt like it was free-falling snapped loose from controlling cables. It shot down to the basement with such force that it knocked Saul off his feet and into the air where he and the attendant hung for an instant as if strange Cosmonauts engaged on a sling shot round the Sun. When the metal cage slowed to a bumpy halt just before the smash, Saul found himself on his hands and knees. There was a silence. He could hear the burb rising in his throat before swallowing it back down, feeling the need to remain straight, in front of the attendant.

Until it had stopped he hadn’t even been aware of the tinned music in the elevator, but now it was gone it was almost like there had been another person in the room. On his knees Saul heard the tinkle of soft harpsichord notes, as if plucked on a metal wheel.

The elevator doors remained closed and he looked over to the attendant slumped on his corner stool, sound asleep. Saul called out to him to open the doors, no response. He got up and shook him by the lapels, still no response. Feeling justified in the circumstances he slapped the attendant round the face, softly at first, then harder. He remained stone unconscious.

Saul smelt he’d reached the basement before his eyes caught up. A heavy scent of rich myrrh, cigar tobacco, opiates and just enough astringent disinfectant to add an undeniable piquancy. He felt he was home again. As if loaded with explosive charges, his backpack jettisoned off his back and shot against the door control lever. Like a troll’s sickly yawn the elevator doors creaked upon horizontally. Saul rubbed his sore shoulders.  It sure felt a lot easier without that weight on his back. As he left the elevator he hoped that whatever had been in the sack wasn’t important or urgent, he couldn’t remember now, but no matter, he comforted himself with the knowledge it was usually there neatly stacked by the elevator in the morning.

The attendant was slumped in the corner without the strength to lift the elevator shutters. Saul yanked on the cord and stepped through like a child in a sweet shop.

He gave a last look over his shoulder to see the elevator’s shutters transforming into the metal jaws of a bear trap. They snapped shut like a robotic mouth on a breeze of necrossing halitosis. He moved through the wooden cellar, the smoke so thick it was as if everyone inside were fish being slowly smoked. To left and right the kippers were kipping, stretched out on their opium-den stained mattresses, stained with the life force of all who’d rested there as it had been sucked out of them, never to be returned. Saul sucked in the thick chocolaty air. He was back amongst his people.

He found his personal corner, decorated with the posters of all his ego’s past triumphs. A small crystal screen was embedded in the ceiling of the four-poster bed, surrounded by plush Bedouin drapes peeling out from the centre  like petals from a rose. The screen intermittently showed flight departures to places he wanted to visit, interspersed with pornographic movies of people he dreamt of laying. He lay back on the cool silken pillow and reached for the tube containing the dark juice. It hung from one of the posts of the bed at eye level like an emergency oxygen mask on a doomed flight, Saul pulled down on the plastic tubing to start the flow of the thick molasses liquid, bringing the suction cup end to his lips he began to gulp down the yoghurty silt directly into his brain stem. He lay back on the soft mattress and released a belch into the sunken world lit by candlelight, as the medicine took its effect, the room felt almost religious but instead of the cold stone draft of his childhood religion this was some priestess cult and her temple was warm and womb-like, pulsating with living tissue. This was the place he really wanted to get to each time he took a sip or gulped a slug. This was always his end game and ultimate destination with everything stripped from him, pared away like the layers of an onion. Here he was at the most basic level, uncluttered, not responsible, just being, uninterrupted by the external demands of a world he couldn’t quite figure out. His right hand slipped off the bed and trailed on the floor. His knuckles felt cold rock there at the bottom.

The plasma screen sparked into life and She appeared on the screen, but not as before, now she seemed perfect to him, like a memory remade as he wanted her to be.

‘There is a silence at the heart of all great things’ he said to himself.   Through the membrane walls that separated each cubicle thin veins containing the juice crisscrossed pumping it into individual areas. From the next chamber a voice could be heard. Saul came back into focus to realise it was addressing him.

What brings you here then, you’ve still got a bit of fight left in you haven’t you?’

Saul answered as if from a warm dream, ‘’I’m like a Faberge egg, see? I spent years making my outside as intricate and shiny as possible, but I neglected my inside and when the hammer blow came the shell shattered and there was fuck all in there.’

A mellow laugh that seemed to contain all the understanding in the world came through the leathery membrane back at him.

‘You and everyone else here I’d guess’, the voice said in mellifluous tones, ‘Don’t sweat it. We all paid the entrance fee one way or another. How long you in for?’

Saul took another long pull on the juice before answering.

‘The night only, my bag will be packed somewhere, ready for the morning.’

Saul turned his head to look through the membrane on his other side, the walls seemed more yellow and stained, the face was a blur but he could still register a spastic movement from within. He felt it was his turn to do the asking,

‘And what brings you here..?’

The voice came back shrill and with an uncomfortable edge that immediately bristled the hairs on the back of Saul’s neck.

‘Hard to remember now, this junksuck kinda blue-rinses the brain after a while, don’t it? I recall it was something to do with not being able to be myself. I was so soft inside like last harvest’s cotton, but I could always hide that and put up a killer front, boy could I sell it to ‘em. Mr. Humpty-Dump, but it was all painted shell, inside there was an empty cold wind blowing round a small, scared kid. The real me, huh? Someone took a sledgehammer to the shell one day and the kid inside wasn’t ready for it. The shell didn’t count for shit.’

Saul sucked on the tube starting to feel absent-minded. The story sounded familiar somehow but he couldn’t place it. The pages of colourful comic books from childhood flapped through his brain. Perhaps that was where he’d heard the story? The rice-paper pages flew from the comic and flapped away like tropical butterflies. Saul reached out with his hand and tried to catch one.

‘I’m sorry for you mister. That sounds a real bummer in the summer.’ Saul caught an escaping butterfly and squeezed its stamen between thumb and forefinger releasing a yellow viscous liquid. He tasted it, all sugar and spice.

‘Bah, it’s just another tale of the bottle. We’ve all got one here.’

Saul brushed the dead butterfly from his fingers, ‘How long you here for?’ he asked.

‘Same as you… according to your medical notes… for all time!

Saul was unsettled by this.

‘I can leave anytime I want, pal. I choose to come down here.’

‘Sure you do. How many drinks has it been today so far? You’ve got to commit to get this deep in my friend, they don’t just give a key to anyone.’

‘Bullshit! I’m the fucking landlord of this place! Look at the walls, this is all my stuff, look what I’ve been over the years, you can’t talk to me like this..!’

The laughter from the next cell was so vile that the membrane itself reverberated like the albumen of a rotten egg, releasing a foul stench into the room. He felt like he was inside the stomach of some unspeakable creature being slowly digested.

Saul ripped the tube from his mouth causing it to hiss and spit the remaining globules of juice from his mouth where it landed at the foot of the bed like congealed pork fat. He got up and attempted to shake the dream from his unresponsive body, moving tortuously as if suspended in glue. He stumbled back to where he knew the elevator to be. But all he found was a smooth keyhole. He reached for his cell phone to see no signal, both he and the phone were out of range tonight, not possible to be connected at this time.

He banged on the smooth metal teeth until a small slit opened horizontally in the mouth of the shut bear trap. He recognised the sneaky eyes of the elevator attendant.

‘Hey Jack, thank the lord it’s you! Let me in won’t ya? It’s time to go.’

But the bloodshot eyes of the attendant just stared back at him.

‘You can only visit here so many times, sir, before you can’t return.’

Saul shoved his fingers into the slot and tried to open the door himself.  The attendant pushed the metal slit against the chubby reaching fingers like a guillotine.

‘I must insist sir. There’s nothing I can do… it’s the rules.’

Saul retracted his fingers sensing the futility of this tactic. The attendant relaxed a little and stopped his finger execution.

‘Of course sir, you can always buy your way out, but it takes time… forms have to be approved and signed off, payment’s made, you understand? It’s a long old crawl back up otherwise I’m afraid.’

Saul gave himself a near fatal headrush as he leapt in the air,  ‘I have money!’’

He began jumping up and down on the spot, the sound of jangling coming from his trouser pockets. With a new found confidence he reached in and grabbed a rich handful from both left and right, thrusting them proudly into the slit for the attendant to inspect. But again that awful mocking laugh that he’d heard before came from the cubicle way back where he’d come from. The membranes rattled like the glottal of a fat businessman.

Saul looked down at his hands to see nothing but old beer caps, corks and damp cigarette papers falling to the ground in a jumbled incoherent mess.

The attendant slammed shut the slit and Saul could hear the elevator ascending, the un-oiled cage squeaking above the sound of croaking frogs.