by: Jonathan Marcantoni
To commemorate the 9th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we present a piece of historical fiction that revisits the horrors of the great storm’s aftermath…..
August 30th – One Day After the Storm
When the sun brightened the bulbous clouds floating over a city once teeming with traffic, parties, and Cajun spices, and which was now half-abandoned and reeking of rotten meat, The Barber climbed out of Jerome’s bathroom and descended into the flooded streets. He had to find Jerome, who had gone searching for food an hour earlier, so they could make their way to the sports arena, with its beds and food and water and air conditioning.
The Barber had driven about half a mile when he turned on Lilith Avenue, where Buddy’s convenience store had always welcomed him and his friends, first as children buying candy and then as teens to buy smokes, and as young adults to purchase their first legal beers. Now, the doors were shattered, the floor drowned and covered with soggy merchandise. Jerome floated among the debris, a gunshot to the chest.
The Barber clutched his friend’s head within his arms, a sob dwelling deep within his soul that he did not want to let escape for fear that he would never stop crying. Then it came, in a roar that rippled the water and assaulted the ears of the storm’s survivors, who barely winced. He pounded at the water and rattled his head in agony, ignoring the harsh sound wholly until a cold, metallic force pressed against his skull, and then his body went numb.
“Give it,” a voice said.
“Ya money, mothafucka, I know ya got some.”
“It’s all wet.”
“Everythang wet nigga, nah give it.”
“Take it yourself.”
His assailant reached into the water and groped The Barber’s ass, feeling around for a wallet. When he found it, the kid snatched it up trying to flip through it with one hand but finding it difficult. He adjusted the gun, freeing up his forefinger and thumb to expose the wallets contents, in the process pointing the gun’s barrel towards the water. Seeing an opening, The Barber smashed his elbow into his assailant’s eye, the gun discharging into the inky-black depths. “Holy shit,” he screamed, dropping it. He took the kid by the collar and slammed him against the counter.
“What the fuck you doin holdin’ people up, huh,” The Barber said. “You been holdin’ up a lot of people today, motherfucker? You hold him up?”
“Nah, nah, I just came in ‘ere.”
“Bullshit, you been casin’ this spot all morning, haven’tcha?”
“Nah, I swear, I never even fired a gun, mahn. I swear. I swear.”
“You see that man there, asshole? You take a good fuckin’ look at him, cause that’s my friend. Old childhood buddy goin’ way back an’ right now I wouldn’t mind taking that gun of yours and doin’ you like you did him.”
“Wha? Nigga, I didn’t do not’in, mahn, I swear.”
Keeping one hand wrapped around the kid’s collar, The Barber reached for the gun, dragging the kid away from the counter until he grabbed it, and swung it back around, hooking the kid across the mouth. He swung it back around again hooking him across the eye, and then pressed the barrel against his nose.
“Whatcha doin holdin’ people up, little man? Didn’t your mama teach you right?”
“I don’t know where she is, mahn. My pops and her went out a coupla hours ago and I went looking for ’em.”
“What the fuck does that have to do with you stickin’ people up?”
“We need money. How else we gonna get outta’ here?”
“What you need to do is stay alive, and you not gonna do that pointin’ guns at
people, ‘cause if you don’t know how to handle one, you gonna get fucked up, right?”
“Yeah, mahn. I’m sorry.”
“Goddamn right you are. Now, take your pathetic ass on outta here.”
The Barber pushed the kid toward the door and snatched up his wallet. He tossed the gun behind the counter and before leaving he looked for any milk or candy bars that had not been snatched up yet, but everything was empty or soggy to the point of inedibility. The Barber drew Jerome close to him one last time, saying a silent prayer before closing his eyes in respect.
August 28th – One Day Prior To The Storm
Two days earlier, Simòn walked out of A Cut Above barbershop, where he had worked for seven years. In the dying afternoon, he strolled to Lenny’s without a care in the world, whistling, kicking pebbles around the sidewalk, and raising his hat to women in passing. The pungent stench of whiskey burned his nose upon opening the door to Lenny’s, and, when Jerome welcomed him with a big hug, he got an extra whiff of it.
“My man, how’s it been?,” Jerome said, “I haven’t seen you in weeks.”
“Been busy, man. They been short at the shop.”
“Ya’ got some stories fa’ me, nigga?”
“You know it.”
They sat at the bar and Jerome ordered Simòn a rum and coke.
“Hey Bobby, give my boy here the Puerto Rican special. Gahdamn, so what kinda stories you got? Hittin’ up your customa’s on the side, bro? Ya sneaky ass Spic,” Jerome laughed, knowing he’d get a rise out of his old friend.
“Shit, bro, how many drinks you have already? It’s only six o’clock.”
“Whadda you, my wife? Gahdamn.”
“This bar would close if it wasn’t fa’ you.”
“Gahdamn right, bro. I’m the heart and soul of this joint. They should pay me, the amount of customa’s I bring in.” Jerome punctuated this by slamming the rest of his drink and fixing Simòn with a crazy look. He said, “So yeah, tell me some stories.”
“Well yo, I had this broad come into the shop and she’s tellin’ me all about her old man and how he don please her, right? And this girl be getting a perm and so I got her for like an hour right, and she goin on and on about her old man, so I say, ‘What is he not doin’ ta please you?’ And she all like, ‘He don’t go down on me,’ and I tell her, ya know, maybe that’s a good thing. Ya never know…your old man might get down there and start eatin it like a steak.”
“Haha, you crazy, nigga.”
“Yo, I ain’t even tell ya the best part yet. I’m wit this chick for an hour, and at the end of it she’s all like, take me in the back and shit, and this girl is bangin’, I mean I haven’t seen an ass like that since high schoo,l man. This girl is thick, so I’m like yeah, let’s get it on, and you know, we do our thing in the back closet, tryin’ ta be discreet an shit. The next week, this broad start callin me up, and I ain’t even give her my number—”
“Yeah, like she callin me saying she wanna run away wit me and I’m like, nah, I got a girl an shit, I ain’t gonna leave her. And you know what she says?”
“She tells me my skills are shit and I gave her the worst perm she ever had. I been doin this shit for seven years. I know how to do a perm. Anyway, so I get all offended and shit and tell her to fuck off.”
“Next day, her old man come into the shop and tries to start somethin’, and I got like ten customers lined up so I tell him to meet me outside cause I don’t wanna cause no trouble in the shop, ya know. We go outside and this guy is about to wail on me and I’m thinkin it’s ’cause she told him about me ballin’ her. But, no, the guy’s all pissed cause he think I charged her too much for her goddamn perm.”
“Hahaha, get the fuck outta here.”
“So, I give him the forty dollars back, ’cause I make that shit every thirty minutes, forty dollars don mean nothin to me, and I haven’t heard from the girl since.”
“Shit, dawg, you got lucky.”
“No kiddin’, man. So whatcha been up too.”
“Same old shit, dawg. The foreman at the site sayin’ he don’t need me for the weekends no more. Says he’ll keep me in mind for the future or some bullshit. That’s two hundred dollars out of my paycheck, man. I can’t be havin’ that. So I tell Tony down at the shop that I need some more hours, and he got me on the register Saturday’s now, so that helps, but the market don’t pay. I’m still losin’ a hundred dollars a week, and my old lady’s needin’ an operation for her knees, man.”
“Word, I thought she got that fixed?”
“Nah, she got swellin’ under there. Doctor says she gonna need surgery an shit. I’m worried about her, man. She can hardly make it to the can, yo. It hurts me to see her like that.”
“Yeah, Carla a good woman. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, but what can you do?”
“You all doin’ anything this Saturday?”
“I don’t know. They say a storm’s comin.”
“Ah, that don mean shit, they always sayin’ a storm comin, and not’in happens and everybody leaves town for no reason.”
“Maybe, man, but you never know, you never know.
August 30th – One Day After the Storm
The Barber turned onto McFarland Drive and, there, stretching out to the horizon, was a sea of bloated corpses. The smell kept him back at first, his steps hesitant, his face down. As he approached the bodies, he hurried himself along, so as not to have to linger on any of their faces.
He held his nose, breathing through his mouth, streaks of grit and dust borne of drying tears staining his face. His hands brushed bloodied skirts and bloated arms with the same sensation. The same disgust. He retched at the smell, acid building up in his throat. Taking it all in, his head grew numb, an ache building at the top of his spine. There must be a hundred bodies on this street, he thought as the as the ache expanded to envelop his spine, distracting him from the nausea twisting up his bowels. Soon, the pain slithered from his spine to his gut, a spiked ball swishing around his organs, forcing him to stand still. He thrust out his chest as the ball collided with his rib cage. It then moved to his lungs and he choked, coughing from the air thick with humidity and decay. The ball rolled into his throat and into his brain, his vision blurring, his tongue thrusting itself out of his mouth. Unable to control it any longer he retched, the vomit springing forth like a bursting damn, his sickness alighting upon the twisted corpse of a hollow-eyed dog.
In spite of his knees shaking, he was able to gain his composure and waddle past the field of corpses. With time his breath evened out. He heard a disembodied pop and looked down to see a woman’s head emerge from the dark pool. Her skin was less decayed than the others. Her features lacking the characteristic bloat of the surrounding dead. He touched her forehead. Cold. There was some semblance, he reasoned, of life, and he couldn’t help but wonder if he could have done something. If he had left Jerome’s earlier, they could have both come up this street, maybe at the same time as her, and help her through it. She was a small woman, hardly any fat on her as it was.
Why did I sleep for so long, he thought. Why didn’t I go with him? Who am I kidding, they’d have killed me too.
August 28th – One Day Prior To The Storm
After the bar, Simòn walked to Ana’s on Forsyth. When she rung him up his stomach turned and his forehead burned. Why do I put up with this, he thought, I hardly even like her, but shit, the sex is good so…
He leaned on her door, forcing a smile upon his face, and when she opened he immediately kissed her, practically pushing her back into the apartment. He kicked the door closed and started kissing her neck.
“God, I had such a long day,” she said, “It’s so good to see you. It’s been so long.”
“Come on, girl, I was here the other day.”
“Well, today felt like a month, the other day might as well have been a year. You want anything to drink, baby?”
“Got any wine?”
“Only for special occasions, you know that.”
“I’m alive, isn’t that special.”
“You know I only got that Riesling and I wanna save that for Christmas when my family comes over.”
“You got any JD?”
“Yeah, you wanna Jack and Coke?”
“Yeah, sure. You look good tonight.”
“No I don’t. I look ragged. I had the longest day today, baby. You would not believe the ignorance of this—”
“Thanks.” He said as she handed him the drink. They sat on the couch and she continued her story.
“So this woman comes into the store, this real pale bitch, and she wants something to go with her dress, and it’s this real tacky, brown Gucci-wannabe, and I tell her that she should use a light tone or gloss, ’cause she doesn’t want to overdo it. But this bitch keeps saying she wants something red with a gold shimmer and I’m like, no, that’s too flashy. You should go with a light gloss…”
On top of her bookshelf was an antique vase with Egyptian hieroglyphics that he had always found to be out of place. Nothing in Ana’s house save for that vase had any character. Her walls were large sheets of white, and her couch was white leather and her entertainment system was black aluminum. Her bedroom had an oak dresser, and her bed did not have a post at the head. Her bed covers were white with purple lilacs inscripted on them. She had no pictures or flags or posters of anywhere or anything. Yet, she had this vase and she wasn’t even Egyptian. She was Italian, and when he had asked her about it before she said it was her grandmother’s, but it still didn’t make sense why someone as image conscious as Ana would have something so brazenly out of place in such a prominent position in her living room.
“And she insisted on getting Clinique so I spent another thirty fucking minutes trying to explain to this cow that…”
She always put too much Jack and not enough Coke, Simon thought. He never liked the taste of alcohol, it reminded him too much of cough syrup.
“So yeah, that…like, ruined my whole day. I don’t even know why I’m still at Nordstrom’s. We have these two new girls and every time they open their mouth I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, I was talking like that two years ago’. I’m so overqualified there. I really should be in a boutique or something. I think next week I’ll start looking for a new job, and this weekend I’ll fix up my résumé—you wouldn’t mind looking at my résumé for me, would you?”
“Nah, no problem.”
“Awesome, so how was your day.”
“Oh, you know, same old same old. How’s your mom?”
“She’s all right. I mean, I haven’t talked to her in like, two weeks. Are you doing okay?”
“Yeah, I’m just. It’s been a long day. I’m tired is all.”
“You hardly ever ask about my family, thought you were about to ask me to marry you or something.”
He chuckled and turned his face away from hers. He couldn’t get over the arbitrariness of all this small talk. He was tempted to say something meaningful, but couldn’t think of a single thing to say, so he gave up and grazed his finger over her blouse.
“You’re looking good today.”
At about that time, he was supposed to touch her face and say something about her big brown eyes or how thin she was and she would blush and bash herself so he’d keep complimenting her, but tonight he could not find those words, either.
“You sure nothing is wrong, Simòn?”
“Yeah, I’m sure. Why do you keep asking?”
“You just seem kind of distant.”
“Like I said, I’m just tired.”
They sat in silence for a couple of minutes. Simòn debated whether he should get up and call it a night, but before he could open his mouth, she was sucking on his neck. It was something new, her coming on to him, and it got a rise out of him for a minute, but after it was over he lay in bed, the streetlamp breaking through the shattered curtain marking him with random colored lines, and his mind was far from resting.
August 30th – One Day After the Storm
A floating VW bug inched toward him on Sacramento Ave and instead of moving away from it he bent his knees to allow the front tires to skim over his nose. The water was black and grimy and his eyes burned shut. He felt something blunt strike his palm so he grasped it. When the car passed over him, he shot his head into the air and the stench of the water overpowered his nose and turned his stomach. Wheezing as the putrid air stifled his lungs, he raised his hand from the muck to see what he had caught. A watch maybe, he thought or a cufflink?
His fingers rippled open to reveal a dismembered big toe. He tossed the remains into the air, striking a window. He pulled the hair away from his face and sneezed. His brain tingled and his chest lit up with fire. Oh Jesus, don’t let me get sick. Not now.
He waddled his way to an open window and climbed into a building, one wrecked previously, years before this storm. A thin coat of water covered the floors. He climbed the steps at the back of the room to find empty room after empty room. On the fifth floor, he found the bodies of what appeared to be a junkie couple. He doesn’t bother to check if they are alive or dead, fearing the former. Fearing they may demand something of him. He then stood and climbed four stories to the roof.
The former city was lying in wake for reverent mourning. He looked off to the Harbor District and saw a thin line of black smoke drifting into the air. A mile to the left was the Industrial District, already smoldering amidst low-lying clouds. The overcast turned the buildings into long, spindling fingers with no beginning or end. He turned around to find Forsyth Ave, and noticed a long line of buildings without roofs. He also noticed a group of survivors waving S.O.S. flags in the air. Waving and crying for help at an empty sky.
A scream in closer proximity spun him around 180 degrees, pulling him to the edge of the railing. A large woman in her mid-thirties struggled to keep her passed-out mother from sinking into the abyss. She cried, “HELP, SOMEONE, HELP US,” as The Barber watched the flash of a bulb from an adjacent building. He saw it flash again, and the large woman collapsed into the water, both mother and daughter submerging before ripping back through the surface, the large woman crying with greater urgency to a flashing light. A man emerged from the adjacent building snapping pictures, waving his hands to get her attention.
August 29th – The Day of the Storm
Simòn returned to Lenny’s shortly after one in the morning. As he marched down the street, shrugging off an emaciated beggar and ignoring the harmonies of a homeless sax player, he thought of how ugly these streets were. This city had lost its charm, its flavor, its life. It was all abandoned buildings now, barely standing, with boarded up windows and trash piles so large they looked like monuments.
The Southside was all but abandoned after the white flight of the 80s and the mall boom took most businesses away from Downtown. Now, it was all markers shouting Est. 1928, 1945, 1956. It was all rotting floors and the occasional bar. The corner store hung around, full of junk food and sweet liquor, dealers and petty gamblers congregating around the crown of light until Denny, who had operated the store since the seventies, closed shop for the night. It was during those late night hours when business boomed for the street boys and it was also when things got out of hand, when cops threw them against the gated entrance to the store, frisking and harassing, until dawn showed its mocking face once more. The adult spots flashed neon lights and cheap ass. Corner reverends spit the name of God into the meaty air, begging, pleading the street urchins to hold the Lord’s hand to salvation.
May the waters rise and the levees break, he thought, may we all perish in a great fire and let Japan drop a bomb on us. Let the buildings fall on our heads. To hell with this goddamn city and every crack whore and hypocrite who floods it. Let the suburbs get fat on our lack of transportation and suck up all our jobs. Let the whites nurse their babies and let their junkie sons get hot on our pussy and crack. Let the country club snobs call us nigger trash and wetback bastards while they snort coke from our motherland. Let the politicians call us welfare babies and let the pious Democrats come to our aid with under-funded programs to educate us to vote for them. Let the Republicans ignore us cause they got the votes bought up anyway. Let the reverends say we had it coming. Let the Jesus freaks decry our evil ways while the church launders community funds and the preacher man at First Baptist gets himself a nice new car. May our fury come out to your streets, you cracker bastards, and may we buy your houses and take your jobs and we’ll kill every last one of you when this city goes down. We’ll cover your newly cut lawns with our stench, our decaying flesh, until we seep into your houses and into your clothes so no matter how many showers you take, no matter how hard you scrub, the stench of our dark existence will cloud your pores and stuff your lungs until you suffocate on us you fucking cockroaches. I hope you die long deaths. I hope the skin is ripped from your bones and your eyes gouged out by birds. I hope you suffer a thousand years for every lie and hypocrisy you’ve told yourself and your family to justify fucking over half of society just cause we don’t look like you, talk like you, have names like you, or eat like you—
He entered Lenny’s just as Jerome’s back hurled toward the doorway, throwing both men into the sidewalk. Having been cushioned by Simòn, Jerome jumped back up and continued to wail on a biker who ran toward him spinning a beer bottle over his head. Jerome slammed the biker’s head into a table before ramming him through the door. Simòn had thankfully moved out of the way moments before and the biker cracked his teeth on the sidewalk.
“Yeah motherfucker,” Jerome stomped out of Lenny’s, his arms outstretched inviting the biker to step to him. “What? You gonna just lie there, pussy? Yeah, cause you know what’s comin to you.”
Jerome slapped Simòn five and signaled for Simòn to follow him up the street.
“I’m glad you came down, man. These fuckin’ bikers think they own the joint.”
“What’d that guy say to you?”
“He was talking shit about Carla. You know I don’t stand for dat shit.”
“Does he know Carla?”
“Nah, but he was saying the only woman who’d come down on me must be a toothless bitch, so I wailed on him.”
“You could get arrested for that shit.”
“Hey man, when you love a woman, you don’t let things like that pass. People gotta know their place, man, otherwise all you got is chaos. I was puttin’ that fucker in his place.”
August 29th, The Day After The Storm
Forsyth was on higher ground than where The Barber and Jerome stayed, so the water was only ankle high. The sky was turning orange and red and he knew he had to find shelter before dark. He located his girl’s place and found the door ripped open, with trash covering the hallway. He took the stairwell to the eighth floor and found all the apartments open and the insides gutted of food and drinks. He checked the mini-fridge where she kept her Riesling, but it had been snatched.
His stomach knotting and his legs weak, he barricaded one of the doors with desks and chairs in case another looter decided to come through, and wrapped himself in a dusty blanket, his entire being rattling with shivers. He pulled a chair to the bedroom window that looked out on the smoldering industrial district. Daylight was in its death throes, the purples and oranges fading to deep maroons and then finally to black. The clouds mixed with smoke and ash, suffocating whatever light remained. The flames reached into the heavens, the entire horizon a ring of heat.
He knew the fire had probably spread to the other end of the Harbor District, and might have entered the Southside. Lenny’s was gone for sure, and so was his house, and Jerome’s, and the water was not only toxic with blood and feces, it was pumped full of oil. The inferno would engulf all the slums and tit bars and god-willing tear down the middle class townhouses off of Garson and Fox. Maybe it would climb atop the townhouses and retail shops into downtown and swallow up all the banks and law offices and insurance companies and government buildings and encroach upon the cherished sports arena, the Garden of Eden, the hub of salvation, and devour whatever anguished civilization was left.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
That morning, the blue sky breathed its final gasps of fresh air. The news was out that the storm would not skim over the city and make its way west like the forecasters had been saying, but would directly hit the city with category four winds. Within an hour of the news, cars piled up on the streets, packed with the barest necessities, along the three highways out of the city. The government sent out buses to pick up the poor and elderly, but the traffic was such that only a fraction of the fleet sent out even reached the Southside and west end. And before many of them could get to the sports arena, where the government had set up a shelter for all those unable to leave, the storm had begun.
Most businesses did not bother boarding their windows. They were too busy hustling to leave. Jerome swung open Simòn’s door and woke him from a hard sleep.
“Jesus, what do you want?”
“Nigga, get on up, there’s a storm comin’.”
“Ah, it ain’t nothing.”
“Boy, this ain’t no joke. The weatherman says it’s hittin’ us straight on.”
“Yeah, he also says it’s gonna be sunny and warm and instead it’s cold and cloudy. Don’t believe everything you see on TV.”
“Simòn, I’m not playing. I put Carla on a bus outta’ here.”
“You’re shittin’ me.”
“It’s what she wanted, man. I’m stayin’ to look after the house. Make sure no assholes try to rob our shit.”
Simòn rolled on his back and watched his friend scurry around the room, throwing clothes into a trash bag.
“Brother, what are you doing? You’re crazy. If this storm is so bad there won’t be no house to rob. You shoulda’ gone with your woman.”
“It’s what she wanted. Believe me, it wasn’t easy. Yo, get your ass outta’ bed. I swear, if a mountain was fallin’ you’d walk right under it.”
“Mountain’s don’t fall Jerome, and storms don’t kill you. Not in this city. I’ve been livin’ here long enough and every year—”
“Yeah, I’ve heard it man. I know the whole routine by heart, and if I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were smart enough to take your word.”
“Jerome, put my clothes back. I want to sleep, I had a long night. Please.”
“You can take a nap when we get back to my place. I don’t wanna’ be worryin’ about your ass when this all goes down.”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be alright.”
“Dude, do you think I’m fuckin jokin’ with you? Get your fuckin’ ass up. Get dressed and get on over to my place, now. Not ten minutes from now. Now!”
Simòn always took his friend’s anger for humor, at least when it was toward him. Anybody else and Jerome would’ve pounded their head in, but Simòn had the privilege of being family. Yet, at that moment, he saw the anger Jerome reserved for strangers and old enemies cloud his eyes and tighten his fists. And for the first time in their friendship, Simòn was scared of him. He shot up out of bed and put on some of clothes. They packed underwear and socks, a few shirts, pants, and sweats.
When they left, Simòn locked the house, yet felt a strange futility in doing so. Turning the lock, he could not fight the feeling that he would never see this door again, and that this key would become obsolete. A remnant of something once useful. They made their way up the crowded streets, past the lawns stuffed with bags and suitcases. Entire families lined the sidewalk waiting for the promised busses. Kids played and laughed as if they were off to the beach and the parents held their heads low, grim smiles etched on their faces for the sake of the children, and perhaps to fool themselves, as well.
The clouds hooked across the Harbor district, creating vast perimeters around orbs of blue sky before a thin black smoke coated the gray ceiling, and then a bubbling pus grew from the black silt, hanging from the once glorious sky like a tumor, sagging, hulking, waiting.
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
The sun rose a day late upon a tomb in mid-burial. The dawn paraded its yellows and reds across a clean sky. The wind was pure and warm. Birds sang in the distance, their bellies full of beached fish and shrimp. The Barber’s eyes were cracked and pleaded to stay closed, but his heart beat with an urgency and he forced himself to see if this was his bed. If the pictures on the wall were those of his parents, and if the silence he heard was because everyone had not yet awakened. He forced his eyes open to this lie and his heart stopped. He remembered he was at Ana’s. He felt around for her presence, but then realized she was gone.
For the first time since Jerome dragged him out of his bed did he accept that he no longer had a home. He no longer had a life. He no longer had a name. He was just another body looking for food. A lost dog wandering the desert. Everything he had was stripped away the moment the storm began. If he survived this, then he could go back to the island, back home. But, he wouldn’t ever be the same person he was then. The man he saw reflected back in the windows he had passed was unrecognizable. The shadow of somebody who once lived, just like the city he now roamed. All he had left was his job skills, but what good was being a barber amongst this mess? But, it was what he had, if nothing else.
He did not know if any of his friends or coworkers were alive. He had a brother back on the island, and his cousin Charlie in Baltimore, but how could he get a hold of them now? Would his brother think he was dead? Did the rest of his family think he was dead? Was Ana dead? He had contemplated the idea when he searched her apartment the night before, but only now, coupled with the realization of her twenty-seven years lost, did he mourn her. And he mourned his friend Jerome too. Properly, with tears both bitter and thankful, and he promised himself that if he found Carla he would take care of her. He would get her husband’s body back, and they would bury him in a huge ceremony. He would take her to Puerto Rico and help her get a job and start a new life. While he thought this he also thought it would be better if she were dead. The two of them had been so close she may not be able to cope with his death. He always admired their love, and wished he could have found something similar.
He wished Ana could have been that love for him. She really was a nice girl, and she treated him so well. Why didn’t I appreciate her more? God why? Why do I care for her so little? I don’t miss my house. I don’t miss my girl. I don’t miss my job. I don’t miss Buddy’s or Lenny’s or The Olive Patch or Southside Pizza or Hector’s. I don’t miss my radio or TV. What did I have of value? God? I had Jerome and Carla, and I miss them. But I wouldn’t die because I miss them, not like Carla would, or I think she would. Maybe she’d be all right, she was strong like that, but I don’t feel for anybody the way she felt for Jerome, and I was only a year younger than he was. What has my life amounted to? What am I holding on to? Oh, God, this hurts so much; how long is this going to last, God? How much pain can a man take? Have I been such a shitty person, God? Have I been that bad to deserve all this? Have any of us? I don’t care about this city. These bricks won’t remember us when we’re gone. But, where will I find another Jerome? Who will talk like him? Who will listen to me like he did? And where will I find another Carla, who had the best laugh and cooked the most delicious rice and beans I ever had. Oh God, what a nice day it is. I’ve never seen such a beautiful day.
After the last tear fell, he was overcome by an eternal numbness that feigned warmth. He walked out of the building without a thought or a care in the world. He only felt the rolling of hunger, and his eyes searched for any scrap or store that could provide nourishment. He reached the midtown restaurant district and found it mostly picked over. Not a single window was left intact. The ground crunched and groaned and a shard of glass ripped through the edge of his sneaker, but he hardly noticed.
He climbed into a steakhouse and searched frantically for an errant rib or sirloin. He stumbled into the kitchen but without a light, it was pointless. He fumbled his way through the kitchen to an exit door. The day flooded his vision as the stench of wet garbage bludgeoned his nose. He rifled through the trash before finding a T-bone covered in ants. After shaking off the ants, he sucked the bone dry. Once he had calmed his hunger, he noticed his surroundings.
The alley was blocked off at the rear by an eight-foot high chain link fence that overlooked Highway 81. Parallel to the alley was a bridge that connected the eastside to midtown. It also led to a prison, and under the blinding sun, a sea of prisoners in orange jumpsuits were lined up, their hands behind their heads, watched by two dozen guards aiming rifles and armed with pistols at their waists and ankles. The Barber leaned on the fence and watched, wondering how long they had been on that bridge, and if any of the prisoners might try to escape. The spectacle impressed him though, if the government were capable of retaining this many prisoners in such an orderly fashion, they must be managing the sports arena like pros. The thought filled him with relief, the only emotion he was capable of feeling then. He smiled and took one last look at the prisoners before making his way further north.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
The blue sky evaporated amidst the army of clouds marching across the celestial field. The busses filled the burdened streets. The air was congested by cries of, “Get out before the storm begins!” or “Leave that shit there, just get inside, lady.” and “Move, move, come on. Let’s go.” The day fell into a deep, disturbed slumber, submitting to the march of night. The grass bent to the wind and the fibers of the houses winced in anticipation. Babies cried as they were ripped from their toys and lawns and homes, the only ones they ever knew. They cried and slapped at their mother’s faces and banged on the windows of the busses as the first drops of rain fell upon the still earth.
Horns honked in panic as the sky expelled the obnoxious sound with rage, beating the streets, pounding the doors, smacking the windows. The busses moved two blocks in two hours, and by then their tires no longer touched the ground. Those on the outskirts, who had left that morning, looked back on the condemned city, a weary sun barely grazing their shoulders while, in the distance, a black and blue wall engulfed the skyline. Lightning streaked across the sky, releasing a roar that spread out over the land, and died at the sea. The clouds seemed to form a face, staring back at the onlookers with black eyes and lightning for a mouth. Thunder roared from the beast as it opened its jaws and drenched the cracked earth, smothering the remains of human life.
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
He entered downtown under the high noon sun, his shriveled stomach crying out for nourishment. Survivors had congregated around Mickey’s convenience store and The Barber approached the crowd to see what the fuss was about.
“‘Scuse me,” he said to a balding man, “What’s everybody hanging around here for?”
“Goddamn Mickey bolted the door to his dried goods. Some kids are tryin’ to pry the door open.”
“Why don’t they ram it?”
“Ain’t nothing to ram it with, the fuckin’ store is gutted, racks and all.”
“What are they pryin’ it with then?”
“The fuck should I know? Just keep outta’ my way buddy. When they get that door unlocked it’s gonna be like a house a cards, and I’m gonna trump these suckers. You get in my way I’ll cut-cha, ya’ hear.”
The balding man pulled his shirt back to reveal a sheathed Bowie knife attached to his waist. He then fondled the handle with long, hairy claws. The Barber’s eyes stayed transfixed on the mans claws, his spiked nails toying with the edge of the leather sheath, ready to spring the blade into the naked air and thrust its steel into the nearest target at a moment’s notice. “Ya heard?” The balding man barked, yanking The Barber’s eyes to meet his own.
The Barber nodded and continued down Franklin, where, scattered amongst the debris and abandoned cars, children scavenged trash cans and climbed in and out of blown out storefronts, grabbing whatever clothes and food remained. Most of the buildings had already been violated the day before, and the survivors that scattered through the battered landscape grew restless. Many, like The Barber, journeyed north to the sports arena, which was ten miles from Franklin.
While his clothes dried, sweat drenched The Barber’s face. He continually wiped his eyes that burned with each drop that escaped his hand. He walked toward the elusive shade, which faded and displaced itself as time hungrily progressed. He sidestepped piles of dog shit only to step in human shit. And, when he managed to avoid both, his feet were bathed in piss. While on the Southside, he had grown accustomed to the stench of death, and now he had to adapt to the pungent, potent stink of human waste that lingered first in the nostrils and then slithered down the back of the throat, infecting the tongue, so that every breath and every swallow reeks of shit and pus and sweat. The tepid air gelled in his eyes and dirty tears spilled over his cheeks.
In dull pulses, hunger made its presence known in the depths of his gut before pounding below his ribs, throwing up acid into his lungs. He had reached Astoria Drive, a strip of high-priced steak and seafood restaurants near the business sector, and the stench of day’s old meat and grease protruded through the shattered windows and smashed up doorways. He kept his eyes toward the endless sky, trying to think of anything but the hunger, but the only thought that made its way into his mind was contacting his brother, and the anxiety of worrying about his worrying sickened him more than the hunger.
Near the corner of Astoria and Commerce, he noticed a loaded bag next to a dumpster and decided to inspect it. Inside, he found several cans of soup and packaged sandwiches. He knew he had to leave quickly before the owner of the bag returned. He turned to find the entrance to the alleyway blocked by a herd of seven men, all carrying pipes and wrenches.
The leader leapt toward The Barber, his yellow eyes full of rage and disgust. He growled, “What’s in that bag there?”
“Some cans of soup and sandwiches.”
“You takin’ that to your kids or you havin’ it all for yourself?”
“I don’t have any kids. We could share, there’s plenty for everybody.”
The leader pounced closer to him, his wrench glinting in the sun.
“Share? Share, nigga? Hahaha. All of us, we got kids, mahn, and they’re all cryin’ and raisin’ hell ‘cause they ain’t got no food, and you thinking a single man like you gonna deprive them?”
The Barber stepped back, holding his hands in front of his chest.
“No you listen nigga. We ain’t here to compromise. We got families. You die, ain’t nobody gonna miss you. My kids ain’t gonna die. I won’t allow it. So hand that bag over ‘fore we bust yer head ya greedy motherfucker.”
The Barber handed the bag over to the leader, who snatched it.
“Fuckin shameless, mahn, thinking of yourself in times like these. I hope you fuckin’ starve to death you piece of shit.” The leader spit in The Barber’s face and the herd divvied up their prize before returning to their families.
His hunger dissolved into a general pain that devoured his insides and made each step detached, manipulated, as though he were being pulled on strings by the time he reached the business district. The smells of human waste and decaying meat gave way to the hollow aroma of oil and gas. The entire street was full of cars leaking from the brutal heat. He saw small fires inside some broken storefronts, places where people must have made their bed the night before. A mass of survivors crawled up the sidewalk, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs and shirts.
All the trees had been cut down in this area to make room for parking and now all hope for shade was gone. The Barber nearly collapsed from the overpowering steam emanating from an insurance building. He covered his mouth and ran past the building. When he was clear of it, he uncovered his mouth, coughing uncontrollably. As he regained his breath, the building let out a tremendous groan, as though the bricks were expanding, and then a hand of flame ripped through the face grabbing the top of a nearby car. The roof collapsed and within minutes the entire infrastructure crumbled, releasing a cloud of acidic smoke onto the street.
The car closest to the building exploded soon after, turning over two other cars and blowing out the windows of the bank next to the insurance building. The Barber and the survivors on the other side of the street raced away from the business district. The survivors scattered along the twisted alleyways that led into Tristan Heights, braying and yelping in agony. The Barber found shade and stayed there as long as the wandering sun allowed. His body burned, his lips cracked, his throat clenched. A puddle lay five feet to his right, and he dragged himself to its rim, darting his tongue at the stagnant water. The dirt and grime of the water scratched his tongue but the liquid cleansed his throat enough that he was able to pull himself another few inches to replenish his body of all that had drained from him under the blazing sun. He rested his forehead in the thin puddle, drifting into a black sleep.
When he awoke, the sun had hardly moved, but he had energy now and his stomach roared with a hunger which tore at his insides. He picked himself up and raced down Foley Street in search of a market or restaurant. He found a small corner grocery store that had somehow avoided vandalism, and with great speed remedied this mistake by throwing a trashcan through its window. After three throws, the window shattered and he descended into the store.
He prowled the aisles snatching candy bars, sour gummy worms, Twinkies, anything of substance. He snatched up a liter of milk and began devouring the snacks, but his stomach demanded more, and he ate without satisfaction, desiring hamburgers, rice and beans, steak, chicken, omelets, pancakes, mofongo, paella. He stalked the halls for something, anything, to quench the desire within him, and then two young men came upon the grocery store, giggling and shrieking like hyenas, and The Barber’s spine stiffened, a nervous rage gripping his hooves.
“Got anything left, mahn?” The first young man asked.
“I found this first, fuck off.”
“Yo mahn, you not gonna eat up a whole store.”
“Like hell I won’t, get the fuck out of here.”
Hey, we all strugglin’ here, mahn, ain’t no need for that attitude.”
“This sucker half-crazy, mahn, don’t pay him no mind,” the second young man said as he opened the fridge for a beer. The Barber charged the second young man, pounding the door into his shoulder, the beer in his hand cracking against the door. He continued to swing the door on the second young man’s arm until the first young man pulled him away. The Barber swung his elbow back into the first young man’s nose. The blow threw him into the gummy worms and sour candies. The Barber rammed his face into the shelves while the second young man screamed, clutching his broken arm. The first young man’s face was full of blood before the Barber became so annoyed by the second young man’s screams that he lodged his hoof into the guys throat, causing him to cough up blood and swing wildly at the ground. The Barber roared, “This is MY STORE FUCKERS. I found this. THIS IS MINE.”
The Barber pounced upon the first young man’s legs, the crack of bone ringing in his ears. His anger subsided, his mind focused on the damage he had done. The young men were no older than sixteen.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
The wind smacked and whipped Jerome’s house for thirty minutes before the rain began. Jerome had boarded up most of his windows, but the storm began before he could secure all of them. They went up to the attic and he quickly boarded the small window there. They sat in a far corner and prayed the wind would not rip the roof from its foundations. The wood creaked under the pressure of the torrents, and both men felt their guts rise. They were covered in sweat but paid no attention to it. Light creaked through a slit in the window, slashing Jerome’s face. Simòn was in complete darkness. Simòn felt the moist wood above him, anticipating its collapse.
“My uncle Victor,” Jerome began, “used to have a boat, and he would call work and tell them he had the flu and go out and fish all day. Sometimes, he picked me up from school. He loved the sea. If he were here, then he’d be out there, on that boat, tryin’ to catch trout or somethin’. I miss him, ya know. I don’t think I ever told you this, but him and my dad were real close. When the old man passed away, Victor went out on that boat and nobody saw him for three months. When he came back he had scurvy, of all fuckin’ things. He didn’t live much longer after that. I always wondered what made him go out there. I figure that was the only place he ever felt at home, and he needed the comfort of the sea to deal with losin’ his baby brother, but it wasn’t enough in the end. I guess I was just thinking about that. Where would my home be if Carla died? And if I had that home if it would help or not. It didn’t work for Victor, but he was a lot older than I am.”
“My parents are probably going crazy. My whole family probably is.”
“Why didn’t you call them this morning?”
“I did, but the lines were busy.”
“I’m gonna be rich,” Jerome said.
“How do you figure?”
“If this storm is as bad as it sounds, there’s gonna be a lot of construction needed. I could start up my own company, get a few contracts. I know I won’t get any of the big money contracts, but I could at least get some residential ones, probably on the Southside. It’ll be just enough to make a mint. I’ll build these houses up real nice, and keep them low iincome so people like us don’t have to go elsewhere. I could really fix up this place, man. Carla and I would be set. You could jump in too, ya know.”
“And, what, cut the builders’ hair?”
“You’re a strong cat, you could be a builder easy, or even a manager.”
“I don’t know. Who’d want to come back here even if it was rebuilt?”
“This is a beautiful city, man. I know it ain’t perfect, but we live here, we got our vibe here. You know, we got the best food in the fuckin’ country and the only people who tell you otherwise have never been here. Plus, man, we got great music…and the people…shit, we got great people. This is a hot town, no matter what. People love this place. I love this place.”
“Well, you can have it,” Simòn said.
“Whatcha’ got against it?”
“The same thing I have against every city. It’s dirty, it’s noisy, and it smells.”
“Then, why the fuck do you live here?”
“You can work on a farm. You could get plenty of peace and quiet out in the sticks.”
“Farms smell too.”
“Yeah, whatcha’ expect with a hundred cows shitting all over the place?”
“I’d need animals, where else would I get my food?”
“Become a vegetarian.”
“Fuck that, I’m not giving up steak.”
“Then, what are you bitchin’ about, man?”
“I don’t know; forget I said anything.”
“No, I want to talk about this. Why you live here if you hate it?”
“I don’t hate cities. I just feel uncomfortable in cities.”
“That still don’t answer my question.”
“I wouldn’t know the first thing about farming.”
“Then open up a shop in a small town.”
“I hate retail. I hate sales. I cut hair: that’s what I do, and I enjoy it. Plus, I’d be living in a shack if I cut hair in a small town. There’s no money in that.”
“But you’d be happy.”
“There’s no guarantee of that either.”
“Man, you’re just bitchin’ to bitch.”
“It doesn’t matter now. Nothing matters now if we don’t live through this.”
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
He sat on the ledge of a bridge stretching over I-10 watching the sun melt over the beaten city. A mile to his left was the sports arena, surrounded by buses and trucks. From this distance, the arena seemed calm, but he could not see past the vehicles, so there was no way of telling. Beside him sat a six-pack of Budweiser. He had gone through three and was currently sucking on his fourth, trying to bury the image of those kid’s battered bodies by focusing on sucking out every droplet of alcohol. It was no use. The beer smelled of blood. Blood that now itched the back of his throat. His hands and clothes were sticky from the residue. He was sitting because his legs had given out; his mind ached as he held back tears.
What did I do? I’ve never been in a fight in my whole life. Are they dead? They were still breathing when I left. God, I hope they’re not dead. Oh God, oh God, what if I killed them? I should turn myself in. To who? What about that asshole with the knife? I bet he killed some people for food. I bet that gang that stole from me killed plenty of people. But I’m not one of them. I’m not heartless. We’re all struggling out here. We’re all hungry and tired and sad as hell and it’s reasonable, right? It’s reasonable to strike out like that when you’re hungry. Isn’t it? I had an entire store to myself…if those kids had taken some snacks, it wouldn’t have interfered with me at all. I didn’t need all that food. I was greedy. I was heartless…Oh God, I can’t go on like this.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
A tile along the top of the roof tore off and a thin torrent poured through the remaining covering. The wind became a jackhammer, pummeling the roof, shaking the remaining tiles out of position before morphing into a quick knife slicing each tile away from its foundation. The water smothered the wood, soaking through and then collapsing large, soggy circles in the attic.
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
A hazy shield of red protruded across the dying sky as the orange eye of God descended below the horizon. The Barber entered the crowded gates of the sports arena, pushing past abandoned cars and haphazard buses as the roaring pack welcomed him to this purgatory with a fierce growl. The wall of wolves waved empty water bottles in the air and fanned themselves with shit-stained shirts. The shield of buses gave way to a mound of wrappers, containers, paper, and overturned trash cans. The wolves howled and yelped at a fold of sheep hiding in the buses. The pack cried, “WE NEED FOOD, WE NEED WATER!” and the fold brayed that help was on the way, that they were doing the best they could, and in response the pack charged the buses, pelting the windows with their bottles and fists. One from the pack picked up a trash can and charged a bus door with it, cracking the glass and sending the fold into wild cries of fear.
The Barber kept his head down and proceeded past the slaughter.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
Simòn and Jerome threw the attic entrance open and dropped to the floor, which was already filled with water. They made their way to a bathroom at the back of the house. Inside the bathroom, the men collected all the towels and stopped the bottom of the door. They switched on the light, but it only flickered for a moment before dying. Searching in the dark, they found the shower curtain and pulled it back, positioning themselves on each edge of the tub. Jerome swung the curtain shut.
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
The gateway to the stadium laid on the ground, blackened with footprints. The Barber was overwhelmed with the shrieks, yelps and cries of monkeys, apes, lions, and dogs. The creatures climbed atop one another, picking the filth off each other’s filth, shitting in the byways, and feasting off scraps. He stepped over bread crusts and lettuce, and smashed chips and spilled soda as he made his way to the men’s room.
The lights, which were operating on a back-up generator, were puke green in the bathroom and stale white in the arena itself. The dull nausea of the fluorescent lights gave way to the hollow glow of the restroom. All of the toilets had flooded and the ground was wet with feces. The sinks were covered in liquid shit and on the mirror, scrawled in excrement, an accusation hung: “Whites stay in fancy hotels bathing in expensive gels. Niggers get the short stick sleeping in their own shit.” Below was the defense: “Whites lost our homes too, and many of us are still here!” The Barber shook his head and relieved himself in a quasi-dry corner while grunts echoed from a stall.
August 29th – The Day of The Storm
They heard the water rush the door and were sure that the towels had proven futile at this point. But in the dense darkness, they both felt a strange calm come over them. Closing his eyes, Simòn pretended the rushing water was waves beating along the shore in Fajardo, and that he was in his abuela’s house overlooking the marina. The wind against the palm fronds danced with the crashing waves as he hugged his pillow, the rhythm drifting him to sleep.
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
The Barber regarded himself in the vandalized mirror. With his right index finger he traced the contours of his jaw, felt the sharp hairs gyrate under his touch, drawing his fingers across the dirt and caked blood hardening his greasy flesh. He saw a chimp with a big drooping mouth, exaggerated lips, and swollen eyes. His finger traced around his slimy dog lips and cupped his cold, doggy nose. He felt the scales line his neck, and caressed his lion’s belly. He leaned closer to the mirror, and saw his hazel eyes had turned black. The skin around the eyeball was neutral, neither wrinkled nor soft. His brow offered no grimace or pointed excitement. He stared into a tunnel amidst broken blood cells leaking over the indifferent white.
There was no message in these eyes, no history, no longing. These eyes absorbed every detail, vibrated against every sound, captured every lip movement and deciphered the hidden meaning, without a single reaction. These eyes feed without satisfaction. These eyes witness without judgment. These eyes are the soul.
“Jerome,” The Barber whispered. “Jerome, I’m so sorry.” He said these words and his heart didn’t flutter. His eyes didn’t move. “Jerome, Carla’s dead, and if she isn’t, she should be.” Again, not a single reaction. “Jerome, it smells here. It smells worse than anything you can imagine. I think I’m going to die here. I don’t think anyone is going to come, and if they do, I hope they kill us all.”
He stared at the eyes looking back, unblinking, unmoving.
“STOP! STOP PLEASE—” three hyenas laughed as they dragged the screaming gazelle into the bathroom. “I’ll give you whatever you want, I swear, you don’t have to do this, STOP PUHLE-E-E-EASE.”
“Mahn, listen ta this bitch, she scream this good and we ain’t even started.”
“She’s a feisty one; I can tell.”
“Take her in the stall. Hey, mahn, whatcha you looking at? Ain’t nothin goin on here, hear?”
The Barber stared at the white tiger dangling a chain from his paw.
“We gonna have a problem’s nigga?” The white tiger whipped the chain against the tile for added effect, but these eyes only stared, thinking, Do the right thing. Do the right thing. He glided past the tiger who snapped the chain against his neck. He tumbled against the wall and the tiger yanked his head back, his eyes gazing up the tiger’s wet snout.
“You think anybody gonna care what I do to her? Cops doin this shit too, you best believe it. You tell them about this, they’ll just come and join, so don’t start nothing, hear?”
“It’s wrong,” Simòn said.
“Wrong? Excuse me, nigga? Fucking wrong is waiting for a bus that never come. Wrong is packing us up in this bitch without A/C. And I’m supposed to be okay with that?”
The hyenas grunted and giggled as the gazelle sobbed in resignation. These eyes looked at the white tiger, feigning confidence.
“I feel the same way, but you don’t want this.”
“What the hell do you have that I want? Don’t talk to me about what I want, cause what I want is in that stall over there. Unless you got somethin’ better you best step on out or raise up. What’s it gon’ be boss?”
These eyes observed the chain dangling from the white tiger’s paw. He observed the tensed muscles ready to swing the chain and pound him to the ground. The white tiger cracked the chain against the floor.
“Well, son, what’s it gon’ be?” These eyes looked away, filled with impotent disgust, and departed the bathroom, images of the ensuing rape filling his head.
These eyes looked behind the bleachers and saw more sex, whether rape or consensual one could not tell. Either way, the horses brayed and pounded against the aluminum roof as the sheep grabbed the ground and danced into their partner’s nature. Above the bleachers, some of the hens lay atop the roosters flapping their wings and stretching their necks.
On the floor, these eyes saw families huddle onto one cot, saw a table of scraps infested by cockroaches, saw an old bear relieve itself beside a sleeping baby. These eyes followed a fresh carcass carried by a loyal mule to the opposite end of the arena, where a mound of bloodied carcasses waited for the vultures and flies upon them in case this hell reigned for another day. These eyes embraced a group of white-coated orangutans administer medicine to the convulsing, the comatose, the screaming.
Every animal was covered in sweat, their tongues crawling behind them as they prowled the moist terrain. The pigs congregated in an upper bleacher to partake in a host of substances, courtesy of private stashes that no longer needed to be private. He sat below the pigs and curled up into himself, the memories of the last two days flashed before him, his heart numb to emotions that recently had been fresh wounds. He felt the weight of the noise around him, these eyes glaring at the ground. An energy surged within his bowel, an urge to move, to break from this sadness that sucked the strength from his limbs. It was a faint energy, just enough to be recognized, but it consumed him because it was the only new emotion he had felt since leaving Jerome’s.
These eyes track a group of three giraffes surveying their territory, ready to unleash the wolves and satisfy their hunger. The giraffes spotted a ripe mare alone on a cot, her eyes to the broken ceiling, waiting, pondering, waiting. The wolves were unleashed and these eyes watched them stalk through the trees and low bushes, until they were close enough to raise their heads and smell the sweet scent of untarnished sex. The mare tensed as she was surrounded. Her legs clenched and her face turned red. Her eyes searched for an opening to escape, but the pack had successfully surrounded her. These eyes absorbed the mare’s agony, and suddenly these eyes grew arms and legs, and The Barber finally composed himself and felt a phenomenal energy disperse through his entire body, and a new conviction sprung him from his seat and back on the floor.
The Barber pushed the wolves aside and placed himself in front of the mare. Before the wolves could reclaim their territory, The Barber spoke.
“I want to make a deal with you.”
“Fuck off, asshole, we saw her first.”
“I don’t want her.”
“You tryin ta be a hero, motherfucker?” One of the wolves yanked a gun out his side pocket. “You think anybody’d give a shit I put two in you right now?”
“No, but you’re gonna give a shit about what I’m gonna say. Now this girl, she’s gonna be goin crazy you pull her off this floor. She’s gonna be kickin, screamin, maybe even crack a nut or two. You’ll get what you want, but it’s gonna be a bitch. I’m willing to give you the all the same pleasure, without the fuss. We can all go behind those bleachers and ya’ll can have your way with me.”
“I look like a faggot to you, boy?”
“It’s not a matter of gay or straight, it’s a matter of fucking. You want to, and she doesn’t, and I’mma gonna make sure that everybody gets what they want.”
The wolves considered this, and then let out a stunned laugh.
“Mahn, you hear this pie-eater? Fuckin gay ass motherfucker, you just want some ass.”
The Barber cracked a smiled. “It’s just a hole. You get off either way. It don’t matter that I’m a guy. And like I said, I won’t even struggle. It’ll be nice and clean.”
The wolf with the gun aimed the barrel at the barber’s forehead. “You make a fuckin sound, you fight back in any way, I’ll shoot you and fuck your corpse, got it, mahn?”
“I got it.”
“Yeah, let’s give this pie-eatin faggot some medicine.” The wolves let out a howl as the barber led them behind the bleachers.
While The Barber had been speaking to the wolves, the mare had pressed her palm to the hollow of his back, and when the wolves agreed to his terms, she rested her head against her hand and clenched his shirt, tears of gratitude stripping away the filth of his clothes.
August 30th – One Day After The Storm
The house moaned as water poured in. At one point in the evening they heard the wind tear off the roof, ripping into it with teeth like into a piece of chicken, and water formed bubbles along the ceiling. They huddled in the tub, trying to sleep, when Jerome spoke.
“I’m happy with my life.”
“You’re not dead yet, Jerome.”
“I’m just saying, man. We don’t know what’s going to happen when tonight’s over. We could live another hour, another day, even another year, or that ceiling is going to fall in and kill us any minute. We don’t know. Plus, I’ve never talked to you heart to heart, and a man should do that with his friends.”
“Well, I’m glad that you’re happy with your life.”
“Man, why gotta be like that?”
“Be like what?”
“Like an asshole.”
“Because I am one.”
“You really believe that?”
“Well, you believe that or not,” Jerome said.
“I was joking, man, I feel fine about myself.”
“I have an anger problem, Simòn.”
“I’m saying, I have a pretty bad temper, and that’s partly why I never wanted kids, cause I didn’t want to hit them. And, you know, I never raised a hand to Carla, or any of my family and friends, man. I’m happy I didn’t hurt anyone I love.”
“But you beat the shit out of strangers.”
“So what? They’re strangers. They don’t matter to me.”
“You don’t think there’s a difference?”
“You gotta protect your own. You gotta provide for your own. That’s the American Dream, provide and protect. Man, you can’t do that if you’re always worried about strangers. You gotta be realistic…you know? Look out for those closest to you. That don’t mean you treat strangers like shit, but you can’t be concerned with all their problems and not take care’a your own.”
“All right, that makes sense.”
“So, you lived a good life?”
“I’m not about to die, Jerome.”
“It don’t matter, man. I’m askin you, like if we were in a bar just talking, have you lived a good life?”
“If this was a bar, then I’d tell the bartender to cut you off.”
Simòn felt the rage building in Jerome. He could feel his friend’s hands moving towards his throat. He could feel the question there, rotting in the still air.
“No, Jerome, I’ve not lived a good life. I’ve never done anything challenging. I’ve never pushed myself. I’ve never been with a woman ’cause I loved her. I’ve never been happy with a woman, but I hold on to them until they kick me out. I’ve never quit a job. I’ll put up with anything to keep things the same. I’m weak. I cut hair because it’s easy for me. I could live in a better neighborhood, but I don’t want to pay for the move, and I definitely don’t want a higher rent. My life is full of nevers. My life is full of nothing. And, every time I see Anna, I am reminded of how little I have done. I know she looks down on me; I know everybody looks down on me. I look down on me. I envy you, and respect you, and that’s why I’m such an asshole to you, because you know all this without me saying it, and I’ve never wanted to admit it because I thought if I didn’t say anything I still had a chance to impress you. You’re not even my dad, man, and I’m even worse with him. The bitch of it is, my old man, and you, and everybody I’ve ever known, never, not once, gave me a reason to feel like I had to prove myself to them. I’ve just always felt worse than other people. I don’t know, not that it makes any difference now.”
They listened to the walls creak and the water patter, patter, swoosh.
“You’re a stupid man. You know you’re full of shit, but do nothing about it.”
“I never looked down on you, man.”
“No, you don’t. You don’t know shit. You’re the best friend I ever had. Why else would I be crammed up in my tub with you talkin like I’m about to die? You don’t even see that, do you? Even now, man, you don’t even see what you’re capable of. Listen, we get out of this, you change that shitty attitude of yours, ya hear?”
“I love you, man. You’re my brother; you know that, right?”
“You’re mine too.”
August 31st – Two Days After The Storm
The Barber stumbled onto the main floor, his head swimming, his mouth chapped, his throat slimy, his legs cramped, and blood streaming from his asshole to his feet. He clenched his stomach and stumbled toward the orangutans in white coats. He grabbed one of the orangutans and asked for a bed. The orangutan shrieked something before The Barber collapsed, the room spinning, the roof expanding. He heard rain slap water. He heard the wind scrape against exposed metal. He heard Jerome’s footsteps in the water before opening the door. He saw the orangutan pick him up with two other orangutans and place him on something soft. He heard himself scream before being turned onto his belly.
He stared into the bloodstained fabric and heard the water rush in as the door opened. Jerome told him to get some sleep, the worst was over, and the water wasn’t too high. A woman sat in front of him, and he knew her, but could not place from where until her face filled with worry and he realized she was the mare, and in her eyes he saw his friend’s shadow journey through the flooded house, a hulking black figure against the soft orange light.
Time flowed back and forth, at one moment he laid on his side holding the woman’s hand, at the next he was in that bathroom, waiting for his friend to return. The woman spoke to him, the orangutans spoke to him, the jungle shrieked and hissed and roared. The house grew silent and he became restless and stepped into the water. The jungle grew quiet and the lights went out, and he was at A Cut Above giving young Bobbie Gresham a crew cut like his father’s, and trading jokes with Vince, and nodding to and uh-huh-ing of Mrs. Langford’s gossip.
Then, the lights were back on and he heard loud shots and the animals scattered and shrieked and a loud voice, a commanding, human voice, cut through the chaotic roar before firing another round of shots into the air. When the beasts had calmed down, the voice chanted orders and the woman stood up and pointed at him. A pair of uniformed soldiers pushed past her and lifted him to his feet, pulling him along a line of sick and dying people, and for the first time he saw the orangutans as doctors and the inhabitants of the sports arena as victims of some terrible event, but he wasn’t sure what the cause of it was.
When the line proceeded out of the sports arena, blue and white spotlights hovered over the people. Camera flashes burst like live ammunition, and the rat-a-tat-tat of helicopters filled the air. Just before boarding his helicopter, a uniformed soldier holding a clipboard and pen yelled something at him and he spoke, for the first time in days, he opened his mouth and asked, “What?”
The soldier repeated, “What is your name?”
He paused for a moment, the words having slipped his mind. He looked at the soldier’s face and realized he had survived this, one way or another, and he could live again.
He smiled and said, “My name is Simòn. Simòn Palmieri.”
Then, he boarded the helicopter and laid on a cot, where a soldier medic hooked him up to an IV. As the bird lifted above the city, Simòn took in the downtown skyline, which was hardly damaged, and in some of the windows he saw lights. And, as they went higher, he saw vehicles driving down the streets, and this made him smile.
Hanging there, in the air over the ravaged city, a whispered voice, Jerome’s voice, echoed through his head.
“You got lucky, brah. Don’t fuck it up.”1
- The photographs used throughout this piece were taken by the incredibly talented Richard Misrach. [↩]