Johnny had turned his place into a kind of refuge for the various flotsam and jetsam that floated down the river, of the male kind; I had been one of Johnny’s Boys for awhile, when I came down to New Orleans after my divorce. I had money in my bank account and had spent six months in my cabin pretty much just thinking – watching the trees sway in the breeze in the summer, and watching the leaves fall in autumn. But when winter came it turned bitterly cold, and I found that I had not cut enough wood. And I was unhappy, in general. Then there were four consecutive nights when the temperature hit twenty degrees below zero, and the waste-pipe for my toilet froze. I decided to just pick up and leave – and that is exactly what I did. When a friend came to check up on the house a few months later, he said, “Boy John you weren’t kidding when you said you just picked up and left. There’s a half-eaten sandwich and a frozen bottle of Pepsi on the table!”
I kept on driving south, unhappy all the while, with no particular plan except that I knew I needed warmth; I hit the Gulf Coast at Panacea, Florida, and then hugged the coast west until I hit New Orleans. When I got there I knew I should stay. After a few days I found someone advertising a room for rent. It was Johnny. I went to meet him, and left with a keychain with a little angel on it. I stayed there three months, with another one of his boys, Danny, who was living in another bedroom. Danny was on drugs of some sort – maybe cocaine, maybe heroin, maybe something else, I’m not good at telling – and he worked as a waiter or busboy around town. He would miss work from time to time and get fired. “That bitch,” he would come back saying. “I missed like two days of work and the bitch fires me, just like that.” He had a girlfriend, so I kind of envied him. At first I thought she was nice, but I got the sense over time that she was a highly talented liar and so could easily fool a dupe like me into thinking she was nice: she was probably a fair amount of trouble. Her pupils were very oddly large and her body very oddly skinny, so I think she was on some kind of drug too. They’d have terrible fights in the middle of the night, and once or twice I intervened because I thought he was going to hurt her. For whatever reason, men hurting women makes me angry enough to kill – I can’t bear even thinking about such men.
I caught him stealing money from my room one day when I was in the shower, and I also loaned him some money at one point. When I came back to New Orleans a few years ago I thought maybe I might get the money back, because I had no money then myself; and maybe Danny’s affairs had prospered a bit (who knows). When I went to see Johnny I asked him about Danny, and he just looked at me from across his kitchen table and said, “Morte.”
“Morte.” Something about the way he avoided the word “dead” in English made it all the more forceful and impersonal and weird and cosmic. ”Some place opened up for him down in the Quarter, and he wanted to go down there. I told him, ‘Don’t do that, Danny. You got a problem, that’s a bad place. In the Quarter you can get anything anytime. You can’t go down there.’ But he wanted to go. So I called his parents. I said, ‘Get down here and get your son. He’s trying to move down into the French Quarter and he’s gonna end up dead. I’m tellin’ you he’s gonna end up dead.’ They didn’t do anything. Six months later he was dead. Overdose.”
This was Johnny to me – he was wise, he knew what he was talking about, and when things came to a head he could figure out what was right and try to make it happen. He cared too – he was really a good human being with real substance. But some things require the cooperation of the world, and they just don’t make it through. He tried to save Danny, and it hadn’t worked.
It was terrible to think about – one of the many, many New Orleans stories that don’t have any redemptive ending.
“What happened to that girl he was dating?”
“I don’t know. Which one? There were a few. But I wouldn’t know.”
In my old room at that time there was a young boy – he was maybe eighteen – who had run away from home. He was a skinny blond kid, and looked terribly, terribly young. He had ridden freight trains down to New Orleans. I couldn’t believe people still did that. Johnny helped get him a job working for a circus – I couldn’t believe people still did that either. The circuses wintered on the Gulf, and moved north in the springtime. Johnny had worked for them himself as a young man.
So he and I found ourselves seated at his old kitchen table – which hadn’t changed at all in all this time, of course, the same salt shakers, the same old clocks, the same dishes – and got caught up once again. We talked of our lovelives and then of people we knew.
“So what ever happened to that kid who came down here on the freight trains as a hobo?”
“The one who joined the circus.”
“Yeah, Kyle. He, uh – he had a little accident with an elephant.” The way Johnny said this – he’s an Italian from Staten Island, and he can go the gangster deadpan like no one’s business – was really pretty priceless.
“You’re kidding me.”
“Kind of sad. Yeah, the elephant really hurt him pretty bad. He was pretty messed up.”
I know I’m a horrible person, but again, I just couldn’t help laughing the New Orleans laugh – the desperate laugh against the absurd horror of it all. “An accident with an elephant! The elephant stomped him out!”
Johnny smiled a bit himself – it was absurd. Kyle was such an innocent little boy – it would make sense that he would not quite have the instincts to know when a large animal was telling him to buzz off. “Well, it was pretty bad. He was in the hospital for awhile.”
The current roommate Johnny had had been in a bad bicycling accident, and despite wearing a helmet had suffered serious head trauma, and his rehab process had been long and difficult. Speaking to each other I think we both knew that we too, because of our desire to live artistic lives – Johnny with his music, me with my writing – were exposed. We were fighting to make sure our story didn’t end this way.
Because there were so many bad stories. New Orleans seemed to gather them – all the loose-end men of the country: no wives, no children, no one to love them, no family that was there when it counted, no steady job, no health insurance, no property, no prospects. Like trees ripped from the banks of the river, they float down and pile up here, waiting for the next flood to shoot them out to sea.