The atmosphere is already filled with ghosts long before we arrive, bringing our own. The architecture of the French Quarter casts shadows onto the sidewalk that look like crippled fingers. It is not difficult to imagine Anne Rice’s Lestat walking these streets, nor is it difficult to picture Tennessee Williams’ heroines leaning from the balcony windows that decorate the houses. In the French Quarter, everything seems so perfectly preserved. Walking two blocks out of the French Quarter, you can see that this perfection is a complete illusion. Even though so many years have passed since Katrina and Rita ruined the city, we pass houses that still look like shanties we had seen on the evening news.
We sit in our hotel, waiting for our friend’s plane to come in. Our little four-some was originally intended to be a five-some. We would all be reunited soon enough, once the constant weather delays stopped. He had been put on a plane that morning and had spent almost as much time waiting in the airport as we did driving the day before. Suggestions about dinner are delayed again and again—“We have to wait for Warren. What happens if Warren’s plane gets in soon?” We eat and the phone call announcing his arrival does not come.
His plane comes in and our group is complete without ceremony.
“So how did it go back home?” I ask him when we have a few seconds alone together. He doesn’t look up from his phone except when he needs to.
“Fine I guess. They didn’t need me to testify after all.”
He engages with the phone in a series of taps as he removes himself from our conversation. I don’t press him; he doesn’t want to connect. We share the same bed that night but it feels like we’re far apart. When I wake up the next morning, I’m amazed to find that he’s still in bed beside me; he hadn’t drifted off into another world, leaving behind only a soft tangle of sheets. Even at first waking, he already has the cell phone in his hand and is searching for someone to spend a few hours with on Grindr.
We go down to the farmer’s market, taking an old trolley, holding onto the rails and bumping into other passengers as the car abruptly stops. On the way down, we stop at an old cemetery, covered in raised tombs and sculpted crosses. A guide tells us which graves are cursed; which ones local people believe hold the bodies of mystics and witches who can still perform favors for the living—for an offering placed on their gravestone. The relationship with death is a completely different one that the one I experience at home. The raised tombs and crypts reinforce the idea that a tomb or burial plot holds more than just a representation of the deceased. It’s a more direct connection with the realness of it. We board the trolley again and take it to the market.
When we get into the farmer’s market, we separate and each find our niche area, looking at all the stuff on offer and each picking up a small something to take home with us. After an hour we gather together again for a snack. Joy and I try alligator meat for the first time, looking with suspicion at the sausage on a roll we’ve been handed by a vendor. The alligator holds a little bit of kick, like regular sausage but with a flavor that is clearly its own.
As he takes a lick off his ice cream cone Warren gets a text message from his aunt. I don’t make anything of it at first, since Warren has been on and off his phone the whole afternoon; it seems surgically attached to him. He looks over at me and leans over, motioning me to lean over too.
“The verdict came in; he’s guilty,” he makes a whisper.
“I’m so sorry.”
“They still haven’t said whether or not he’s going to get the death penalty yet.”
Everything loses its flavor as he walks away, wanting to be alone for a few minutes. Back at the hotel an hour later, he looks into the screen of his phone and reads the headlines. The jury decides to move for the death sentence. A long series of appeals begins.
For the rest of the day, everything feels odd to both of us.
Driving back from New Orleans to Pennsylvania is roughly a twenty-four hour experience; one that is conducive to meditation. The road unfolds on a long stretch of highway—perfectly straight and vacant at ten in the morning. The road is extremely hypnotic. The thought starts rushing through my mind: what can I do to help? There is always a solution.
Even with all of the scenarios swirling around my mind, not one resembles a solution.
A week later, I go to his father’s house to help Warren clean out some of his father’s things. When I leave that night, I stop as I walk out the back door, looking out at the darkness and shadows on the lawn. Were these the same shadows his father saw when he fired the gun? I’m imagining it lit up by police headlights. It’s all I can do not to throw up as I think about the murder playing fast behind my eyes, a shake rolls down my spine as I make my way back to my car. I sit there with my head between my knees, taking slow sips off a water bottle, taking shallow breaths. The house looks like so many other houses, in an atmosphere collecting its own ghosts.