I’d stepped into the courtyard of Café Amelie to take the call from Hannah but I could only make out every third word she said: Sam, the police, hallucinogenic mushrooms, the Mississippi. Sam was always getting into it with the police and I couldn’t even tell if Hannah was talking to me or to Nick or to someone else at the bar. She hung up mid-sentence.
My father’s friend had taken me out to lunch because he was in New Orleans for a lawyer convention, and he’d been instructed by my mother to feed me and report back to her. I could see him through the window dabbing his mustache with the napkin every seven seconds like he was checking the rearview mirror. I came back inside and finished my plate of oysters Rockefeller, chewing slowly so that he would do all the talking.
Sam is a flat silhouette, backlit by a police car’s beams. At his feet are several empty cans of spray paint. On the warehouse wall is a stenciled mural of Hannah blowing down on the city like it’s a cake.
I’d seen Sam the night before. I’d woken up to him sitting on the edge of my mattress, stroking my nose. Hannah and Nick were moaning quietly in the other room and Sam seemed dazed.
“I have a theory” Sam said, “that people with upturned noses and people with downturned noses are always attracted to each other.” But when I’d reached up to touch his big hooked nose, he got up and walked out of the house.
After my father’s friend dropped me off at home, Hannah called again, this time from the bar bathroom where I could hear her better. “Lou. You have to come please now,” she said. She and Nick were at the Irish Rose.
I walked around Hannah’s room, trying to find her keys. Then I remembered Sam had gotten her this little magnetic box to stick to the undercarriage of the car. He’d gotten her the car too, an old Cadillac for her thirtieth birthday. I hated driving it, because I didn’t have a license and it was so big and birds were always flying into the windshield.
We called in to Car Talk once to ask about the birds. They said not to keep the glass too clean, but that was hardly the issue. Bruno’s fur was stuck to everything and the backseat was overflowing with our finds from a flooded out school—moldy love letters, science models, picture encyclopedias. Sam had taken us there, led us through the hallways, ankle-deep in composition notebooks, past the blackboards splattered with bird shit. I had just moved to New Orleans and I remember standing by the window watching the sun glint off the passing cars while Hannah and Nick emptied out the lockers and Sam dragged around a life size anatomy model he’d found in the science lab. I remember that sound the bones made when they clicked against each other, like a tangled wind chime.
I took the bridge instead of the ferry because I thought it would be faster, but traffic was at a standstill. Police lights were flashing in the distance.
Sam’s face strobes blue then red.
I was worried for a second the lights were for Sam, even though the bridge wasn’t near where they’d been hanging out. Then I thought they were for me. The last thing I needed was to be stopped again without a license. I had smoked to get myself through that lunch and I was still a little stoned.
“The sun is setting on the Mississippi,” I said out loud several times in a row, a tongue twister to calm myself down. Up ahead, a white pickup truck was mashed into the guardrail, and eventually we started to move past it, slowly like a dirge.
Nick and Hannah were waiting outside the bar when I pulled up. I didn’t even stop, just slowed down and they got in, but half a block later I had to pull over and roll down all the windows because they smelled funny, like a rotting piece of melon wrapped in a wet rag. Several times I asked them what happened. I could see Nick, in the rearview mirror, laying across the back seat, his head resting on a sewing machine.
“Sam’s a goddamn maniac. That’s what happened,” he said eventually.
“Maniac!” Hannah repeated and stuck her tongue out at me. She told me where to drive, but they didn’t want to get out. The light in the car stayed on for a few seconds after my door closed. I could see Nick’s hand on Hannah’s neck, her yellow hair swaying over her face like a pendulum as she shook it off.
There weren’t any cops up on the levee or evidence that there had ever been any. This part of the river was deserted and dark. I had taken my shoes off for driving and left them in the car, and the grass was slick and still warm, like I was walking on spots where someone had just been sitting. I flipped open my cell phone and pointed it down at the water, but its glow only illuminated a few raindrops. The water below looked black and opaque. The river was much higher than usual because of all the rain and the snow melting up in Minnesota or Wisconsin or wherever it is the Mississippi starts. I didn’t know what I had expected to see. The last ferry of the night was docking on the opposite bank.
Concentric water rings, the surface of the river pockmarked by the rain. Sam’s shoe bobs in the water, caught on a rock in the embankment. It is a very distinctive shoe, a red limited edition sneaker that he won from Nick in a poker game. Sam wears them all the time, even though they are too small and he had to take the laces out.
I opened Hannah’s door and tried to get her to slide over into the driver’s side, but she wouldn’t budge so I climbed over her and started the car. Hannah and Nick weren’t saying anything and the only sound was the rain and the thrum of the tires as we drove onto the bridge.
“He went swimming?” I asked finally. It felt like I was poking at something soft with a stick, but before I could get an answer a bird slammed into the windshield on the driver’s side. I swerved onto the bridge’s narrow shoulder and sparks flew from the guardrail. Hannah had to grab the steering wheel and maneuver the car back into the lane. Nick was upright, screaming. He opened the door, and several of the paperbacks we had on the back seat flew out before Hannah wrestled him away from the door handle.
“Jesus Christ,” she said punching his arm. “Get a hold of yourself.”
“You’re all goddamn maniacs,” Nick muttered and rubbed his arm. “Why don’t you tell her about what happened, Hannah,” he said and kicked the back of her seat.
The bird’s wing was pinned under the windshield wiper, following its arc. The broken feathers and head scratched and thumped against the glass. Hannah pulled her hair back from her face and twisted it into a pile she held on top of her head, her eyes following the bird’s movement.
“I don’t know why the birds are up,” she said, and then after a while, “I’m sure Sam is fine.”
Nick leaned forward between us and flicked off the wipers.
Hannah told me once how she and Sam met. She’d been waitressing at an Upper East Side bar, the kind of place my dad would go to with his clients. The bar was known for its fish tank full of ethereal swimming girls in mermaid tails. One day, during a heat wave, Hannah saw a naked giant doing somersaults in the water. All those girls with red chlorinated eyes had scrambled out of his way. Pressed up against the glass, the magic was broken and their skin looked just like packaged chicken. Hannah said she remembered Sam looking at her and his long blond hair floating up around him like he was in a painting. I’d always assumed Nick had been there too, asleep at the end of the bar or flirting with an older woman. But he probably wasn’t. Back then Nick would have still had his record contract and would have been on tour in Japan or somewhere doing lines of coke off of high-tech toilets.
As soon as we got home Hannah started washing dishes. Halfway through, the power went off so she lit Sam’s camping lantern and finished scrubbing out the stockpot. None of us were talking to each other.
Nick propped the guitar he’d been strumming against the wall, and started taking the perishables out of the refrigerator. The blackouts usually only lasted a couple of hours, so it wasn’t like the food would have had time to spoil, but Nick was going through it with intense concentration.
The first time the power went off, I’d assumed Hannah hadn’t sent Entergy the check, until I looked out the window and saw that the neon sign over The Phoenix was off and people were piling out of the building with candles like there was a vigil. It was the power grid, someone explained later, it had warped and never dried properly after the storm.
I opened the screen door to let Bruno in and he shook off in the middle of the kitchen, then circled around us before going to lie down under the table. Nick was mixing together a really big omelet using everything we had in the refrigerator. I sat there for a while, with Bruno breathing on my ankles. I kept remembering Sam’s hand on my face the night before, the way he had looked when he left my room, the way he always had to stoop to avoid bumping his head on the doorframe. It made me want to call him. I didn’t expect him to answer or anything. I did it almost out of superstition, because I knew it would have broken from being under water, but it would have been nice to hear his voice on the message. I listened to it ring a few times, and then Nick’s pocket lit up and glowed blue in the dark. He ignored it even though it was buzzing against his leg. Instead, he took a step back, his eyes focused on the frying pan, and flipped the omelet over, scattering a few pieces of ham onto the floor. I left Sam a message as I watched Bruno waddle out from under the table and eat the fallen meat.
By the time we were done eating Nick and Hannah’s eyes didn’t look as high and unfocused.
“Lou,” Hannah howled, finally breaking the silence, and leaned into my shoulder. “I don’t know what we should do.” Her chin was digging into my collarbone, but I didn’t want her to move it.
Nick drained his glass of milk and wiped his mouth.
“I guess I just don’t understand what happened,” I said. “Why do you have his cell phone?” I turned to Nick.
“Because he handed it to me before he jumped in the river.”
“Was he trying to kill himself?” I lowered my voice when I said “kill.” I sounded just like my mother.
Hannah scrunched up her nose and looked at me like I was crazy.
“No, it was life affirming,” Nick said, and the way he said it I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or what. His chair scraped against the linoleum as he got up to put his plate in the sink. “He told Hannah he was sick of this whole ‘situation,’ as Hannah likes to call it. He wanted a fresh start.”
Hannah started to laugh. She grabbed Nick’s arm and pulled him into her, until he relented and was sitting on her lap. I left them there with the camping lantern and their black eye sockets.
Wet footprints. A wet spot on my mattress. A puddle by the front door.
It was a little after midnight when I knocked on our landlord’s door. She was a nice dwarf woman named Nancy who lived on the other side of our shotgun, and was always biking around town with the basket of her Cruiser full of baguettes and fruit from the farmer’s market. She answered the door wearing a headlamp. I blinked, blinded momentarily by the bright light. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and see that she had company.
“Are you alright?” she asked, covering the lamp with the palm of her hand.
I told her about Sam. She knew him from when he’d lived in the apartment before I moved in, after which he only sort of lived there when Nick didn’t.
“That’s not good,” her guest said from the small couch, his voice dealing only with the factual. “That was a fool thing to do, with the riptides and the high water level.” My throat felt tight and I struggled to light a cigarette.
“He’s a good swimmer,” I said as if I had seen him swim before. Nancy lent me a Yellow Pages and a flashlight and hugged my waist tightly before I left.
“I’d start with the jail,” she said as she closed the door.
Sam’s fingertips are covered in black ink. He is drawing with them on the cell wall. Cave paintings. There are three other men in the cell. One of them is shivering, the other two are sitting on the bench with their arms crossed, trying to sleep.
The OPP wouldn’t tell us anything over the phone. I called my father’s friend and woke him up.
I’d tried to sound like a casual do-gooder. I told him it was my friend’s neighbor who was in jail, otherwise he might have told my parents who were looking for an excuse to stop sending me money. The bad company I kept would have been enough. He called me back a few minutes later: nobody named Sam Katz had been booked there.
Nick, Hannah and I were sitting on my bed, the lantern propped up against the pillow. The rain outside was getting heavier and the shutters on my window were blowing back and forth. It felt like furniture was being moved around in my chest but Hannah seemed calm.
“I knew they wouldn’t have processed him yet. He’s not even in their system,” she said.
“And, it’s not like he would have used his real name. It’s usually John Brown or Paul Revere. What was the name he used in Portland? Jules E. Jim?”
Hannah didn’t answer him. She was making faces at the dog.
“Then I’ll get a call at six in the morning asking for bail money,” Nick continued, “like it’s his God-given-right.”
“What else would you do with all your money?” Hannah had an edge in her voice but she was not looking up from Bruno. She was tickling the dog’s nose with a strand of her hair. Bruno’s ecstasy peaked in a series of sneezes.
“I don’t owe him anything. He takes advantage of the fact that my family practically raised him,” Nick said.
Hannah got up and emptied the ashtray.
“What happened when the police came?” I asked them.
“We got the hell out of there. Hannah’s on probation.”
“You’re on probation too,” Hannah said, sitting back down on the bed.
“That’s in another state. And it’s erased by now.”
“No, I mean what did you see them doing to Sam?”
“They threw down a donut, and the coast guard was there,” Hannah said.
“Did he grab it?”
“We were tripping our balls off. Us being there wouldn’t have helped anyone.” Nick was getting defensive.
Rescue workers stand in a boat shouting down into the water. Sam grasps for the red donut. His hand slips. He goes under. The water is murky and dark, and he disappears from view almost instantly. The workers get quiet. Then, moments later Sam kicks his way up, coughing. The current has pulled him closer to the boat. A woman in an orange life vest gets on her knees and reaches for him, clutching at the back of his shirt.
“Sam is really starting to piss me off,” Hannah said. She was lying on her back staring at the water damage on my ceiling.
We’d called Touro, Ochsner, and St. Vincent’s, and now I was on hold with Charity. There was no Sam Katz in any of these places. No 6’5, thirty-one-year-old, Caucasian male with a scar over his eyebrow and a tattoo of a cantaloupe on his bicep had been admitted in the last twenty-four hours. I had always thought the tattoo was supposed to be a planet, or maybe a dinosaur egg, but Hannah was sure it was a cantaloupe. She said she drew it herself. Charity finally took me off hold. I described him again to the attendant, who offered to transfer me to the morgue. I hung up.
“We should just go to these places in the morning,” I said. Nick had fallen asleep in the living room on the couch that we had been meaning to throw out. Mice had chewed tunnels into the stuffing and were living inside of them.
Hannah didn’t get up from my bed. She turned on her side to face me, reached out her arm and let it fall onto my hip.
“This is exactly the kind of selfish shit he’d pull that makes me glad we’re not still together,” she said, looking at me with her puffy magnetic face.
With a swarm and a buzz, the electricity came on. I got up and went through the house, back to front, switching off all the lights. I could hear things moving around in the couch under Nick. This gave me a certain pleasure, but not any more so than looking at his beautiful face up close like this, without having to deal with his gaze. Hannah was already asleep when I finally turned the lights off in my room. I lay next to her, not touching, but close enough to feel the heat coming off of her body.
That night I dreamt that Hannah was knitting a sack around all of us out of green wool. She had been working on it for hours and she was almost done. Inside it was hot and itchy. Through the shrinking porthole, we could see people’s knees as they walked by and sometimes a child’s face. When Hannah put down the knitting needles she let Sam and me massage her hands, then she cracked her knuckles, and got back to work until the hole was closed. And then, darkness.
My mother called in the morning and woke me up. I had fallen asleep with my phone in my hand, and her name, lighting up and buzzing was the first thing I saw that day. Needless to say, I didn’t answer. A call outside of our every-third-Sunday talking schedule would not contain good news. My father’s friend must have told her something.
I went out to open the storm shutters. The rain had stopped and I could hear the calliope from the steamboat, even after I went inside. I found Hannah in the kitchen, drinking coffee and sewing a spine onto a journal she was making.
“Touch this,” she said, putting my hand on the cover. The green fabric was soft, and worn through in places so you could see the cardboard. It felt like touching a spider web, but not sticky. I had taken up a lot of Hannah’s hobbies, but bookmaking never interested me.
“It’s soft,” I said, awkwardly entwining my fingers with hers.
“That’s because mice have been chewing on it,” she said, not seeming to notice my hand.
I let go and poured myself some coffee. “So, do you want to start with the OPP?”
“Nick’s already on his way there. He took the car.”
“We could bike over to St. Vincent’s, and then Charity, the branch of it that’s downtown.”
Hannah stubbed out her cigarette. “I’m going to quit smoking, I think.” She opened her pack and counted how many were left. “You can have the rest if you want them.” She passed the box to me.
“Or we could go to Oschner first. I guess it would be more likely that they’d take him to a hospital on the Westbank.”
“This is exactly what he wants. Attention,” she said, putting her hair up into a bun.
I didn’t tell her that it seemed very possible that Sam didn’t want anything at this point. Instead, I said that if we wanted to go to Oschner, it would make more sense for us to take the bus.
Shafts of sunlight stream in between the oak’s branches. Sam’s hair is still wet. He is watching a large barge stacked with green, red and orange shipping containers, float past him. His shirt is wrapped around his arm in a tourniquet. When he stands up, his back is imprinted from the tree bark.
In the waiting room, Hannah was watching an obese woman in a wheelchair knitting a scarf.
“What were you talking about before he jumped?” I asked.
“You!” She laughed, but when she saw my face, I could tell she felt bad. “I honestly don’t remember. Maybe about going to Mexico? Nick’s uncle has a houseboat.”
I wouldn’t look at her, so she got up and sat next to the woman in the wheelchair. I could hear them talking about the loop stitch and diabetes. I went back to the attendant and knocked on the glass. He looked up at me and slid open the window.
“What,” he said.
“We’ve been waiting for over an hour.”
He looked down at something crusted to the front of his shirt and picked at it with his nail. “You don’t seem very sick. Sick people get priority.”
I told him again about Sam, gave the same description.
“Oh, right,” he said. “He’s not here.”
“I could have told you he wouldn’t be there,” Hannah said as we waited for the bus. “Sam hates hospitals.”
A train takes up the length of the rail yard on St. Claude. Sam is struggling with the door to one of the cars, but it’s locked. He tries again with the next one. And the one after that. They are all bolted shut. A crunch in the gravel. Footsteps. Sam freezes. More crunching. Voices. He pauses in the shadow where the two train cars are hitched together and peers out. The man on the other side has a dreadlock in his beard and a guitar on his back, the girl has on striped stockings and is carrying a cat. They are talking about the open boxcars in the back. Sam straightens up. The sun is making the pebbles hot, and he tries to walk only in the shadows.
It was foggy that night on the levee when Hannah and I were walking Bruno. He’d get a pace or two ahead and disappear. Lights from the industrial bridge cut orange beams into the fog, and somewhere, far away, maybe on the other side of the river, we could hear a girl’s voice, beautiful and slightly off key. She was singing a song that was always on the radio about a stripper. Bruno’s tail emerged from the fog, then disappeared again, and Hannah and I were alone in the small space where we could see everything.
“It feels like being inside of an egg,” she said, stretching her arms out and watching her fingertips disappear. I rested my tongue between the gap in my front teeth. I would have liked very much to be inside of an egg with her.
Then suddenly, a shadowy figure took shape in the fog only a few paces away.
“Sam!” Hannah leaped toward him.
But I could have told her it wasn’t Sam. Too short. The man looked taken aback. He was holding a leash. Hannah ran her fingers through her hair, which was damp and flattened against her big head. The corners of her mouth were twitching slightly.
The wind whips through the open boxcar. Outside are hours of wheat fields. The gold stretches to the horizon, turns grey in the twilight. The girl in the striped stockings offers Sam a drag of her cigarette, calls him Jim, gives him a shirt. The train slows outside of Belle Plaine, Kansas and Sam jumps off. From there he walks to the junction to catch the Sunset Limited.
When we got home that night, Nick was sitting on our porch weepy and drunk. The police had never arrested Sam. They’d lost sight of him in the water and when it got dark, that was that. Hannah went back to sewing the journal binding in the kitchen and ignored us both.
I sat with Nick for a while, letting him paw at me and listening to him repeat the same thing over and over until I started drinking myself.
“Answer your goddamn phone,” Hannah screamed from inside the house. My mother had been calling me all day, and I had stopped hearing it. Before I could turn the ringer off, Nick had knocked it out of my hands. It flew open and landed at my feet.
“Louise? Louise?” A tinny voice came from the speaker.
My mother had been calling me all day, it turned out, because my grandfather died. I’d always felt close to him even though he never talked much and I hadn’t seen him in years. My mother said on the phone that he’d had a heart attack, but later I found out he drank himself to death.
I flew back to Connecticut the next morning for the funeral. I hadn’t planned on staying long, but he had always wanted me to go back to school and my trust fund depended on it. Before I even agreed, my mother had made all the arrangements and I was back in a little cement dormitory at Barnard, several weeks into the semester, surrounded by people with hyphenated names. Sometimes on my way to class I would get a call from Hannah and she would sound strange and faraway and a little slurry. She was still living in the same place, she said, and her dog was doing okay. For my birthday she sent me a journal she’d sewn, the one the mice had chewed on.
Three months after Sam disappeared it was assumed that he was dead. The body, or what was left of it, was probably in the Gulf of Mexico. I heard from my old landlord that Sam’s father came down from San Francisco and so did Nick’s parents. There was a ceremony and everyone went to the river and put down flowers and talked about Sam. Hannah stopped calling after that. And then, when a few months had passed without me hearing from her, I called and found out that her phone had been disconnected.
It is hot out and the sky is wide and blue. A deep blue only found in deserts. Sam is walking through a botanical garden. His hair is shorter and he has a beard. He stops to look up at the Saguaro; it is tall as a flagpole, with several arms you want to shake. A Japanese couple asks him to take their picture next to a blossoming pitaya.
“That cactus is pollinated by bats,” he tells them, handing back the camera. “Bats,” he repeats, and flaps his arms.
A cactus snake winds its way around a red Mexican lime cactus and through an Organ pipe cactus bush. So many succulents! Sam crouches next to a cluster of rabbit ears. They look like plush toys with little white pompoms, a costume a child might wear to a school pageant. He rubs his fingers over the white bristly nubs, until a spine lodges under his nail. He curses, stands up, sucks on his finger, looks at it, and sucks on it some more.
Near the exit, he stops to read a metal placard: ‘Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa californica)—Most bees in the desert are solitary bees like the carpenter bee. They do not live in hives like the honey bees introduced from the Old West.’ He takes the finger out of his mouth, squints at the sun, and then I see him, between the cactuses.