Joel Dinerstein is Professor of English at Tulane University and the former Director of the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South. He is the author of two cultural studies on the concepts of cool and swing, respectively -- The Origins of Cool in Postwar America (2017) and Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African-American Culture (2003) – and curated the exhibit American Cool at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. This is his first published short story.
Cat’s Out (New Orleans before the Storm)
So I’m unloading the truck my very first afternoon as a resident of N’awlins, Benjamin Fursten wrote his friends a mass e-mail in the swampy late August heat, and this guy pulls up right in front of my side of the double-shotgun in a car ravaged by rust and with its dashboard punched out. “Is Miss Ettry home?” He stares at my front door and all the boxes. “She doesn’t live here,” I say, and “No, no, she lives on the corner,” he points to the big gray house next door hemmed in by shrubbery. “Mmm-no, her car’s not here.” And so, the old codger starts asking where I’m from, why I’ve come to New Orleans, et cetera. He’s about sixty, weathered, tanned from outdoor manual labor, and just shy of toothless. I tell him I’ve come to teach American History at Loyola — just this morning finished the drive down from Chicago.
“Is it a good job?” he asks, and I say: “It’s a good gig for now.” And he nods seriously, his smoke-damaged blue eyes holding their own in a slack-skinned face that bobs like a ceramic doll’s. He leans over and flicks some ash out the passenger window.
“If you wanna keep a good job here,” he raises an eyebrow suggestively, “in New-awlins?” He exhales, “Then you got to stay home.” He pauses, stares at me, stokes his declaration with grave significance. “You got to Stay. Home.” A wrinkled brown index finger shot out at me — it looked like a chicken nugget. “You got to make yourself. Stay. Home,” he repeats, and “I will,” I say, but “Easy not to,” he shakes his head. I nod in recognition of his perspicacious advice, and we shake hands across his strafed vinyl front seat. Then his muffler belches and the big Buick groans and something scrapes the pavement as he pulls out.
“‘Cat’s out,” he waves and half-smiles toothlessly.
It was like getting a visit from the Ancient Mariner. Or, more accurately, as if the Ancient Mariner had just docked in New Orleans for a day off the shrimper he was currently dooming with his very presence. As if he had borrowed some buddy’s beat-up old Buick to visit the last relative he had in the world, Miss Ettry, a Southern lady who was somehow the custodian of the shredded remnants of his childhood. As if he came to reassure her he’s still alive, still had that albatross following him around, was still following his destiny, trying to warn folks not to fuck up bad as he had. Maybe he returned later that night and carved his name on Miss Ettry’s gray, weathered chest-high wicker fence, a Tom Sawyer gone to seed, a motherless, rudderless Ishmael hungering for port, humming to himself, maybe even mouthing the words, “once there was a way/ to get back homeward.”
Homeward, Benjamin hummed the word as he drifted off to sleep, what would that mean now. He was about to begin his fourth consecutive one-year gig as a visiting professor of American History and he lay awake mapping his recent travels. He had now metaphorically rafted down the Mississippi to New Orleans from Chicago (a year teaching American Studies at DePaul), having drifted Midwest from upstate New York (a year teaching the Civil War at Hamilton College), before which he’d spent a year teaching Western History at the University of Denver as he finished his dissertation on the utopian visions of technology at the World’s Fairs. Still trolling for a tenure-track job at 39, Benjamin had no doubt he would soon be happily settled and with family, that his intentions were solid and sound, that his destiny called for a long period of wandering but he was on his way home.
It was during the harsh winter in upstate New York two years ago that he became prone to mythologising his life late at night, weaving his own wanderings into the national lore. Teaching a relentless 5/5 course load, he barely had enough time to sleep and do laundry, never mind work on his book manuscript. So, starting that Halloween night, he began sending up e-mail flares, usually to Audrey (his ex-), spinning a long routine day of teaching and grading into a stellar array of potentialities.
A boring date with a local potter became a ’60s hippie dream of leading a guild-based revolt against Martha Stewart, Wal-Mart, and Chinet; a homeless man’s apocalyptic screams outside the post office sent the town into a vortex back to the Second Great Awakening, when the area was the site of giant revivals, mass hysteria, and something akin to Christian ecstatic possession; the wind whipping through the weakening roof became Seneca Ghosts that lay dormant in the pipes of his second-floor apartment in the town’s decaying industrial core. Mornings he ritually woke to the alarm-controlled coffee drip, reading short pieces on Salon or Slate, singing something like the Counting Crows’ “The Rain King”: “I belong / in the service of the queen,” he’d shout in a hoarse whisper as he scraped the snow off the windshield, “I belong / anywhere / but in-between.”
To Benjamin, the opening-day encounter with the Codger was a visitation: it established his rite to a myth in a new town. He chewed on its meaning for weeks and thought it a good omen, but in mid-October Audrey got sick of hearing about it. “You never could read the subtext of your own obsessions,” she wrote, secure in her tenure-track post in English at Dickinson College in rural Pennsylvania.
“You know why you love this story?” she taunted him. “Because the Ancient Mariner has a fate, a narrative destiny: he’s Mr. Bad Luck, Mr. Doom Harbinger. His wanderings are hardwired into his narrative function. You wish you had a fate — as if there could be such a thing. But you’re not a program, Benjamin; you’re human in a random universe and afraid to make permanent choices you’re responsible for. Oh fuck it, this will only lead where it always leads…. So, I’ll just say it’s a beautiful fall day here in Carlisle, PA, and I picked some Macs. I’ll try and send you some. —Aud.”
He leaned back in the ergonomic chair Audrey had bought for his thirty-fifth birthday and an old fight of theirs replayed as if wired into the headrest. “You think you can’t be wrong about your future success, as if it’s fated. You’re cocksure. That’s why you’re the only person who doesn’t like The Sopranos episodes with Tony and the shrink; it’s too close to home. Tony’s cocksure, sure, but at least he’s willing — sometimes — to hunt the neuroses underneath. Not you. And you won’t even go into counseling to save … us. Even though you do love me.”
The chair’s argument was musty, but Audrey had hit a nerve that long-ago evening: Where had his fate gone? When was the last time he felt on the path rather than on the road? Probably just before their final break-up three years back. But that would surely lead where it always did, so “Interesting theory,” he popped quickly back to the screen, “I’ll run it by the local spirits and get back to you. Cat’s out. —BF.”
Local spirits? He barely knew what he meant. Some combination of the Codger’s smoke-screen mixed with the vestiges of voodoo he’d overheard from some guide in the Garden District. Benjamin worried that he now fed derivative hopes with lost purpose — that he had become, even in his chosen profession, a storyteller without self-awareness: a ghost ship. Then he shook the thought off, hit send, shut the a/c down, swiped a hit of Maker’s Mark, chased it with a last slug of water, brushed, got in bed, whacked off, and fell asleep like a baby.
“Cat’s out? What does that mean?” Audrey was there in his inbox early the next morning. “I’d forgotten about your cat & mouse obsession; I guess I hoped you’d outgrown it. Ha! You’re probably wearing that Krazy Kat t-shirt I bought you right now.”
He was. He found her guess unnerving.
In graduate school, Benjamin had written a seminar paper on the cultural phenomenon of the Krazy Kat comic strip in the 1920s and then expanded it into a published article on the animated cat-&-mouse team in the national cultural imagination: Krazy Kat and Ignatz in the ’20s and ’30s; Tom & Jerry in the ’40s and ’50s; Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse in the ’60s; Itchy and Scratchy on The Simpsons. Benjamin had t-shirts of all of them, from Sylvester to Top Cat, Speedy Gonzales to Maus.
“Cat’s out’…no doubt,” Audrey signed off, as if this cat here — Benjamin — was out of his freakin’ mind.
Two weeks later he dreamt again of the Codger sticking that chicken-nugget finger in his face and woke up nestled into the vanilla-tinted back of Charlene Abish. A recently returned native New Orleanian, Charle’s mass of black curly hair and light brown freckles framed a still-bright smile that gave her the look of a once-young Shirley Maclaine. She was an actress of a kind — radio and ad voice-overs — with a practiced husky voice and infectious laugh. If she was a bit self-absorbed and he needed two quick beers to not take her too seriously, still for three weekends running, she’d given him a cook’s tour of the town, taking him to her old haunts and neighborhood joints, places she herself had not visited in ten years. Benjamin loved getting to know an unfamiliar American city with one of its natives. Without exchanging a word, they’d made an unspoken deal the night their first drink became an all-nighter. She ran the tour, he paid. This Sunday’s plan was brunch at Scirri’s and then some kind of brass-band second-line parade through the streets.
That morning as they walked to breakfast, he told Charlene the Codger story. “It was a scam, right?” she laughed. Benjamin blinked, uncomprehendingly. They were walking in the Marigny, a gentrified once-bohemian zone of double shotgun houses and wooden bungalows. “I mean you were robbed, right?”
“No … no, that’s not it at all,” Benjamin shook his head.
“Did this Codger guy speak to anyone else?” — Benjamin shook his head — “Sounds like he was looking over your stuff.” Charlene could not find anything interesting in the Codger. “It’s his scam,” she said. “He drives around Uptown when school starts. It’s a new school year at Tulane and Loyola, students are moving in, new teachers…and he’s a New Orleans character. He knows guys like you want to meet local characters. So, he pulls over when he sees a mark and slowly looks over their stuff. He was casing your place.”
“But I haven’t been robbed.”
“He realised you have nothing worth stealing.”
“That’s not what it was,” Benjamin said petulantly.
She blinked twice. “So, what was it?”
“You don’t understand.” He walked ahead, rapping on the wooden barge-board of one of the shotgun houses. “OK, so what does ‘cat’s out’ mean, then? He drove off saying ‘cat’s out,’ like a coded message, like, I don’t know, like an omen or something.”
“Cat’s out?’ I don’t know, it means the cat’s not in.”
“You mean, in a jazz sense? Like the cat’s not in the groove. That cat’s not in … he’s out. That what you mean?”
Charlene smiled without meaning. “It means the cat is not in the house just now. The cat is out.”
“‘Cat’s out, man,’” Benjamin imitated the Codger’s cast-off call, trying to spark some new meaning.
“Maybe he saw that woman’s cat as he drove away, and he said, ‘Cat’s out.’ Like someone should watch out for the cat.”
“You’re no help.”
Benjamin was stuck on the horns of an ethical dilemma. He was a historian and thus sworn to the laws of evidentiary proof, as opposed to hunches or omens. Charlene’s theory lacked proof, but it had the ring of local truth: still, why would the Codger drive around the first week of August, when it was too early for students? Audrey’s theory lacked mystery but had a certain psychological truth about his own neuroses. But they were both wrong, and there could be many other theories about the Codger and “cat’s out.” How could anyone else know your own damned fate anyway.
Scirri’s was a weathered, seedy bar/grocery/guest-house/Laundromat. There was a rusting balcony and a creaky wraparound porch swathed in tropical plants he could not identify. Music from inside leaked into the quiet streets. They entered the restaurant-bar part through a beaded curtain, as if ’70s hippie bohemia had holed up here to hide from its parents. Some early thunderbirds were watching Planet of the Apes on AMC. A gay couple — one dressed only in rainbow suspenders and a beret above the waist, the other in a lemon seersucker suit — read the Sunday Times-Picayune without speaking. A table of hungover frat boys moaned into their huevos rancheros. The place served up sterling eggs, grits, and biscuits on weekends. Scirri’s became the first place Benjamin would ever enjoy chasing breakfast with beer, a dark cavernous room with a large bay window and an S-curved bar.
“Sit anywhere,” the waitress called. “You look good, baby,” she winked at Charlene, who did always manage to look cool in the heat. This morning she wore a tangerine tank top, a royal blue Isadora Duncan scarf, straw boater, and long ivory linen pants. Black and white women often stopped her in restaurants and bars and offered, “Now that’s a nice outfit, baby,” or simply “looking good, baby.”
Charlene began telling him about a certain favourite restaurant of hers from back in the day and she suddenly looked up at the ceiling and asked it in a conversational tone, “Is Merton’s on Ursulines or Dauphine?”
“Is that the place with the great oyster omelettes?” asked the gay man in the seersucker suit — Charlene nodded at him — “isn’t it over on Governor Nicholls?”
A black woman of about thirty over at the next table shook her head, “It’s on Dumaine, I think,” and her partner nodded. From Charlene, Benjamin learned that a local could just address the air above her head in a public place and the room would answer.
“Merton’s on Royal off Frenchmen,” the waitress walked past them laden with French toast for the next table. “Made me feel right at home when I got back last month — I just moved back from Oklahoma City. My kids — I got two there, a son and a daughter, and their families — they were sad to see me go but I was tired of putting up with them and their shit about how I should act. ‘Sorry kids,’ I said. ‘I drink, I smoke, I cuss. That’s it, that’s me. I’m going back home where that’s all right.’” She did not pause for effect. “My first week back I went to Merton’s and I asked the waiter could I get a bourbon and water with my oyster omelette. ‘Why not?’ he asked, ‘Cat’s out here, baby.'” She laughed to herself. “You-all need any hot sauce or ketchup or anything, baby?” she stroked one of the frat boys’ arms on the way back to the kitchen.
Two minutes later she came back with a thermos of coffee for Benjamin and Charlene. “This is probably the only good service you’ll get from me this morning. I do try to give everyone at least a taste,” she deadpanned.
“What does ‘cat’s out’ mean?” Benjamin asked Judy.
“I only heard it that one time, but I liked how it sounded. I don’t know what it means, I guess, maybe it’s short for, ‘The cat’s out of the bag?’ I kind of like it that way. ‘Cat’s out,’ like your story’s in the street. Cat’s out. I’ll take it that way.”
“See?” Benjamin stuck a finger into Charlene’s face. “Cat’s out might mean a lot of things.” Charlene smiled and tilted her head a bit but said nothing. Professionally, it was pathetic: he was trying to hold onto one cryptic comment and build an argument about it. For a historian, this bordered on superstition; such obsessions, once in a while, led to new hypotheses but more often than not were dead ends. He knew the Codger’s role as Ancient Mariner did not hold water, even Fated water. Yet he held on tight all the same.
By one o’clock, Charlene had directed a lethargic Benjamin to a rough-looking corner of a marginal neighborhood where at least two hundred folks milled around a tavern called Cozy Joe’s. Black kids ran around in their Sunday best, having come straight from church. Teenagers walked around blowing tubas, trumpets, and trombones. Charlene went up to a bass drummer and told him she saw him play in the Maple Leaf ten years earlier. “I remember you, too, baby,” he smiled, and they laughed easily together. On top of a flatbed truck, a 400-pound man overflowing a metal folding chair flipped chicken quarters and ribs on a grill stretched over an oilcan sliced lengthwise.
A few brass bands warmed up in uniforms that ranged from sporty to spectacular. The Uptown Gents wore burgundy tuxedos with mustard-golden shirts and matching ties. The Funky Nation wore tan baseball jerseys over black long-sleeve t-shirts. Renaissance Time wore sky-blue sateen baseball jackets and blinding white judo jumpers. Some of the members of the sponsoring clubs warmed up, too. Benjamin was surprised to find that a local tradition of this kind still existed here, connecting back to the brass bands that gave birth to ragtime and jazz. The second-line parade snaked through rough neighborhoods and then, the projects, and knife-fights sometimes broke out. The crowd held a smattering of young whites who, as Charlene made the rounds introducing herself, mostly turned out to be music critics, anthropologists, local musicians, scholars, or historians of African-American life and culture.
Benjamin bought a couple of cold Buds from a lanky man with a scraggly gray beard towing a red wagon with two coolers. They were only a buck apiece — he expected to pay at least two — and he gave the guy a tip.
“Nah, man, cat’s out. They’s only a buck.” He gave Benjamin back his dollar.
“Thanks, man. Hey, what’s that mean, ‘cat’s out’? I never heard that before.”
“What’s ‘cat’s out’ mean? Shoo, I don’t know. It means no problem, man, you know, ‘cat’s out,’ no need to do that.” The man’s beard seemed to dangle out of his Saints cap. “Means everything’s cool.”
“Cool.” Benjamin was both happy and disappointed. He stood there, lost in thought, imagining The Codger pulling away, saying “No problem”? Saying “Everything’s cool”? About what? About him? No, that wasn’t it.
“That ain’t what it mean, Skylark,” barked a nineteen-year-old kid who whizzed up in a wheelchair but did not look handicapped. “Cat’s out mean you ain’t getting any. You out of cat … get it, Brah?” he turned to Benjamin. “Cat’s out, and then you shake your head like this, cause you sorry for the brother.”
“Why you pullin’ the man’s leg?” said a trombonist for the Funky Nation, a thick, muscular, deep-cheekboned man in a bowler hat. “Don’t listen to this fool,” he told Benjamin, “he just like to talk nasty. Cat’s out just means ‘no worries,’ everything’s cool.'”
“Now you is busting on the man,” Antonio surged back. “Cat’s out means you out of cat — I already told you, man,” he bent his head and pointed a finger at Benjamin. “I’m trying to steer you right.”
“‘No worries’ like ‘it’s all good’? Like that?” Benjamin asked the trombonist.
Suddenly all three men nodded without looking at each other and that didn’t make sense either. Benjamin thanked them even if he knew he was being patronised. The trombonist joined his band as they practised “Everybody Plays the Fool” and then segued, amazingly, into “Purple Haze” — who knew brass bands played such contemporary songs? That afternoon he also heard P-Funk’s “Pumping It Up,” Miles Davis’s “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and The Romantics’ “I Hear the Secrets That You Keep” — all with occasional sectional arrangements, trumpets answering trombones, the whole big band thing from the 1930s. Benjamin loved it when all the instruments would suddenly cut out and let the bass drum pump everyone up by themselves.
Benjamin and Charlene were propelled along by the music, sharing the middle of the street with dozens of other folks boogieing alongside, and on the sidewalks on both side of the street. As the parade headed north, away from St. Charles and up toward Claiborne, the crowds thickened down narrow streets of dilapidated old shotguns, vacant lots, and three-story, low-income homes. The brass bands varied their tempos and the parade ebbed and flowed, sped up and slowed. As they walked through the Claiborne Projects, Benjamin noted a few hostile looks on the faces of some older black men along the parade route. Only then did he notice that all the other white bohos and scholars had dropped out along the way. He wasn’t scared — and knew enough not to seem scared — so he just kept dancing alongside The Uptown Gents’ tuba-man. Charlene hooked up dancing with any number of men (women, too) all of whom loved her outfit. Soon they were worn out in the mid-afternoon heat, fell back out of the parade and called a cab to head back to Charlene’s car, two miles back.
“You satisfied?” she asked. He raised an eyebrow. “With ‘cat’s out’?”
He wasn’t. “Yes,” he said.
Later that night as Charlene slept, he e-mailed Audrey concerning the day’s musical and linguistic trails. “There’s still the mystery of ‘cat’s out’ to solve, and I will not be moved from my investigation into these mysterious delta waters.”
Audrey wrote back: “Oh criminy, Benj.”
Two months later during winter break, Benjamin was churning through revisions on his book manuscript with a deadline of handing it over to a university-press editor before the Spring semester started. He needed a book contract in hand to compete in the job market: for tenure-track US history jobs, departments nearly always hired women and minorities to balance out faculties long dominated by white men. Around eleven o’clock on January 6, Charlene called and told him to get down to a bar called Vaughan’s, “It’s Twelfth Night!” she yelled. “I’m eating my first piece of King Cake,” she mused happily while chewing.
“Twelfth Night, like Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’?” Benjamin asked.
“Yes. It’s the first night of carnival… the twelfth night after Christmas,” she explained as if to a child. “It’s all a cycle of prayer and gluttony, right? That’s how we do down here. I have to work a fill-in shift at the radio station, but you should come down here. Throw on a jacket and come out.”
“What’s the big deal?”
“Because it’s all Mardi Gras from here, baby,” she burst into exuberant laughter and hung up. Benjamin looked up Vaughan’s, threw a denim shirt and coat over his Mighty Mouse t-shirt and drove to the other side of town.
He drove through a residential neighbourhood called the Bywater and parked down the block from the bar, which strangely sat on a corner in a quiet residential neighborhood and as he got out, saw two women walk past in full masque. The first was a tall, statuesque, twenty-something black woman in a short, plaid, Catholic-school skirt, a white muscle t-shirt, a red wig, red suspenders, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels. Her friend was a forty-something mermaid wearing a bustier, harem pants, and a pope hat. A cab stopped, and a knight got out, with “Flora” taking one arm and “Fauna” the other — so read the flowery stitching on their denim jackets. Benjamin thought of Frank Zappa’s “Dinah-Moe Humm” for the first time in a decade.
No one was taking the cover charge at the door, even if the bouncer’s stool still looked warm and his rubber stamp lay next to a lit cigarette. It was a bi-level bar, dance floor at ground level — the band was on a break — then three steps up to where a mix of posters, musicians’ photos, postcards, and caricatures of patrons framed the bar. There was no neon, no videogames, and no TV. It was a dive in the best possible sense.
A hostile group of five theme-dressed arousers surrounded him as he approached the bar. There was a beautiful blonde Ace of Hearts, a black King, a white drag Queen, a Latin Jack, and a Ten of Clubs. “Get outta here, you ain’t got a costume,” barked the Ten, a white guy in an Afro wig bunched up into a three-leaf clover of clubs by barettes.
“Unless of course that is your costume,” the drag Queen said, and they all laughed, “and in this man’s real life he’s a straight-up queen.”
“Even so, that ain’t in the right spirit,” the Latin Jack jacked up the hostility. “You can’t come to Twelfth Night in your everyday.”
The blonde Ace grabbed Benjamin’s arm: “Tell me, are you just butching it up for Twelfth Night, Fella?”
“I’m sor–” Benjamin was about to apologise for coming as himself. Then he relaxed into her playfulness and said, “No, I’m just butching it up for you.”
“Playing hard,” she winked at him, “it’s a start.”
“Y’all,” the Queen turned to address the room, “do y’all see who we have with us? Give it up for Mr. New York Straight Man. This bird is rarely seen in our Gulf waters.” There was some scattered applause. Benjamin bowed.
“Have a beer and some King Cake, young fella,” the bleary, red-eyed king gently pointed to a table filled with rice and beans and the coffee-ring dressed in tri-colored glittery icing. He downed a beer quickly and looked over a crowd dressed in Renaissance regalia, mock royal plumage, creative medieval burlesque, and Halloween bricolage. The royal straight was right to stop him: he was one of the few people not in costume. He ordered a bourbon neat, downed it. Ordered two more and turned to hand one to the beautiful Ace of Hearts but he was instantly cockblocked.
“If you come naked on Twelfth Night,” the Latin Jack wagged a disciplinary finger, “the Lord of Misrule punishes you.”
“Who’s the Lord of Misrule?” Benjamin stepped up to him, refusing to be bullied, “and what’s he to me?”
The Latin Jack mimed shock and the fear of divine wrath, ducking behind a doe-eyed Artemis and covering his ears. “On Twelfth Night, everything’s turned upside-down and a leader is chosen from the streets.”
“Is he the Lord of Misrule?” Benjamin pointed to the black King.
“No, he’s the president,” cracked the afro’d Ten of Clubs.
“So, you’re the president?” Benjamin approached the King, who was shaking his head no, no, no. He gave him the bourbon shot. “You’d be a damned sight better than what we’ve got,” Benjamin said. The King toasted him, threw it back, laughed.
“Hey,” Benjamin warmed to the bourbon, “what happens on Twelfth Night if the ‘real’ president is the Lord of Misrule?” Benjamin was thinking how just that morning, the consensus among American historians was that George W. would go down as one of the worst presidents in history. “If the real president is the Lord of Misrule, then what?”
“Then I guess it would be up to the Lord of Misrule to turn the world right-side up,” the King offered.
Benjamin tipped an imaginary hat to the black king: “It is up to you, Sire.”
The king touched him on the shoulder with his scepter. “We shall do what we can during the period of our governance.” Benjamin bowed his head.
He watched the royal straight proceed down the steps and onto the dance floor to greet the musicians returning from break. The brass instruments hit the riff of “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll,” and moments later the red-wigged black woman and the bouncing mermaid he’d seen outside strolled onto the dance floor. In the middle of the song both turned and shook their booties for the brass — “Yah-ha, synchronised shaking,” the trombonist yelled — and the trumpet and tuba lowered the bells of their instruments to literally blow up their skirts. The dance floor filled slowly and the band kept playing to the two women. The mermaid lowered her loose bodice and bounced proudly out of her bustier, rubbing her bare breasts to the beat. No one gawked. A gay jester moseyed over, sashayed his shirt up to his neck and rubbed his bare chest against hers.
The young black woman began kicking up her long, beautiful legs and the band began playing to her, for her, around her. The king floated over to her and moved slowly, seismically side to side, older hips dancing with young hips. The statuesque woman grabbed his shoulders and kicked up her heels like the dancer she probably was. The song ended, and he shook his head as if to say, “I can’t keep up with that.” And, oddly, no other men approached her for the rest of the set.
Benjamin watched her with admiration and she hit him with a dead-on stare. He held it but didn’t move towards her. He felt embarrassed not to be wearing a costume and progressively unmanned after waiting too long to ask her to dance. During the next set break, she sat alone at a table on the dance floor, her fishnetted long legs crossed. Men inexplicably avoided her. He kept trying to make his legs go over to talk with her, ready to dance with her. He ordered a double bourbon neat, knocked it back.
At the start of the next set, the Latin Jack half-pushed Benjamin down the two steps onto the dance floor. “It’s rude to be a voyeur during carnival season,” he whispered in his ear. “So Dance … Sister … Dance,” he stepped back and rocked a little to show him how, “I love to watch you move / I luh-uv to watch you …. dance.” It was impressive how the Latin Jack inserted the old Santana riff into the band’s Dixieland melody. The rest of the royal straight formed a semi-circle so he could not escape.
Benjamin soft-shoed around the floor, as if trying to find an inlaid groove. Then the drummer dropped into the opening tom-tom rhythm of “Sing Sing Sing,” one of the great get-down drum figures of the twentieth century. Benjamin lowered his center of gravity and almost began to limbo while the brass played that elephants-chargin‘ opening riff. Benjamin started singing his own lyrics, “throw your back out / hmmm-mmmm,” he sang, “now throw your neck out,” but he didn’t know where he was pulling it from. “Throw your shirt out,” the King laughed behind him, and Benjamin pulled his denim shirt out then ripped it apart to much applause. One button bounced off the King’s forehead, one pingg’d a drum cymbal, a third landed in the Afro of the Ten of Clubs.
“Oooohhh … Mighty Mouse,” swooned a fifty-year-old hippie woman in silver and green paint who stepped up and ran her hands on his chest, “I’m so glad you’re here.” Benjamin burst into song instantly: “Here / I come/ to s-save / the day-ay-ay!” He whipped off the denim shirt and threw it in the corner, then flexed his biceps in honour of the great operatic mouse of his childhood.
The long-legged black woman moved closer then pretended to swoon: “Those … muscles … they are so-o-o big,” she grabbed one and licked her lips. The blonde Ace of Diamonds came up and tripped her and they both nearly fell.
“Dance, Straight Man, c’mon,” shouted the black King. “Dance or die, baby,” Latin Jack egged him on. All the dancers clapped and gave him space. The drummer upped the volume and tempo of “Sing Sing Sing” and Benjamin strutted about, alternating arched cat-steps he didn’t know were in him with old high school phys-ed squats and leaps. After a minute or two, the woman with the bustier jiggled ceremoniously over in her own pudding rhythm and set-to Benjamin belly to belly. The black woman set to grinding him from the back. Everyone grabbed everyone’s behind.
“Am I behind myself right now?” Benjamin roared drunkenly and grabbed the closest flesh.
Two or three hours later, the East Coast Straight Man walked to his car shirtless and carrying his coat which — unlike either of his shirts — he’d managed to salvage. “Looking good, baby,” laughed a deep blue female voice on a porch. He couldn’t see her but turned to wiggle his ass in her direction. “That’s what ah’m talkin’ about,” she laughed, approving.
He barely remembered driving home or going to sleep and clearly shouldn’t have. The next morning at his office he read an e-mail from himself he did not recall sending at 4:18 a.m.: “Cat’s out, man. Best keep a tail on him.” A face-splitting laugh burst from his throat in a hoarse sailor’s voice that made his scalp twitch.
And then it wasn’t as funny. Over the next few weeks, Benjamin would find early-morning messages waiting in his inbox he did not recall writing or sending. Each one started with “Cat’s out, man,” and ended with, “So whatcha gonna do now?” For the first time in his life he worried about his sanity. Every night he strayed in late, he refused to check e-mail; yet, every time he stayed out late cat’s out rode in the next morning asking, whatcha gonna do now? He took to shutting his computer down before heading out…yet there it would be on a Sunday morning, Cat’s out, man…maybe looking for that mouse.
Then a week before Mardi Gras, on a cool Fall-like February evening, Benjamin stood out on Napoleon Avenue with Charlene and hundreds of others waiting for the Krewe D’Etat parade to roll their way. The parade season kicked into high gear about ten days before Fat Tuesday with at least two parades every night. Benjamin lived just off the main parade route and every day around four o’clock the drums of the city’s high school marching bands flowed through his windows. At that point his neighbourhood was cordoned off and he could not get out. There was nothing to do but surrender to the season.
Charlene wandered around, mooching beers and flirting. She swirled a necklace of blood-red fleur-de-lis beads over her head and gave them to a ten-year-old girl standing off from her parents. The sun bounced off the purple-and-gold helmets of St. Aug’s band as they practised a few blocks down by Tchopitoulas.
Suddenly there was a scream and a car broke through the police barriers of Napoleon and Perrier. Two cop-cars followed in pursuit towards the river as the crowd scattered. Benjamin heard the scrape of metal on pavement and saw a plume of sooty smoke pump out of an old, battered Buick as it bounced in away from the police.
“It’s the Codger!” Benjamin yelled.
“No kidding?” Charlene smiled and winked.
The Codger swerved left onto Prytania towards the Quarter, raising his arm and pointing that chicken-nugget finger. “Yes yes, turn it out, peoples!” he yelled. A few folks laughed and raised their beer cans or margaritas.
Benjamin’s face burst into drunken flame. “At least we know he won’t rob your house during the parade,” Charlene laughed and kissed him suddenly. She pinched his ass and then went off to bum a cigarette.
The first float passed by an hour later, an enormous black-&-white skull figurehead as crowned by a purple, yellow, and green jester hat. Its blue-masked riders threw beads with cartoon menace as the float skulked slowly along, pulled by a tractor. During the first parades a week before, Benjamin was amazed that normal adults would yell for cheap worthless beads but there he was, screaming joyfully along. Benjamin threw his left hand in the air and tried to catch the eye of a female rider on the upper-deck. As she twirled, she threw him a necklace of emerald chandelier beads. Standing there alone, with the floats bobbing past like lost ships from Time Bandits, with the Codger driving through his mind, with Charlene flitting around, he swelled with an inexplicable joy.
“Ya know what?” Benjamin said aloud without realising it.
“What, baby?” a thirty-ish black woman next to him courteously responded, her arms placed on the shoulders of her seven-year-old. The kid had already scored big with the first few floats: he held a wooden spear, a teddy bear, a kite, and a few gold doubloons, all of it—so much swag tossed from the floats—like so much childhood manna.
“I think I do have a destiny,” Benjmain continued. He didn’t care who was listening.
“Everybody got a destiny, baby,” the woman said. “Why not you?”
He laughed deep in his throat. “Right, that’s right,” he nodded, and they tapped beer cans. He felt this close to erupting in maniacal laughter. He downed the rest of the beer and just breathed in the night for a few minutes. Two more floats approached and passed in an aura of phantasmagoria. A go-cup floated out of the sky and he caught it on his fist.
Ya know what? Benjamin asked inside this time. He rose up on tiptoes to greet the next float’s approach. Logically, sure, there’s no such thing as destiny. Psychologically, sure, I hope I’m not losing it. Out of the hail of beads, plastic cups, and stuffed toys, he pulled down a skein of necklace of purple disco-ball pellets. He put it on over his head. But I’m just gonna own up: I believe I have a destiny. I do. Even if I don’t know what that even means. He breathed out. I mean…isn’t that the point of destiny?
There was no defending it. And he wasn’t going to write this to Audrey. Or tell it to Charlene. There was only a deep joyful feeling inside that he hoped would not turn out to be the clear, cool sailing of dementia.
“Them are some nice purple beads you got, baby,” the thirtysomething woman patted his arm.
“Indeed, they are,” he said and raised his beer to the sky and the horizon, toasted the earth and the huge live oak next to him. Knocked half of it back at a gulp. Then he toasted the Quarter, the river, the levee, and the lake, the four skewered directions of New Orleans.
“Cat’s out, baby,” Benjamin declared quietly.
“Cat’s out indeed, baby,” the woman echoed and laughed.
My story’s in the street now, Benjamin laughed and clinked cans with the woman. Then he took the purple disco-ball beads off and placed them around her neck. And, as the next float rolled by, he raised a toast to Judy the waitress and the Ancient Codger of his dreams and to every other wandering American who’d managed to find a way home, even if just for a moment, during the Lord of Misrule’s reign.