In the meantime, here's the next (big) section from 'Crescent City Blues' for you, from the 'Elmo Awakes' chapter. (previous here and here.)
Thanks again for reading, and enjoy! Comments and thoughts and critiques are always welcome.
***It’s not like Elmo went out of his way to fuck things up; fuck-ups just sort of seemed to... happen around him. They gravitated to him as if he were the King of Fuck-Ups and they his loyal minions. Fuck-ups just wanted to be near their Lord, and bask in His glory. Elmo, being a beneficent sovereign, granted them their wishes as often as possible.
He pulled on a shirt that had been dangling on the back of a chair and so deemed to be less than filthy. Then he shook out a pair of jeans he pulled from the pile on the floor, just to be sure, before putting them on. In New Orleans, the cockroach was the true Kingfish, the first citizen of New Orleans. The stubborn little beasts had been there for millions of years before humans had settled in the muddy swamp, and they would be there long after we had finally gone away. There was no way to completely eradicate them, especially in a building as ancient and well-used as Mrs. Chambers’ rooming house.
Elmo grabbed his smokes, his empty wallet, and his ring of key cards off the dresser and banged out the door and down the steps two at a time, trying to ignore the throbbing in his head. As he burst through the reinforced-steel front door and hit the sidewalk, he winced at the sharp sun threatening to burn the eyeballs out of his skull, as if a cruel child with a magnifying glass lived far above. Before Elmo had gone three steps he heard a reedy voice call out to him from an upstairs window.
“Elmo? Is that you?” A wobbly, cotton-topped head leaned out of the second-floor window.
“Yes, Mizz Chambers, it’s me.”
“You tell Tre I need some eggs,” she said. “And I’m almost out of milk, too. Where’d that boy run off too?”
“I don’t know, Mizz Chambers, but I’ll tell him,” Elmo said. “You get yourself back to bed now.”
“Oh, and Elmo! The man on the TV said they already beefing up patrols ‘cause of the convention, so you be careful, you hear?” she said. “Don’t you be running your mouth at any of them ParSec goons. They bad news!”
“Aw, come on now, Mizz Chambers!” he said, trying his best to be charming despite the diesel thrum of the hangover pounding his brain to a pulp. “I would never do anything like that! You know me...”
“Yeah, I do, Elmo,” she replied sharply. “That’s why I said. You just keep your mouth shut!”
“You should try that sometime yourself, you old bat,” Elmo said under his breath, still grinning widely.
“I said, ‘Okay! See ya later now!’”
He turned the corner and headed toward the St. Phillip Street elevators, not looking to see if the old lady had pulled her head back inside. Mrs. Chambers lived in her second floor apartment and never left. She spent her days shuffling from bed to chair, trying in vain to keep track of her stories on the tube and the various medicines she took for her various afflictions. She didn’t seem to have much luck making sense of either. But depending on the order and frequency with which she grabbed pills from the forest of prescription bottles that was laid out on her TV tray, she went through surprising moments of clarity, and even wisdom. There were days when she was completely addled, and days when she seemed oddly lucid.
In general though, Elmo was fairly certain that the interactions between the dozen or more drugs she took--provided by half a dozen shady doctors who clearly had no concept of what ‘drug interaction’ even meant--had long since left Mizz Chambers’ mind a hallucinatory wasteland. She sometimes called Tre by her dead son’s name, despite the fact that Tre was a muscular black man, and her son, based on the many pictures she kept in her room, had been neither. In the pictures he looked like a rat-faced, chinless kid with scared eyes and a skinny neck, lost in a too-large uniform, about to ship off to Iran.
That look was one Elmo knew too well. He had seen dozens, if not hundreds of kids with the exact same look come and go during his two tours. According to Mizz Chambers, that’s where the kid had died, outside of Tehran. But who could say for sure, with her mind the way it was? For all she knew, he could be living in Thailand with a model for a wife and 18 kids.
When the television failed to provide adequate entertainment for her loosely-hinged mind, she took her imagination out on Tre and Elmo, her longest-standing tenants. Tre especially looked out for the old lady, helping her with groceries and with repairs around the building, which was almost as decrepit as the old woman herself.
But despite the roughness of the accommodations, it had its advantages. For one thing, Tre and Elmo and whatever other tenants drifted through the building paid Mrs. Chambers in cash. She didn’t even have a chip scanner in her building, so she couldn’t collect rent in more conventional ways even if she was inclined to. The entire place was off the data grid, which suited Elmo just fine.
Also, living there was cheap, dirt cheap. The price of a night’s stay at an average hotel in the Quarter section of Upstairs was equal to a month at the Dauphine Street rooming house. Gods help you if it flooded again, but on the other hand, Elmo was not the type who worried much about the future.
Just now, he strode purposefully if a little gingerly down Dauphine. He was already starting to sweat in the August heat despite the shade of Upstairs looming above him, the raised network of shops, restaurants, bars, casinos and hotels that rose above the street like a concrete hamster habitat. It had to be pushing 100 already, even in the shade, and the legendary humidity of New Orleans was out in full, oppressive force.
Screens embedded in the concrete underbelly of Upstairs scrambled for a moment as they sensed him pass, trying in vain to read his non-existent All-In-One chip. Since they couldn’t tailor their messages to his particular shopping habits based on information on a chip, the screens instead ran generic messages, adding to the cacophony inside his skull.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw two bikini-clad starlets peering down at him from the screens. They had to be in their forties or even fifties by now, but they appeared to be around 20--impossibly thin and smooth-skinned, despite having lived the starlet lifestyle for a couple of decades, not to mention popping out a half-dozen moronic, redneck, miniature billionaires between them. They reclined on lounge chairs by a pool, chatting about their umpteenth comeback tour.
“Wow, Britney, you’re looking great! Ready for our tour?”
“Sure am! All thanks to our sponsor, Novus Skin Solutions.”
“Hey Britney, don’t tell anyone, but I’m one of their best customers!”
“Me too, Jessica! Their nano products make my skin so smooth and young-looking!”
“And with each dose you buy, you have a chance to win a trip to Hawaii! How does that sound...Unidentified Passerby?” said Jessica, her blank, empty cow eyes fixing on Elmo as he passed.
Elmo ignored the entreaties and strode on. He felt slightly ill as the undigested portion of last night’s booze sloshed around in his stomach in time with his footsteps. The smells of life on Garden Level weren’t helping either. Some open doorways belched out cooking smells; others exuded fetid, graveyard odors from the dark spaces within. Disheveled rent-girls and boys leaned out of doorways to scope him as he went by. Hollow-eyed children played in the street, using whatever toys the street provided. Clusters of old women sat in mossy-looking lawn chairs and smoked, staring off in the distance, chatting idly about the old days.
Many, but not all of the buildings had been gutted, stripped of everything from copper pipes to bathroom fixtures to cabinet doors and even tile. Squatters spilled out onto the street, passing the time sipping beers and bullshitting. The more industrious people sewed up old clothing or worked at repairing ancient, abandoned televisions and appliances.
And carved out within some of the less-damaged buildings there were a fair number of bars and informal kitchens. They served no-frills food and drink on mismatched plates and in cracked glasses, all in the shadow of the opulence that hung above them. To a casual observer, these informal establishments might have seemed more to be community hangouts than actual businesses, as it was rare to see money exchange hands. That’s not to say that everything was suddenly free; there was an elaborate barter system unofficially in place, with arcane rules and unspoken signals that a stranger might spend years trying to unravel.
Here was Maria’s, with a hand-written sign hanging out front, advertising “Spagheti and Fine Dinning” with undue optimism. From inside the dark, tiny room, Elmo could just make out Maria waving to him as he passed.
“Hey Elmo! You going to work, dawlin’?”
“Yep, sure am, Maria,” he called out. “We’ll see if I still got a job when I get there.”
“Well, you come on back and get you some spaghetti if you fired, you hear? You looking too thin,” she said. “I fatten you up and get you married off to some woman take care of you!”
“Thanks, Maria,” he said. “We’ll see.”
As he passed a pack of urchins sitting on the curb rolling cigarettes, one of them called out.
“Elmo!” said the boy, as he fell in step alongside Elmo.
Abraham was no more than ten or eleven, a deeply tanned white kid with filthy dreads and piercing ice-blue eyes. He and his dad had carved out a home of sorts in the corner of a former café. They shared the space with three or four other families, forming a commune of sorts, each contributing something to the group’s well-being.
“What’s up, Abraham?”
“Nothing man,” the kid said. “But, say, lend me a dollar, bro. I got a deal cookin’ and I’m a little short. I pay you back.”
“You know there’s no such thing as cash anymore, kid. Government says so.”
The boy snorted and looked up at Elmo with disdain.
“Shee-it. Government say a lot of things, man,” the boy said. “Come on, Elmo, gimme a dollar. If I cut this deal, I can make a lot more than that.”
“No can do, bud,” Elmo said, barely looking up as he continued walking. “I might not even have a job anymore.”
“Then you can get in on this with me!” the kid enthused. “A buddy of mine says they need people to sell drinks and shit at the convention. Well, outside it, you know? We just each gotta come up with ten bucks to buy our way in.”
“Your buddy is charging you ten bucks to sell drinks to people at the convention?”
“Well...nooo...not exactly,” the kid said, suddenly finding a spot in the middle distance fascinating beyond belief.
“Weeelll, this guy I know wants a bunch of us kids to go down there, like we selling drinks and hats and tourist shit. But then we gonna roll a couple of these convention fucks and split the money.”
“Your dad know about this?”
Abraham’s dad, a hippie who called himself Ravenwise, peddled various nostrums of an extra-legal nature that were always in high demand by the fast-paced 21st century lifestyle. He was not a fan of the Party or government in general. But he would almost certainly not approve of his son falling in with a gang looking to beat people up who employed not only private security guards, but who also had the added protection of ParSec on full alert for the convention.
“You know those people are all rich Party assholes, right, Abraham?”
“Yeah, exactly! Why shouldn’t we make some money off of them?”
“Sure. Okay. But they’re going to have a shit-ton of security down there,” Elmo said. “Ain’t no way your little friends and one guy are going to win that fight.”
“Naw, man! This dude big, Elmo, I’m telling you--”
“He’s probably planning to sell you and your buddies to some rich perv the second he gets you down there, kid. Don’t be a sucker. The rich have been hustling a lot longer than you and me. For generations. They’re better at it, and they’re meaner, too, especially when it come to their money.”
“Shee-it! I can outsmart those suitentie motherfuckers...I’m fast like lightning!”
Despite Abraham’s bravado, Elmo could see he had put a crack in the kid’s confidence.
“All right, Abraham,” Elmo said. “Tell your dad I said ‘hi,’ you hear?”
“He high, all right,” the boy said. “That motherfucker ALWAYS high!”
“Yeah, hey, speaking of--is he around?” Elmo realized he could use a little chemical assistance if he was going to attempt to salvage his job under the duress of this mighty hangover.
“Nope,” the kid replied. “He took the pirogue down the swamps, to check on his weed and shit. What you want? Some Cloud-9? Weed? Speed? Smack? Crack?”
“Kid, if you had a couple of bennies I would sing your praises to Jah forevermore.”
“Sure, man,” Abraham said, suddenly looking cagey. “Ten bucks.”
“For two? Bullshit! You little pirate!”
“Sorry, man. Pops say I gotta start earning my owns now, so--”
“I’ll see you later, Abraham.”
“All right, wait, wait,” Abraham fished around in his pocket, then held out his fist. “Just give me five, then.”
“That’s more like it.” Elmo dug a grubby fiver out of his jeans pocket and handed it over, holding out his other hand beneath the boy’s closed fist.
“Thanks, man. There you go!” Abraham let drop a single dirty white tablet into Elmo’s hand, as he simultaneously peeled off and ran back the way he had come.
“Hey! This is just one, you little shit!” Elmo called out, taking a half-hearted step to chase the boy.
“Never said how many you’d get for fiiiiiive! Ha hahaha!” the boy cried out as he ran. “See ya later, Ellmoooooo!”
Elmo sighed, shrugged, and popped the grubby pill, hoping that despite the kid’s mercenary ways, he had actually sold him speed--albeit at an outrageous price--and not a laxative or something more nefarious.
Elmo marched on, approaching the gray concrete and glass tube of the Upstairs entrance. It was like an inverted middle finger poked down into the ground. It was an act of war, a passive assertion that whatever remained below was without value, fodder to be crushed beneath the mighty thrust of progress.