“My heart to him is like a pond to a crane: he wades round it, going in as far as he dares, and then attempts to snatch what little fish come shoreward from the center.”—Jim Shepard, from “The World to Come”
“Louisa is always around 1870, and I’m always around 1845, so we couldn’t mingle together, because I’m dead,” Henry explains to Nathaniel. “The delegates would say ‘Have you seen Louisa?’ and I’d say, “Oh, she’s a very little girl.”
“And they’d see me without Henry and ask ‘Have you seen Mr. Thoreau?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, how I miss him since he passed away,’” says Louisa.
“And the drunker the delegates got, the harder it became,” Thoreau adds. “I mean, they just didn’t really understand what we were doing there.”
When I was 21 I walked into a restaurant on Decatur Street. I had never waited tables in my life. This was the last stop on my train to Brokesville, having already sold my car to pay our rent and bills. I handed a man who looked like a Las Vegas pit boss (his former job was, in fact, as a Las Vegas pit boss) my completely made-up resume. His face bore no discernible expression. “You know how to bartend?” he asked gruffly. “Yes,” I lied. “Can you start tomorrow?” he asked.
I trained under Miss Lorraine. Miss Lorraine was 68 with 8 kids and 18 grandchildren. She suffered no fools, and she saw through me immediately. Miss Lorraine actually taught me everything I ever learned about reverse psychology. She had her regulars, who bloomed under her verbal assaults. “Miss Lorraine, where are our beers?” they would holler, grinning. “I’LL BRING Y’ALLS BEER WHEN I’M GOOD GODDAMNED READY!!” she would shriek. She had a snappy ball-withering comeback for everything. They ate it up, left her twenties under their napkins. It was under her tutelage that I learned that for some people (mostly hardworking men who lived on shrimping boats) abuse equaled attention, and any attention was good attention. Anyone who could get Miss Lorraine to crack a smile would pump their fist triumphantly. She dropped out of school in 8th grade, but about 72% of my current operating wisdom in regards to respect comes from her.
Two thirds of the people who worked at this restaurant were in a band together. On Thursday nights the back room turned into a dimly lit, smoky music hall. I bartended, sneakily looking up drinks from my pocket-sized book under the bar light. People packed in to see the show, which was part carnival, part film festival, part singing like you’ve never heard singing before. It felt like magic was being made. Which, in fact: it was. That singer with the slicked back hair and saxophone who once rode his delivery bicycle through a hurricane to get me aspirin? He’s now the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. He may have gone on to win a Grammy, but I went on to win the only award I have ever won, at the “Best Bloody Mary in New Orleans” competition (the secret ingredient: I distilled my own Cajun-spiced vinegar. Under the watchful eye of Terrebonne Parish-bred Miss Lorraine, of course).
During Mardi Gras I made enough money to pay a month’s rent in one day. For thirty days in a row. My boyfriend, an alcoholic felon with a warrant out for his arrest in two states who I had moved with from San Francisco after only knowing for two weeks, did not believe in banks. So he kept all our money in a box under the bed in our haunted house. The day I left, I opened the box to take half the money. The box was empty. This is a very New Orleans story.
I fell in love with the cook. He knew who Will Oldham was and looked good in a grease-stained tank top and had huge, gentle brown eyes. On my last night in New Orleans, we drank at Molly’s across the street with everyone else from the restaurant. Until it was just the two of us. Believe it or not, it was the only time in three years I got drunk. We were listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. “And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you…” I whisper-sang to him. “Stop,” he whispered back with his eyes closed, and took my hand. He led me out into the humid pink June dawn and we began unlocking our bicycles. I had no idea where we were going, and I was supposed to get on a plane in five hours, but suddenly everything felt possible for the first time in forever. I looped a leg over my bike. We locked eyes and smiled. Which was precisely the moment the alcoholic felon ex-boyfriend emerged from around the corner. He had been looking for me. The cook looked at him, then looked down at the ground. Then he pedaled off, and he never looked back. Years later, I told a boyfriend this story. It bugged him, and he couldn’t figure out why. “Wait,” he said. “I think I know. It’s because of everyone you’ve ever loved, he’s the one with infinite potential. He’s the one that got away.” Which is actually what I think of when I think of New Orleans in general, now. That it is the one that got away.
Flaubertian realism, like most fiction, is both lifelike and artificial. It is lifelike because detail really does hit us, especially in big cities, in a tattoo of randomness. And we do exist in different time signatures. Suppose I am walking down a street. I am aware of a police siren, a building being demolished, the scrape of a shop door. Different faces and bodies stream past me. And as a I pass a cafe, I catch the eye of a woman, who is sitting alone. She looks at me, I at her. A moment of pointless, vaguely erotic urban connection, but the face reminds me of someone I once knew, and sets a train of thought going. I walk on, but that particular face in the cafe glows in my memory, is held there, and is being temporally preserved, while around me noise and activities are not being similarly preserved—are entering and leaving my consciousness. The face, you could say, is playing at 4/4, while the rest of the city is humming along more quickly at 6/8.
The artifice lies in the selection of detail. In life, we can swivel our heads and eyes, but in fact we are like helpless cameras. We have a wide lens, and must take whatever comes before us. Our memory selects for us, but not much like the way literary narrative selects. Our memories are aesthetically untalented.
What the Finale of Girls Would Look Like if Hannah Were Almost 32
Hannah has recently joined the world of online dating since all of her friends are in fucking couples and go on fucking double dates and she is tired of spending Friday nights in talking to Jessa’s cat.
Jessa’s cat lives with Hannah because after 33 years of being staunchly single, Jessa has a serious boyfriend and has forgotten about her cat.
Hannah goes on an online date with a seemingly normal, nice, down-to-earth dude. He takes her to drink whiskey and sing karaoke and steals her a cupcake. He texts her when she gets home: “I had an amazing time tonight…”
Hannah tells her friends how nice it is to hang out with a “grown-ass” dude. Who sends follow-up texts! “He’s like…remember Adam? He’s like an Adam who has figured his shit out. Like, he’s in a band but he also works at a nonprofit and is like, DONE with the partying and wants to buy a house in the woods and shit.”
Hannah then hears nothing from grown-up Adam. She sends him a friendly, “hey, wanna hang out?” GUA texts back, “sounds like so much fun, but I have a band rehearsal! Can’t wait to hang out soon!”
Two weeks pass.
Hannah debates deconstructing the texts with the other Girls, but stops herself. “No,” she says out loud, to no one. The era of deconstructing cryptic texts is over, an art best left to 20somethings. If you have to deconstruct, the answer is no, or, to steal an aphorism from another HBO series, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”
Hannah lines up another online date. The morning of, she wakes up with a throbbing pain in her mouth. Panicked, she goes to the dentist. He shoots her up full of novocaine and performs something called a “root planing” and yells about flossing. I mean, like, really puts the fear of god into her about flossing. “Dbo yuer shink she nvockain werl wer off bey 8?” she asks. She reschedules date.
Hannah spends every consecutive night neurotically flossing and swishing medicated mouth wash while the cat stares at her from on top of the toilet.
Original Adam announces on facebook that he and his 24 year old girlfriend are having a baby. Adam is now 34. When he met this girlfriend he quit smoking and started drinking kale smoothies.
Hannah googles “at what age should you freeze your eggs?”
Hannah googles “shooting mouth pains.”
Hannah clicks on “uncurable trigeminal neuralgia.”
Hannah ponders a life of chronic pain and misdiagnoses.
Hannah takes too much codeine and cuts her bangs.
Because she spent her 20s fucking up her bangs she knows what she is doing now, even in an opiate haze. Crisis averted. But once when she was 22 she had to wear a headband for a whole month straight.
Rescheduled Date dutifully texts things about health wishes and hopes for enjoying the sunshine together…
“The reason the ping-pong table is outside is because of the fire. The fire? The fire was caused by an electrical fire set off by the mystic who works next door. When she was around we could hear her tuning her crystals to specific frequencies through the walls, and it was very annoying. A lot of “sciency” [sic] stuff was lost in that fire, including a machine that produces static electricity, and a marshmallow gun.”—from an essay one of my students wrote about our school. I couldn’t make this up if I tried. Someday I will write a novel about all of it, I promise.
There’s this place, it’s over a famous bridge in some famous woods. It is the only outpost of any kind for miles around. Let’s just say it’s an ancient-looking bar/inn, and local legend has it that it was shipped over in pieces from Britain centuries ago. Who knows if this is true. It’s besides the point.
This place has darts, a wall-to-wall fireplace, beef stew. It is usually smothered in fog. Melancholy strains of Will Oldham drift through the speakers. It is basically a bar that was built exclusively for me. It also has this lone bartender, this fellow I have had a smoldering crush on for…a long time. Long enough that it has ebbed and flowed due to prohibitive fluctuations in gas prices and bridge tolls.
But I have this rule (as a former bartender) that I don’t hit on bartenders. So what this amounts to is that I sporadically find a reason to drag my friends there and then we sit in the corner and whisper about him. My boss has offered me a raise if only I would ask him out. It’s become that obnoxious.
I mean, we have had encounters. Once I was doing some boring Tuesday night grocery shopping at my grocery store and lo, behind me, in line, there he was. On my side of the bridge! In my grocery store! On a Tuesday! Unacceptable. I had always assumed he never left the forest boundaries, doomed to ceaselessly haunt the moors when not tending bar. Upon spotting him, naturally, I pulled my hair over my face like a deranged Cousin It and turned back around (I was having a bad Everything day). Another time (clearly my grocery disguise had fooled him) he let me watch part of a 49ers game in the bar’s tiny kitchen with him. He tried to out-football-lingo me and I got haughty (haughtiness is my next alluring quality after hair-in-face disguises) and was like, “Son, please. I teach a class on sports literature, I will run circles around you on this.” He gave me a maybe-approving eyebrow raise.
Anyways, we have picked up bits and pieces about him over the years. Usually because I make my friend Ian chat him up (Ian is a chatter), but Ian is not a reliable narrator. For instance, even though this guy is clearly like, an Irish Riverdance cast-off (complete with vague lilting accent), Ian insists he told him he was raised in Singapore, and was picked on horribly as a child. “I think he’s pretty lonely,” Ian unconvincingly tried to convince me. Also, he supposedly lives on a boat and makes his own whiskey (which: swoon). So, lonely, whiskey-distilling sailor Singapore Jim has become a long-running inside joke, a mythic chimera of a man.
Then, sometime this evening between the minutes of 11:52pm-11:59pm, I googled the name of the bar/inn under the auspices of seeing if it was open for the holidays. His name popped up. His full name! Precious, google-able information. It was at this point I learned something that threw me more than Singapore, more than the boat distillery.
If you are not listening to this on your back porch in the dark while drinking a grapefruit soda and thinking about how you’ll be watching a meteor shower in the Joshua Tree desert tomorrow night, well. Sorry.