Home I’ll Never Be

I arrived in Tuscaloosa earlier this evening, by way of Birmingham. Tuesday night. My day began a country mile east of Atchafalaya, in the heart of Old Louisianne.

My shoe leather was worn thin, so I put my thumb out at first light, hoping for a lift to the nearest decent town with a warm place to eat and a bunkhouse to rest my bones.

A brawny Peterbilt with a tire whine approached, and slowed to an inviting roll; its front right rubber grazed the gravel at the pavement’s edge. Air brakes sent dusty flecks of gold into the Dixie sunrise.

Good fortune, it seemed.

I hopped up on the passenger running board and got in the driver’s ear well enough for a ride. He told me he was heading through Alabama – up to Birmingham, then west to Tuscaloosa, before circling back through Jackson, Mississippi and back to his homeport of Baton Rouge. I needn’t return to Louisiana, I told him. I’d be getting out on the western edge of Tuscaloosa. I’m headed northwesterly. It’s a sliver off the desired route, but a cold rain was upon us. We shook on it, and in exchange, I was to buy his coffee and lunch. Deal. Any port in a storm. Off we went. Au revoir pour le moment, la Nouvelle-Orléans.

Now I’m perched on a curb in west Alabama with much more west ahead. Everything here is a crimson tide, the rain hasn’t let up, and the daylight has faded. My pockets are near empty – the Devil’s dance floor. I’ve packed light: my fiddle, a small duffel bag with a couple changes of clothing, a few books, my oyster gloves, the gold jewelry that she left behind – one with sparkling gems in it – and the final paycheck I received from old Lou Matherne last month, hours before he shuttered his business and sold his claim. Ain’t no oysters worth eating down here anymore – the water’s too warm, and the spill done mucked my livelihood, he said. Mine too.

I had been living on the Westbank, in Algiers, near Mr. Kern’s Mardi Gras World, on the banks of the Muddy Miss. In the morning, I smelled sewage and diesel that had traveled down from St Louis. By afternoon, I smelled the burning plastic and paint fumes wafted from Mr. Kern’s float factory. After the sun set, I smelled the night-blooming jasmine and gardenias from the neighbor’s yard, dancing with the nocturnal breeze that tugs the senses and beckons like a Storyville harlot after you’ve a had a few. Our creaky, drafty shotgun with raw wood siding was situated at the levee – we could see downtown New Orleans from the tilting front porch. We: my girl and I. That was until she up and left. Louella was her name. Disappeared without notice, only hints.

I had been out of work for the last three months, had to borrow quite a bit from Louella, and I couldn’t find a gig that could keep her satisfied. She often threatened to leave, and apparently she meant it. I came home last Friday evening, after pounding that sinking pavement, looking for a way to butter my bread, and the house was empty. Her belongings had been removed by a hurricane, though she did leave behind some jewelry. Trinkets and jewels that I bought her over the last two years, with extra cash I got from pulling up oysters, working overtime for old man Matherne. She smiled in an adorable way when I gave her these gifts. Her squinty eyes with smile lines conveyed genuine appreciation. An old-fashioned exchange, but we both found comfort in it. I like to think she had the decency to leave it behind for me to pawn and make some extra dough – the last bit of manna from her before she vanished like booze in a soup kitchen. I couldn’t afford to keep that leaky roof, so I left too.

***

Across the street from this curb is a pawn shop, and it appears to still be open. Prawn’s Pawn and Loan, the sign reads. To the right of the name, there is a poorly rendered icon of a jumbo shrimp wearing the Houndstooth fedora made famous by a man named Bear – an icon himself in these parts. The rain isn’t falling too hard at the moment. Aside from the diner down the street, and the Texaco across from the diner, Prawn’s is the only joint in the vicinity that had lights on. How welcoming.

I shuck her jewels and gold finery on the counter. The man, whom I’d like to think is known as Mr. Prawn, carefully examines the bounty. He’s a rather well fed man. He carefully examines me, too. To be expected, though – a road-weary rambler stumbling into a pawn shop with a pocketful of women’s jewelry doesn’t exactly discount the possibility of nefarious behavior, or the potential for questionable acquisition of such treasured items.

“These yours?”

“No sir, they belonged to the woman I love. Loved.”

“Mm-hmm. And you’ve gained possession of them how?”

“She returned them to me. I bought her these as gifts during the couple years we were together, and before she left, she gave them back. Ain’t got no choice but to hock ’em.”

“She gone?”

“She up and ran off.”

“She done runnoft?”

“Yessir. Didn’t even pen a Dear John.”

“By God. Sorry to hear that young fella. I’ll give you thirty dollars for the lot.”

“Can we make it a square fifty? Times is tough.”

“’Fraid not, son.”

“This is expensive jewelry, though.”

“They may sparkle, but them jewels aren’t in high demand here. Maybe you’ll have better luck elsewhere.”

He was about as expressive as a brick wall. He spoke very matter-of-factly, and his jaw exercised one large, circular chew of whatever was in his mouth, like a cow working over cud. His days were molasses.

I needed the money.

“Alrighty, thirty it is.”

“Then we have a deal. Initial here, here and here. And sign here.”

And just like that, I had a little more jingle in my step.

His handshake was firm. With a few crisp notes tucked into my slim billfold, I walked back out into the rain with my fiddle and duffel bag slung over my shoulder, hoofing it over to the diner for my first hot meal of the day.

There’s no denying that a roadside diner on the edge of town, with mellow lighting, foggy windows, and the smell of fresh coffee in the air, is a solid substitute for Mom’s kitchen. What really puts me over the top is when the waitress at the counter calls me sweetie, honey, sugar, or any other endearing title that warms the cockles of the heart, as she tends to my flipped mug and slides a menu in front of me. This is when I know that I’m in a place I belong. Home – for a meal, at least.

The air was warm and dry inside. A few patrons peppered throughout the booths didn’t look up as I entered and made my way to the empty counter. I’ve been here a hundred times in a hundred towns. A George Jones song filled out the limp air between the ambient chatter, clanks and clatters. The diner stools were bolted down and without backrests, so I spun my ass on the vinyl and into the attentive range of the waitress behind the counter, shedding my wet belongings into a mound at my feet.

“Hello there.”

“Howdy.” With a nod of my head, making eye contact. My mouth fell agape and my heart began to thump. Lily.

She was still prettier than a Spring flower, that’s for sure. I lost my words. Fumbled the ball. Slopped onto the floor. She stared at me, wide-eyed with heavy disbelief that made her lips quiver. I tried to collect myself, feeling cold shock fill my veins, and nausea reminiscent of my first day at sea. With a shallow, sharp inhale, her delicate voice broke the silence…

**********

The rest of this rambling tale is yours to read in SN9: Fat Tuesday, coming out February 28th!

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