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February 24, 2017 Nonfiction

More Lives Than Your Own

Alex Ebel

More Lives Than Your Own photo

A woman waited in line in front of me, anxiously watching the television behind the plexiglass partition. The gas station attendant broke rolls of quarters in half and dropped them into the register. A second woman spoke on screen, dressed in an orange pant suit, matching neon lipstick and a gold crescent moon pinned to her lapel below her microphone. I imagined the petroleum-wax scent her breath might leave as she spoke.          

“Police say a group of juveniles are responsible for the second attack in the St. Roch neighborhood this past week. The victim in Saturday’s assault reportedly said he had to crawl into oncoming traffic on North Claiborne Avenue to escape the group of maybe a dozen teens.”

Juveniles…m-mm-mm.” The woman in front of me took a step back from the register and looked at everyone behind her, shaking her head. “My word... people in this world… people, are juuuuuust… such… people… are just...suuuch… ASSHOLES!” She shook the newspaper in her hands like a conductor’s baton.

“Goddamnit! ASS...” She dropped the paper and clapped her hands for emphasis. “HOLES!” she clapped again. “ASS-HOLES!” (clap clap)

Searching the line for recognition, raising her arms to the sky like Evita, she looked me dead in the eyes. I was directly in front of her, and for a moment it seemed as though she was screaming only at me, so I gave her recognition with a knowing nod.

Yes, my wide eyes said, yes they are.

She shook her clenched fists in the air, fingers turning red, then white. I tried to ignore the slightly-alcoholic scent of cheap body lotion emanating from beneath her clothing. Blood flooded her face as she looked at me with desperation, her arms grew limp and fell to her sides. She let out a guttural moan before turning back to the glass.

“Twenty on four.” She picked up a Milky Way and pinched the ends of its wrapper, spinning it aggressively into the space between herself and the attendant. “And this.”

Shocked, I waited quietly behind her as the clerk slid her change into the partition between them. In unison we watched her go. I couldn’t help but wonder where she found her energy. Months passed, and she worked her way into my rotating list of bizarre stories. The clapping lady, finally fed up, buying gas, screaming.

She was a fan favorite. A person everyone referred to and laughed about when I ran into them at the bar that capped the end of my street. Each night I would go in, chat and drink for an hour or so, then order one last drink in a to-go cup. I’d take it five doors down to the stone steps that led to the front door of my house, where I spent the rest of each night, watching tourists stumble after one another towards the more heavily populated end of Frenchmen Street.

The bar marked a transition from a residential area into a long stretch inhabited by music venues and Cajun-themed bars, which over the years had become the go-to neighborhood for tourists looking to hear brass bands. Visitors from all over the world, chasing down their real life Zatarain’s experience, the New Orleans they had seen on TV.

They passed me in a blurred trance, hiccuping, oohing and aahing at the old houses, the palm trees, the wrought iron, only occasionally making it down to the neighborhood a little too late, or too drunk, and instead wandering aimlessly until eventually falling asleep on the sidewalk, patiently waiting in their stupor for a ride home.

I watched countless people roll their ankles on the uneven pavement outside my house, young women carrying their satin heels in one hand, limping furiously after their friends. “Kimberleeee! Waieeeet!!”

It wasn’t uncommon to wake up each morning to find fresh piles of vomit sitting like landmines along the curbs of our driveways, cracked plastic cups and tiny red straws built up like little dams at the edges of our gutters. Tourist season traditionally ended around August as the weather grew hotter and wetter. I often found myself sweating through my shirt alone out on my steps. Beneath the tree cover, gas lanterns lit the street with a faint orange glow that served a purpose more decorative than functional.

One evening in particular, I remember listening intently for the common tick-tack of hooves or heels coming towards me while I watched a stranger cross the street past the bar and move towards my house. Having a hard time seeing far beyond my small stretch of sidewalk, I looked back to the space above my door and found that my lantern had been smashed, shards of glass glittered along the bricks below me.

He approached slowly, unevenly, looking nervously from side to side. Every other step sounded like static. It wasn’t until he came to a full stop at the base of my steps, cracking glass beneath his feet, that I found the reason.

I thought he was drunk, that alcohol had made his weight swing the way it did. But there before me, I saw his left foot had been wrapped in layers of plastic and bedsheets torn into ribbons. With them, he had bound bundles of discarded grocery bags to his swollen bare foot, to serve as a sort of cast. I sat above him. My back pressed against the iron bars that protected the old wooden door behind it from the outside world, the bars our mail lady so often complained about. “I have to bend your magazines to get them in there, you know? They get messed up that way.”

“That’s fine, Cynthia, we can still read them,” I had so often said, straightening out wrinkled copies of The New Yorker that I would never read, yet set splayed out on my coffee table as though I had. “I don’t keep them because of how they look.”

“Spare some change?” He wore a tattered black jersey sweatsuit so dirty it looked grey, and carried a blown out white plastic bag full of styrofoam containers. Holding one hand out, he set the bag down before stepping up towards me. The handles of the bag stood upright, printed red block letters on white plastic, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

“Sorry, I don’t have any.” I shrugged, and held up my half empty drink. “Do you want the rest of this?”

He dropped his hand. “Naw, man, I don’t want that. Come on, just a dollar or two, I’m trying to get uptown.” He limped up past where he had left the bag.

“Sorry, I really don’t have anything.”

“What if I sell you something?” He asked quickly, as though he had come up with an idea. His hands poked intimately into the corners of his pockets, while he slowly moved his leg up two steps higher, poising himself to stand directly in front of me.

“Here,” he said, “look at this.” He pulled a blade from his coat pocket and held it out. “Look at this knife; this is a nice knife.” He brought it closer, aiming the blade towards me.

It wasn’t a nice knife. It was a cheap pocket knife with a black plastic handle. The tip of the blade had chipped off, its uneven point covered in ashes. As he lifted it towards my face we made eye contact. His irises were a dark shade of brown. His pupils seemed to disappear into them, just laying there in his head, unmoving, fixed on me. His tangled grey beard grew in sparse patches like Spanish moss hanging heavily in the swamp air.

Well fuck, I thought. Where are all the fucking tourists? The screaming frat boys? The party busses? Where are my saviors!? Help me, drunk people! Help me, KIMBERLEEEEE!!

As he tucked the end of the knife behind my jaw, his pilled sleeve brushed against my cheek. He smelled of cotton-rot and soot and menthol, the kind of smell you get from digging half-spent cigarettes out of the wet gravel they use to fill public ashtrays, flicking away burnt pieces of carbon, the kind of smell you get from being left outside too long. I felt sweat run down my neck in the same place where he held his knife.

“I swear I don’t have anything. If I did I‘d give it to you.” At that moment, rather than calling for help, rather than trying to figure out a way to escape, my head flooded with different scenarios of what might happen if he killed me. I was unprepared. Who would plan my funeral? Did I want to be buried? Cremated? Was it too late to make a playlist? Who was in charge of funeral music? There were so many opportunities for that to go wrong. I thought of a funeral I went to in high school, where they had played Bob Marley as we left the chapel. A young girl had been hit by a car, we were tired, grieving, and somebody had the bright idea to play fucking reggae. I padded out silently, enraged, thinking, “Not at my goddamn funeral!”

“I swear to god,” I imagined my ghost rattling chains angrily, threatening my funeral attendees, “if I even think I hear a steel drum, I’m coming back here and taking you all straight to hell with me.”

I thought about the headline, "Drunkard Killed, City Only Moderately Surprised." Then suddenly my thoughts turned to the woman in the gas station, the look of astonishment on her face when she heard about the group of children attacking those people in the neighborhood across from mine. I thought about the anger in her voice. I wondered if she would be as upset over me. The man who had to escape by dragging himself into traffic had been an art teacher, he had served his community. In fact, he may have taught some of the very children that attacked him.

Imagine, for a moment, looking up from the hot tar pavement to see the faces of children you had hoped might one day feel inspired, called upon, to create something new and beautiful. Now imagine those faces contorted while children stomp on your ankles, making them pop and crack. Imagine them beating you to a bloody bruised pulp with the hollow pings of aluminium bats until each new impact became wet and messy, leaving you no choice but to pull yourself before the axles of speeding cars in a desperate, final attempt to save your own life, and in doing so, preventing a group of middle-schoolers from being labeled murderers. Imagine an attempt to save more lives than your own. Those are the actions of someone who deserves outrage, someone who deserves a stranger screaming for him in a gas station.

Now imagine me. Waiting tables and eating people’s abandoned leftovers before dumping the rest in the trash. Imagine me locked in the restaurant bathroom, laughing at videos on my phone while plates of food get cold in the kitchen window. With a knife to my throat, I couldn’t help but wonder who was going to scream and clap over my ordeal.

“Please.” I felt my heart beating against the blade. “I have so much to live for.”

A young couple slowly made their way towards us from the intersection a few houses down, the man quietly moved the knife from the crook of my jaw down to my thigh. He took my drink from the top step and held it to his mouth. Dragging a heavy breath through his sinuses, he coughed, letting out a custard-colored wad of spit into the ice at the top of my drink, then he held the rim of the cup to my mouth. “Finish it.”

His eyes met mine as he tilted the cup, slowly letting the liquid part my lips and pass through my clenched teeth.

Maybe this is actually fine, I thought in an attempt to delude myself, I’m just going to finish this drink I bought. This is normal. Another gin martini. This one just happens to have a piece of cheese danish floating at the top.

I gagged with the cup still held to my face, the blowback causing the rest of the drink to spill out of the cup and onto my lap.

Oh god, I’m so sorry, that was an accident.” I held my hands up like I was in a bad heist movie. I looked with desperate eyes toward the approaching couple, and without another word, the man with the knife scratched the broken blade across the top of my jeans and pulled it away, taking it back into his pocket before backing across the street and disappearing into the trees. The white noise of his bandaged foot growing fainter until he was gone completely.

I met a woman named Trish at the front desk of the police station. She looked up at me from her computer screen, unfazed as I explained to her what had happened a little less than an hour before.

“Mhmm.” She nodded as she typed, still looking at me. "And do you need to go to the hospital?”

“No,” I said slightly confused, “I’m fine, he didn’t beat me up or anything.”

“I mean for your cut, it looks like you’ve been bleeding.” She wagged a bronze fingernail toward my neck with one hand briefly before returning to her keyboard.

I brought my hand up to the spot where the knife had been and felt rough patches along my jaw down to the collar of my t-shirt. Dried blood flaked off onto my shoulder. I looked back at Trish and considered her question,

 “Uh, I think I’m okay. Do you know when I’ll be able to talk to somebody, to give, like, a report or whatever?”

“We’re pretty busy tonight.” Her eyes focused on the glowing box in front of her. “Could be a few hours. Do you want me to take your phone number and we can give you a call when somebody’s available to talk?” I scrawled out my information on a strip of paper torn from her notepad, blue ink smeared with auburn prints left behind like stamps from my bloody palm. She looked back up at me when I handed it to her. “You’re a lefty.”

There’s an old dive bar behind the NOPD station in the French Quarter. The kind with ripped plastic seat cushions and rotting wood saloon doors partitioning the bar from the hallway where they keep the bathrooms and electronic slot machines. I sat there and waited for a phone call from the officer who was supposed to take my information. Waving a bleach-soaked rag at me from the opposite end of the bar, an old man wiping down the liquor bottles tapped himself on the jaw and smirked.

“Bar fight?”

I gave him a polite laugh and began wiping away the stains on my collar with melted ice and cocktail napkins. I felt my face flush. “I got mugged.”

“Lordy lordy.” He chuckled, slinging the rag over a hook and moving towards me, looking closer at the small cut along my jaw, shaking his head. “Some people… I tell ya.”

I nodded silently, taking it all in, waiting patiently to hear from the officer. Another hour passed, and I found myself still sitting at the empty bar at 4 a.m., rubbing grease from the face of my telephone, waiting for it to ring.

I imagined myself viewing a police lineup from behind a two-way mirror, safely closed off in a separate room, clutching the strong arm of a square-jawed police lieutenant, gasping as I bravely identified the perpetrator.

I heard back from the police a few days later after giving a brief description over the phone. They picked me up that night and led me to a room in the back of the station. Sitting at a desk rifling through a manilla folder full of black-and-white photographs of scowling men, I waited to see that same face.

“He might look a little different,” said the officer sitting at his desk across from me, “depending on how long he’s been out on the street.”

I held my breath waiting to see him, but he never did turn up, that tangled beard, those eyes, dark and brown like bottle glass, staring back at me in desperation, nearly in tears, tired of begging for help from drunk strangers, exhausted, because goddamnit, some people are just such assholes.

image: Bryan Bowie