Only Now

Shirley-Anne Kennedy

Outside the river smokes as the heat pulses. Listen to the voices chattering beneath the music downstairs. Breathe in the perfume of crepe myrtle from the open window. Adjust your eyes to the veiling light. There is no day or night here. Only now. Come.

Ready yourself with little effort. Light cotton shorts. The inexpensive diamante T-shirt from the French market. Wide brimmed hat. Let them read the story you prefer to tell.

Emerge into the sweetness.

You are never sure of its origin. Not quite blossom. You suspect it is the sweet smell of decay. The freshly washed foulness of road gutters. Vomit. Urine. Other unclassified debris. Blended with the baked-to-ash bones of the dead.

There is no city more alive than New Orleans. Death overtly shadowing every step. Former residents inhabiting every breath. Danger palpable.

Laugh as a streetcar named Desire rolls by. Watch colourful chalks dress paper in Jackson Square. A disinterested woman shuffling Tarot cards. A miserable skull her only other audience. Leave your dollars where they are. The future is not here.

Charlie, on his tricycle, is collecting bottles to recycle for beer. A small dog on the handlebars. Charlie’s dirt encrusted beard riding the minimal breeze. His exposed skin alligator tough. Tanned from the inside out. Alcohol fumes flowing behind. His age incalculable. Charlie recognises a comrade when he sees one.

Pass Charlie the change. Smile half-heartedly to disguise the doubt. Cringe as he beams at you. Summer teeth scattered like dangling tombstones.

Charlie puckers his decrepit lips for a kiss. Lays one on your flushed cheek. It should not make you feel more human but it does. Laugh. Genuinely. Pat the flea ridden dog. Quickly walk on.

Wait patiently as a snake of red dresses glides by. Mobile bars blasting. Shot glasses smashing. This is how we do it echoing through the timeless streets. Cell phones retired for the duration. Life in the moment.

Three storeys above a domesticated parrot squawks angrily. A dog barks on the balcony of the second floor.

Fight the wave of sickness. Focus on the door beside you. Stroke the bleached and flaking paint. Memorise the bell pull worn by countless fingers. Who were they? The air stirs to answer.

Take deep breaths. In through your nose. Out through your mouth.

Inhale the sweetness.

Here you are. Face to face with Joan of Arc and her golden steed. Catholic. Tactical. Dead. Before you die you want to live. Sail under the green and cream striped canvas to Café du Monde. Feel it.

Beignets, fried in cotton oil laden with powdered sugar. Chicory coffee waving to Café au Lait. Unwind as wooden blades whirl above your head. Study the pigeons skirting feet and chairs. The homeless man sleeping softly against a stone pillar. The ten-a-penny clock still ticking.

Bars of jazz filter through. Lick the sugar powder from your fingertips. Wipe them upon useless paper squares. Erase battle weary taste buds with softness. Pleasure enhanced with the knowledge it will not be repeated for a while. Perhaps never.

Walk into the sweetness.

Witness the girl on the corner of St. Peter and Royal. Her dress heavy. Aubergine Chantilly lace laid over a nude shade lining. It appears more wicked than it is. Expensive. Pristine. A dress like that originated on Royal. You will wear it, too. A different cut and colour.

And her hair is all her own. Long. Full. Shoulder length. Despite the complicated French plait adorning one shoulder. Shiny. Musk scented.

Wince at the pinch of sensible sandals. Envy the girl walking leisurely towards you. Those are Manolo Blahnik heels. She towers above the balding man at her side. Five inches taller than you as she passes by. What you would not give to be taller. Once.

Her companion manoeuvres a few paces ahead. Intermittently glancing backwards. Perspiration pimpling on his florid scalp. Designer clothes cleaving to the deviant pouch above his snakeskin belt. His dank stare urges her onwards. Absent. Dispassionate. He only values the time he claims as his own.

His hand rests confidently on her derrière. Feel the echo on your own.

You want to follow them down Bourbon. Prove what you already know to be true. If you are wrong, they would not be here. They would spend their hours in Frenchman listening to black boys play jazz.

He shies at the street poets and their typewriters. That fleeting wait for a work of art so easily vanquished by kisses. Deftly overthrown by his Rolex. He will not stop to kiss her until they return to their hotel. You know this.

They too are gone.

Quickly now. Into the shop named Roadkill. Covet the lace jacket. Step into the rhythm of the silver heeled shoes. The lush velvet dress is calling. Envision its texture nestled against bare flesh. Nuzzling like a lover. Feel yourself again.

The drawling Texan browsing with his wife begins to irritate. Brexit has captured his imagination. America will elect Trump. You hope that is not true. The signs are it will. Welcome to the new world order.

Stroll past the constant cast of beggars and into the French Market. There is the mask you saw on the wall at your friend’s house. Decadent. Exciting. Less effort to wear than brave. Hand the dollars over willingly. Celebrate the expense.

Sugar skulls and alligator heads stare in accusation from boxes and shelves. Perhaps they are not real. They are.

Into the Gazebo Bar. Try the Lemon Drop Martini. Dry. Chilled. And another. Never too early. Sway with the ice, music and Gumbo. Remember when. And then. Only for a little while. Fade into the shadows of the past. Blues are the new jazz.

Run the tip of your tongue across the shingle rim of the glass. Bittersweet. Real. The plump Morello cherry is snuggled against the roof of your mouth. Savour the liquor.

Apples are for innocents.

Lose the hat.

A street dove dances on a courtyard wall. Out. Or in. Undecided. Another takes flight. Feral. Free. Regrets are for those who have never lived.

Embrace the sweetness.

Join the parade marching down Bourbon. Link arms with the man wearing lime green shades. His companion in the multi-coloured froufrou Sambas along. Her smile stretches from ear to ear. Contagious. This is the court of a fairy king.

Cheer the waiter as he serves your Hand Grenade cocktail. Sweet. Potent. Out of place anywhere but here.

A Canadian tourist raves about her visit to Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. Mojo bags. Talismans. The overwhelming smell of patchouli. Distressed candles and distorted wax dolls.

There is nothing to fear except the ordinary. Life is too short to hex an ex. Bewitch another instead. What are you waiting for?

Venture into the sweetness.

Several men in barely-there dresses dance their way across the road. Sweaty palms connect with waist and arms. Tinsel wigs substituting for pom poms. Revel in the contact. Play along. Hail the Big Easy. Ca c’est bon.

Louis is no saint. Recognise a player when you see one. Louis does. Feign modesty. Decline his offer. He knows you will. So do you. The game is all in the want Sha.

Proceed with care through the scattering of horse droppings. Moan as odious sprinkles strike the back of your ankles. Sicken at the thought of the gutter water between your toes. Try not to think too much.

Basque in the shower of petals raining down from the rooftop gardens. Flags of all nations dispersing their flow. A security guard rushes to open a door. Catch your reflection in his mirrored lenses. Composed. Detached. The band playing in the open windows behind him are not to your liking.

Keep moving.

A giant cross alights. Its presence temporarily dispersing the sprawling crowds. Alien. Plastic. Parties and mobile bars swiftly shoot around it. Shot glasses paused for a split second. Recharging in less than four. Religion is an unacceptable drug.

Deny the message delivered in LED technicolour. … Don’t be caught dead without Jesus… There’s going to be hell to pay…

Turn and walk away.

Only angels fear the fall. Keep falling.

Into the sweetness.

Clouds chatter as the sky crackles. Step out from under the canopy. Let the raindrops resurrect you. Listen to the voices.

Turquoise dress from Royal bouncing. This is how we do it. Head spinning. This is how we do it. Music blasting. This is how we do it. Shot glasses smashing. This is how we do it. Too close to the balcony balustrade for other people’s comfort. This is how you do it.

Taste the sweetness.

There is no day or night.

Only now.

And here you are.

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