God Bless Billie Holiday

Posted on August 1, 2011

But for the smell, the street was empty. Hundreds of scattered of papers fluttered around his feet as he walked, but no other movement was present. Amongst the trash were fliers for the Chris Owens sex show, where the tourists were promised live sex on stage, but were treated only to something more akin to a fancified strip tease. There were free drinks, of course, granting that you didn’t mind the two drink minimum and the second would cost you twenty bucks. Ash Wednesday was like no other day in New Orleans. Quiet and desolate. The entire city, even the buildings themselves, seemed to be nursing hangovers.

The smell was made up of a voodoo concoction that not even the most vile demons of hell could dream up. Vomit and piss from a thousand tourists, mixed with the sweat of social anxiety, testosterone, and laughter and fear. Fear above all. Fear of the crowds, mixed with the exhilaration of being caught in the middle. Fear for personal safety as the crowd moved along through the streets of the French Quarter. Fear of the unknown that lurked around every corner and just inside each recessed doorway.

While the previous night allowed screams to sound like nothing more than whispers, this morning heard echoes everywhere. Echoes of his footfalls on the black tarmac of Bourbon Street, echoes of his breath that seemed to come in shorter and shorter spurts because of the oncoming heat of the day. The heat would eventually intensify the smell, but he hoped to be safely tucked away behind his bar by then. Inside, where the air conditioning and the heavy, plastic door curtain would keep all the demonically forged odors at bay.

“Fucking tourists,” Frank mumbled to himself. He continued to walk as fast as he could through the street in an attempt to beat both the smell and heat. Unfortunately, both had weighed him down to nothing more than a slow crawl on his way to work. He walked with his head down.

After all the time he’d spent working on Bourbon Street, one would think that Frank would have become accustomed to the smell. But, he doubted that such a thing would ever happen. And, after all this time, he should have known better than to walk with his head tucked into his shoulders. Predators were everywhere in this town, and even in the ravaged streets of post Mardi Gras.
For all the trouble the tourists caused New Orleans knew upon which side its bread was buttered, and who was doing the buttering. If not for the tourism, New Orleans would be dead in the dirt. But, there wasn’t a day that Frank didn’t thank God for the fact that he worked in a local’s bar. Dealing with the locals didn’t prove itself a blessing so much as an absolute pleasure in the relief from having to sling beer and Hurricanes to the tourists.

Only another block and he could finally get inside and away from the hell that had become of his beautiful New Orleans. One more block and the smell would go away. It would still take an hour or so before he would be able to shake the smell from his clothing and skin. Once it was on you, it made itself at home and didn’t take kindly to being asked to leave.

The smooth whiskey voice of an old Billie Holiday recording drifted quietly from one of the open windows above the street. Obviously a looping CD to which someone had passed out, but Frank was thankful for the travelling music. Somehow, the music lightened his heart and made him remember why he had come here in the first place. Suddenly the smell wasn’t so bad, the heat became bearable, and the thought of drunken tourists was at least tolerable.

“If you’d surrender
Just for a tender
Kiss or two
You might discover
That I’m the lover
Meant for you …”

God bless Billie Holiday, he thought.

The smell was always worse at Canal and Bourbon, just as one entered the Quarter. Now at the 500 block, Frank could not only breathe again, but so could his soul. He glanced up briefly and saw the turn off to St Peter. Just around the corner and he would be away from it all, taking the words of Billie with him.

Maybe today, he thought, the bullets would stay in the gun.


“Yo mama ain’t workin, Rock-n-Roll. Open these goddamned doors, boy.”

Frank looked up again to see the old man standing with a big grin, showing what was left of his yellowing teeth. He was unshaven and looked as though he’d slept in the very clothes he was wearing, if he had been to sleep at all.

“Don’t you have a home, Sally?”

“‘Course I do. But yo daddy came back, so I had to leave yo mama’s bedside.”

“You keep it up, Sally, and you’ll be drinkin down street.”

“Shit, I’m just playin. You know me.”

“Yeah, I know you Sal. And I also know someone who shouldn’t be drinkin this close to the sunrise.” Frank pulled the keys to the bar out of his pocket. “Y’all want some coffee to start? D’ja eat yet? I’ll make you some eggs, yeah?”

“You always know how to put a pretty smile on my face, Rock-n-Roll.” Sal offered him another of his less than award-winning smiles.

The air inside was cool. Not in a cold and refreshing way, but cool like a tomb and just as stuffy.

“Sally, open the aircon, yeah?” The old man grumbled and moved to switch on a wall-based air conditioner that was almost as ancient and dilapidated as the hands that now turned its knobs. With a series of clanks and clunks, and no small amount of protest, the air conditioner started running at full blast.
“Jesus’ sweet mama! Ain’t that nice?” Sal spread his arms out wide to catch the cool air under his arms.

“You wanna scare mother Mary away? Christ, Sally, put your arms down. Bad enough I gotta look at you all day, and now you wanna make me cry?”

“You know somethin? You an asshole in the AM, R-n-R.”

“Yeah, well, if I didn’t have to see your face outside in the mornin sun, you wouldn’t hafta see my asshole inside the bar.”

Music drifted through the darkened bar, along with the smell of cooking eggs.
“Somebody went and left the juke on last night.”

“That ain’t the jukebox, Sal. Somebody’s gone and left their music runnin out on the street.”

That was back on Bourbon, Frank thought, but he didn’t bring it up to Sal.
“Did they? I didn’t hear nothin out there. Typical Ash Wednesday. Quiet til everybody starts headin t’church.”

“Oh, yeah, I suppose that was back on Bourbon. You want grits?”

“Naw, you got pork?”

“Damn you’re demanding, yeah? No I ain’t got pork, I got grits. You want em, or not?” Frank stood holding the spatula like a machete.

“No, jus the eggs.”

“A’ight then. Here ya go. Sauce?” Frank reached below the bar to pull out a bottle of Tabasco. “Coffee’s brewin. Be ready in a minute.”

“You can throw me some Jameson with it. I need the hair of the dog. I swear that music’s getting louder. Sal said looking over his shoulder as if to glare at the jazz diva herself.

The music was getting louder. Not by much, but they could now hear Billie’s words, instead of the muffled rhythm of the songs.

“If you’d surrender
Just for a tender
Kiss or two
You might discover
That I’m the lover
Meant for you …”

“At least it’s Billie.” Frank pulled the coffee from the brewer and took a cup for beneath the back counter. “Could be worse.”

“Could be your own crap you call music, Rock-n-Roll” Sal grinned, half-chewed eggs seeping between his teeth.

“You know, I don’t get you. You insult my mother, and I let you in. Then, I cook you breakfast and you turn around and insult me. What kind of shit is that?” Frank slammed the cup on the bar, loud enough to drown out Billie’s voice for a moment, and then slopped the tar over the rim.

“Yeah. I guess some people never learn.” Another egg-laden grin spread across Sal’s face.

The music stopped.

Frank opened his eyes. It was Ash Wednesday, and he had to get to work. Stumbling from his bed, he slipped into a pair of blue jeans and pulled a t-shirt over his head after giving it a good sniff of evaluation. On his way to the front door, he stopped. Placing his hand on the door frame, he hung his head and stared at the doorknob. After a moment of consideration, he reached down to the end table next to the door, opened the drawer, and took out the gun.

Maybe today, he thought.

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2 responses to “God Bless Billie Holiday”

  1. Good. Poignant. Several themes there echoed with my own experiences in New Orleans, which is only about a two hour drive from here.  
    Good and bad experiences.

    The good relates to a whole lot of people having a good time, mostly harmless enough. A bit silly perhaps, a bit drunk, but what the heck, just blowing off steam.
    But always, always the under current.

    After the hurricane, I was one of a great many helicopter pilots flying over and around the city, shocked at the scene.

    "Predators were everywhere in this town, and even in the ravaged streets of post Mardi Gras."

    I don’t like violence, but I accept its existence as a factual threat to be aware of. One night, with a loaded 40 cal Glock semi-automatic in my pocket, I was headed back for my parked car. I was being accompanied by a young man who was being WAY too friendly and talkative. Glancing in the shop fronts, I could see I was also being steadily followed, fifty yards behind, by a gang of a half dozen suspicious youths…
    My new found "friend" would occasionally glance over his shoulder. I pretended I was totally stupid. Yeah-yeah-yeah-HA-HA… Just acted myself, you know. Well, we were getting further and further away from people about. Suddenly, in a deserted area, I could see in a shop window front the gang following up were unaccountably quickly closing the gap behind me… when I suddenly whirled around, a hard look on my face, my hand on my weapon, still in my pocket, already aimed at them, they all scattered like the wind. I am 100% convinced I was about to be mugged. New Orleans is a murder capital. Such a shame. If you want peace… prepare for war. It’s a hard lesson in life, but it is a true one. I used to shoot competitively. My mind set is, if you are going to aim at a target, be prepared to destroy it. If I had seen one weapon produced, there would have been bullets flying.

    "The smell was always worse at Canal and Bourbon, just as one entered the Quarter. Now at the 500 block, Frank could not only breathe again, but so could his soul. He glanced up briefly and saw the turn off to St Peter. Just around the corner and he would be away from it all, taking the words of Billie with him."

    That is an effective paragraph. And I know just what you mean.

    New Orleans. What can you say? You capture the internal contradiction well. On the one hand, great Art, great music, great people, great architecture. I dream of having a small apartment there, or a good friend with a spare room, so once in a while I could go to the Irish bar, and quietly drink the evening away with some good Guinness, music and conversation.
    On the other hand, human falsity is also in abundant evidence. People who smile, but behind the smile, the fangs are bare.

    The way of the world.

    PS:  as a matter of website technicality, I have "favorited" this story by clicking the button top right. If you check out my listing of "Favorite stories by others" you will find it there. Simple, but effective system.

  2. Thanks, Francis.

    I lived in New Orleans for a good majority of my childhood, then moved back there again in 1992. I moved away for the final time in 1995. I have returned a couple times since, but the Quarter has gone from being the epitome of seedy raucousness to a feeling of degenerative desperation. The last time I was there was with some members of my Vicious Writers family, a couple years ago. Being post-Katrina, the loss suffered was evident on the faces of everyone I encountered. "Somber" could not even compare to the overall emotion that permeated the city. The city has always had a feel of desperation to it, but now there is something more. Something horribly oppressive that lends to a feeling of abandonment and apathy.

    Still, New Orleans tries to maintain its smile. But, if you look close enough, as you say, you can see the hidden fangs behind that smile.

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