When I think of Chicago, I think of Chicago in the summer. June. I think of clean, warm air and that determined bit of sweat that collects around the collar of your shirt and your temples, making the sides of your head feel cool as the breeze rushes against it. I think of hurrying from museum to museum to the Navy Pier and walking along Lake Michigan while the waves lap against the rocks. Greasy food and cold afternoon beer at the lake. Beer that is quenching but dense. Leinenkugel’s or Newcastle or Amstel Light. Beer that drinks like a Coke and so damn cold it hurts the back of your throat. I think of pale green lake water, very clear at the surface but quickly murky underneath like the color of a dream when you first wake up and try to grasp what happened in that in-between state where you aren’t quite sure if it really happened or if you imagined it, and by the time you realize that it was only a dream, the images are gone and you’ve become distracted by the now arrived day and all it’s blossoming problems. When I think of Chicago, I think of that walk on Jackson Drive, just south of the Art Institute, where I knew, I knew as certain as that the sun would rise tomorrow over the dissipating fog of Lake Michigan, that I would marry the woman walking with me. We had made a weekend trip up from college in a small Indiana town three hours away. I had no money. We had spent all the money she had on hard, red wine served cool with bready pizza, and tours and more drinks and cab rides. We stood in front of her favorite painting, the Seurat piece, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte, and in front of mine, Van Gogh’s La Chambre à Arles. And when we left, inspired and exhausted, euphoric in the white cloud of new love, we walked down Michigan Avenue and over Jackson and she said, what if we just decided that each other were the ones we’ve been looking for? What if we just decided that this was it and that we’d stop looking? And I said, yes, yes, yes, and you’re the one I’ve been looking for and I’m going to share the rest of my life with you and I love you I love you with all my soul and I don’t want to think of a moment without you. She squeezed my hand and we kissed. I can try all I want to make Chicago into the brutal Canadian winds that drive down the hard snow through the corridors of its skyscrapers. Or the summer stench of rain evaporating off of hot pavement. The noise and endless construction. Or the broken-nosed city everyone talks about with a history of violence. But instead, I have light and breeze and love. All that happy, romantic, oblivious nonsense. That is the way Chicago has always been to me.
Last October, Carver Evans asked me to come up and stay with him for a couple of days in his new apartment on Addison Street in Lakeview. We hadn’t seen each other for years, since we had lived in New Orleans together after graduating from college. The night before I drove up, I sat alone in my car in the liquor store parking lot depressed and thinking of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which had convinced me of the necessity of suffering. I was drowning. I was contemplating another half-pint of cheap bourbon to pour down my already raw throat. An empty bottle was wedged between my thighs. I waited for the moment when there was no one going in or out of the liquor store or driving by so I could get out and throw it away. When it came, I got out of the car with the bottle concealed in my straightened hand against my side and approached the trash can, swung my arm up and released the bottle too soon. It fell to the curb and shattered. I swept the concrete clear of glass with my foot and slipped inside the store.
Before I could finish the second half-pint, I pulled into a parking lot and texted Carver. Do not let me drink in Chicago. No matter what I say later. A few minutes passed and the phone rang. I quickly ignored his call. Another minute passed and his text reply came. I will. Are you okay? I looked at the phone and my mind played a few scenes of a time long ago in Bloomington when we were drunk and laughing. Back when the bourbon tasted better and time moved slower, pausing every so often for us to relish life. But those impressions of the past were obscured. The sound of laughter was mute as all I could envision were our convulsing bodies, squinted eyes and smiles. But the past was too distant and foreign. And the sound was lost. And I could not feel it’s boasting of joy anymore. I could not recall that sense of ease and comfort, barely able to remember if such a thing had existed at all, just beyond the tips of my fingers. I set the phone down on the passenger seat beside me and shifted the car into drive. The bourbon was warm and it scorched the raw tissue of my esophagus. Tears sat heavy on the lower lids of my tired eyes as shame welled up inside and overtook me like an unexpected surge of nausea and vomit. I blinked and they ran hot down the sides of my face.
Carver’s street was beautiful. Orange and red leaves drifted down like the slow seconds passed of a time so long ago. They covered the walks and the curb and the road. Brick apartments crouched behind the twin line of trees on either side of Addison. I circled the block and found a place to park, checking all the signs to verify my right to be there. It was almost two in the afternoon and I was flushed and heart-burned. My tired head ached at the base and the core, throbbing far deep inside my skull. My hands and jaw were unsteady and shaking. I could feel the uneven pounding of my heart in my neck, eyes and voice, as I told myself that I didn’t even want a drink. It should be easy to stay sober this weekend. I don’t even want one. But I could use some coffee. I grabbed my backpack of clothes and shut the trunk. I pressed the lock button on my keychain once and then twice to be sure and called Carver.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m here. Downstairs. Outside.”
Carver met me at the door and we embraced. He said you look good Charlie and asked if there was anything he could carry and I said no, this is it, and we went up to his apartment.
Later, we walked somewhere down unfamiliar streets and ducked into a bar so he could catch the score of the Bears-Vikings game that was playing only a few miles away. I ordered a soda water with lime and he drank half a bottle of Miller Lite and peeled the label. He caught me staring at it and then guzzled the last half before saying he didn’t even know why he ordered it and apologized to me. And I said it was okay. He looked uncomfortable and asked if there was anything I wanted to do. I asked if he could take me to a café where we could get some coffee.
“Let me ask you,” he said, “do you like tea?”
“I don’t know. Sure. But I’ve always been a coffee drinker.”
“That’s because you’ve never had good tea.”
“If you say so,” I said, dodging the lampposts, pedestrians and other obstacles along our way down the sidewalk. Horns honked and the shushing sound of tires rolling through stagnant puddles of rainwater on the outer edges of the road made quite a noise for me to speak over, and exacerbating my headache.
Carver had always been a bigger guy than me. When we had first met in college, nearly ten years earlier, his physique was stout and muscular, very lean, but powerful and sturdy. I thought of him like a boxer, but lumbering. Yes, he was an intellectual, but more so he was quiet, polite and unassuming. The years passed through college and after, and he grew softer, more rounded and clumsy, his blond hair often disheveled and in need of a trim. His face tended to be between unshaven and halfway into a beard. But now he looked thin. Thinner than I had ever seen him. He wore glasses with thick, black frames and his hair was arranged in a curious way so as to appear unkempt, but was neatly cut and styled. Carver had regained his lean strength, but on a lighter frame and with big veins like cords up and down his arms. He appeared studious and aloof, more attentive to his dress. I thought he looked more like I had, years ago. Or perhaps how I would now, had I not become entangled in marriage and career and the lingering depression I seemed unable to shake.
At the café, I allowed Carver to order the tea, which was brought to our table in a large, hand-blown glass pot, with a stainless steel basket in the middle and a plunger that was supposed to be depressed when the leaves in the basket were done steeping.
“Formosa Oolong,” the barista said. “Give it about three to five minutes.”
“This is a good one. You should like it.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
The café was very neat and clean, but dim. There was lots of glass and stainless steel. The décor was modern and sparse, the music was unidentifiable jazz. The bricked walls had been painted pale steel grey and the heavy wood upright chairs were mustard yellow and burgundy like the robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. The floor was polished and sealed concrete, dyed a grey so dark it appeared black. But once you had been sitting at your table long enough waiting for the tea to darken the scalding hardened spring water in the Assam teapot and your eyes adjusted and widened pupils could detect the subtle variations of color in the café lit by pendant lights hanging over the tables and counter. When the tea was ready, Carver pushed the plunger down and carefully poured my cup and then his, steam floating up and dissipating into the cone of light above us, leaving quite a bit left in the pot.
“I’m sorry for the text last night,” I said.
Carver nodded pensively and sipped the tea. “Try it,” he said.
“I’m going to wait a minute. Still looks too hot. Don’t want to burn my tongue and not be able to taste anything for the rest of the day.”
Carver placed his cup back on the table. “So why no drinking? Did anything happen?” His voice was short and I didn’t know if that was just Chicago creeping back into his tone.
I breathed and felt my still flushed face get hotter and the inner part of my brain throb with dehydrated remorse. A hot embarrassed feeling came up the back of my neck and over the tops of my ears. Carver was not just some college buddy. Nor was he one of those guys who only knew one part of me. Carver had seen beyond the twisted, grotesque façades I used to hide behind. “It’s just been out of control lately.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Can’t seem to give it a rest.”
Carver nodded slowly as his expression trenched lines into the thinning skin of his face. “Can’t give it a rest?”
“And what’s behind the wanting to give it a rest?”
“Carver, no one can stay drunk all the time.”
“I didn’t say anyone could or should.”
“I don’t think you understand. Things have changed since college. And certainly since New Orleans.”
“Sure they have. Of course they have,” he said, sipping the rest of his cup and pouring another. “Who says that they haven’t changed?”
“It isn’t like it used to be.”
“I’ve known you for a long time and I know what you’re like. I have a roommate who isn’t like us. It’s different with him. Joyless drinking. You and I had good times.”
“Like I said, a lot has changed since we lived in the same city. Maybe I’ve changed too.”
“Look, if you don’t want to drink while you’re here, then I won’t drink with you.”
“I can’t speak for my roommate. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Try the tea, Charlie.”
I held up the cup and blew the steam from the top. Taking a sip, a scalding fire rolled across my tongue and burned the back of my throat. “Shit!” I said. “That’s exactly what I didn’t want to do.”
Carver smiled and laughed. “Take it easy man. You’re so goddamned uptight.”
A wave of dizzying nausea overcame me and I felt the valve open in my neck, draining the blood in my head to a pale white. I excused myself to the bathroom, where I threw up thin, clear bile.
Carver’s apartment was small and he slept in what was supposed to be the dining room. I was to sleep in the living room, on the couch. We settled in for the night and tried to unwind. I made myself comfortable and tried to imagine a life like this that I had left a long time ago. Single. Carefree. Open.
We talked about a whole lot of nothing, but it was a comforting, buzzing thing between us and for a while I felt wonderful in Carver’s company. If I tried not to think too much about it, it was as though we were back in college.
“Ginny just got married,” Carver said. “Pregnant.”
“When did that happen?”
“A few weeks ago. Married the same guy she left me for.”
“Sure, but that was like what, five years ago?”
“Six,” I repeated. “That’s a long time.”
“She sent me an invitation. Can you believe the nerve?”
I shrugged. “It was a nice gesture.”
“Are you involved with anyone now?”
“Involved? Depends on what you mean by involved.”
“Are you dating anyone?”
“There’s a person I work with that I’ve slept with a couple of times.”
I took a sip of the new tea we had been drinking. This was a rooibos. A red tea. Carver bought it at the café and brought it back to his tiny kitchen where he steeped it in boiling water in a filthy rusted pan. My shoes sat on the hardwood floor next to the couch, my wallet keys, watch and cell phone stuffed into them. Sports news played on mute on the oversized television and Charles Mingus played from the laptop computer with which I shared Carver’s delinquent attention.
“That’s something,” I said.
“It’s something alright.”
A minute passed and Carver didn’t respond. I began to lose the easy relaxation I had managed for a minute there. I grasped for anything.
“So what where do you go from here? I mean, what’s do you have working now for the future? Are you planning on staying in restaurants for the long term? You think you’ll ever get married? Kids?”
Carver finished whatever he was typing before turning to answer me. “I don’t know Charlie. Sure. I’d like to have a family. Who doesn’t? But I don’t know how or when or who or what, man. I don’t even have a girlfriend.”
“Not the girl you sleep with?
“So what’s the deal?”
“The deal? The deal is I haven’t fallen in love with anyone.”
“Are you looking?”
“I’m not not looking.”
I sipped the tea and fought a sudden wave of nausea that I thought had left. My hands trembled visibly and I used them both to maneuver the cup. I don’t think Carver noticed.
“I want love,” he continued. “I want to be in love. I need whatever that is. But I haven’t met anyone since, well, since Ginny, really, that I think I could fall in love with. I hate to think that maybe she was my one chance in life, you know? What if I blew it?”
“And the rest?”
“The rest of what?”
“The career and all that?”
“Man, I don’t know. I’m not really living my life with some master plan. I’m just living. You know?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I do.”
“I’m doing what I’m doing now and whatever comes along comes along. Waiting. Restless? Sure.”
“I was only curious.”
“I mean, I’d love to get into a job where I can write. But there isn’t a lot out there right now. Not for the kind of money I need doing the kind of writing I want to do. Besides, the restaurant business is much better here. Different than in New Orleans. There’re a lot of people in the art scene who make a living in this business. I’m staying plugged in.”
I sat and struggled for a moment again to find the right thing to say. I felt self-conscious, grasping for conversation, trying to find that spark that would catch the engine and get it going, sputtering, and then rolling and then roaring along. “Do you remember in Bloomington when we talked about creating an artist community in New Orleans?”
“Yeah. You and me and Felix were going to be the next Hemingway and Fitzgerald and, and whoever Felix was going to be.”
I smiled just short of a laugh.
“And Bella was going to sing in a blues band,” he continued. “And Ginny was going to do her photography.”
“And we did have a lot of good times, didn’t we?” I asked.
“Of course we did. Days spent at the coffeehouse and there was the novel you were writing. There were good times.”
“Yes,” I said. “There were good times.”
“Well. I couldn’t finish the novel and Ginny left and Felix got caught up with that girl. What was her name?”
“And then we all left.”
“No. You and Bella left.”
“We left first. And then you left the next year and Felix left later because of the hurricane. He’d still be there if it hadn’t come.”
“You left first.”
“We had to leave.”
“No. No one had to leave.”
“We had to leave.”
“Oh come on.”
“Well, you left too.”
“It wasn’t the same after the two of you were gone.”
“There was Felix,” I said.
“There was not Felix. He was all wrapped up in her.”
“But she left him, didn’t she? After we left.”
“Some time later. But he was absent then too. And he never came around and he never wrote anymore and never had anything to do with me.”
“And he drank.”
“Yes. Felix drank,” I said and then didn’t want the engine to stall at the mention of that. “But there were others there. Why did you leave?”
“I just had to go. It was time. And I got that job.”
“I know. We couldn’t stand it another day there.”
“Was it that bad, Charlie?”
“Horrible. You lived there too, man. Expensive. Dangerous. Dirty. We couldn’t sleep with the thought of the young couple just a few doors down from us that got robbed and shot for an ATM card. Happened at eight in the morning. Think about it. Murder at eight in the morning. The birds singing and everything. How am I supposed to live with that? That and the thought of another cockroach falling from the ceiling in our sleep and landing in our hair.”
“Do you remember the fleas?”
“Jesus Christ!” I said. “The fleas! I almost forgot.”
“Your cat lost all its hair.”
“We still have that cat, you know. All the hair came back.”
“And there was your dog.”
“Dusty. How did he die?”
“Heartworms,” I said. And then quickly, “But the vet said he already had them from before we found him. We did everything we could to get rid of them. But they killed him in the end.”
I remembered coming home at dawn after a long night out at the casino. We had won almost a thousand dollars playing blackjack for six hours. He was so sick he couldn’t walk. I had to carry him to the car and talked to him sweetly the whole drive to the vet, Bella rubbing his head, telling him it was going to be okay. We cried for a solid hour sitting in the parking lot and during the drive alone back home, as the sun rose overhead. The guilt and remorse so thick it stuck to every corner of that empty hollow space in my chest.
“He was a good dog,” Carver said.
“The best goddamn dog that ever lived.”
“You remember when you’d take him to the Avenue Pub after work?”
“We’d drive all the way home at one in the morning just to get him and bring him to the bar.”
“He’d just sit there and let all the drunks pet him.”
“And Darren would give him slices of cheese.”
“He was the best dog,” Carver said.
“Do you have a dog now?”
“Yeah. But he’s no Dusty.”
“There’ll never be another Dusty.”
I sipped the tea and rubbed the back of my head, trying to numb the feeling of a dull blade shoved through the back of it. Carver was quiet and I was quiet and the thoughts of that dog, that wonderful dog, sat inside me like he used to sit at my feet, a soft huff every now and then before he’d roll over on his side and huff again. And now I couldn’t drink that away. I had to feel all of that and that was an unpleasant thing to feel.
“Tell me about you,” I said. “Tell me something. What happened after New Orleans? The parts I don’t know. Anything.”
Carver closed the cover of the laptop and the music shut off. He looked at the television and looked at me for a long time and finished whatever was in his cup. The rain began outside. The late October rain. Cold and shivering, the tapping was soft like sand and hypnotic, against the glass panes and aluminum trashcans below the window. He looked to the window and I followed his gaze and exhaled.
“I don’t know, Charlie. The rain came,” he said, gesturing to the darkened window. “Ginny left me and you and Bella left me and Felix remained disappeared. There was a moment that seemed to last forever and it was wonderful and full of magic and anticipation. It was moment that was supposed to be right before everything happened. Like the night before Christmas, you know? A moment so full of excitement, that I could barely stand it. Things were going to be so great and life was going to be so great and all the things that we wanted, that we deserved, were there and ready to happen. They were imminent. And then. And then. And then they didn’t happen. The skies blackened and opened up. The rain came down and washed all that happy bullshit away. I missed the moment, because the real moment was that time and not what was to come next. I missed it. There was no next. It was right then and I missed it.
“And you left. I don’t blame you. It didn’t cause anything. It just marked the end of something. You and Bella left and then things just got stupid and dull and out of control. Then I left. I had that shitty job in Kansas City, making more money than I ever had and ever will again. I was lonely and lost. Then I moved here. And slowly I am trying to get it back. I want to have that moment again of anticipation, but this time I’ll know that that’s it and that there’s nothing to come but that, but next time it’ll be okay, because those were great times. Those were the best times.”
He continued to look away and out the window. The rain picked up. The air was still and the rain fell straight down and banged, banged, banged against the cans. It was cooler then and I felt a chill turn over in my gut.
“I’ll get us some more tea,” I said.
The kitchen was tight and narrow. A door to the balcony was at one end, opposite of the entryway to Carver’s room, the dining room. It smelled of cigarettes mostly, and the spoiled produce in the poorly functioning refrigerator. The floor was uneven. Crooked black and white checkered linoleum tiles. The range was old and heavy. The large iron cooktops were blackened with the crusty remnants of food. Its white porcelain coating underneath was splattered with grease and caked with flaking black debris. I ignited one of the burners and the faintly pleasant scent of gas, round and sour, filled the room. The saucepan was still half-filled with water and came to temperature quickly, steam wisping off the surface, waiting to boil. A bottle of scotch, with one of those expensive labels made to look rustic and handwritten sat on the countertop three-quarters full.
The door to the balcony opened noisily. Carver’s roommate, a tall, thin man of roughly thirty years with black shaggy hair that covered the eyes of his large, round, moon face, came in with an extinguished cigarette butt in between the finger and thumb of one hand and a smudged, empty highball glass in the other. He startled me and I nervously smiled as he shut the wooden door and its heavy piece of glass rattled loosely, sounding as though it were going to fall and shatter.
“Hello, Charlie,” he said.
“Hi. Jack, right?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Oh, we’ve met.”
“We have?” I asked.
“Yeah. You probably don’t remember. Bloomington. Three years ago, I guess. Right after Katrina. You drove up from wherever and we met in Bloomington.” He flicked the cigarette in the trash.
I remembered the night.
“You were wasted,” Jack continued. “I’m sure you don’t remember me.”
“I’m sorry. You know how it is,” I said.
“Of course I do. You were so drunk you could barely talk.”
“I don’t think I was like that. I never got like that.”
“Oh yeah. You got like that.”
I looked at him blankly. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry. I understand. It happens.”
“Well, nice to see you again. For the first time again.”
Jack raised his glass to me and smiled. He then placed it on the counter and took two other glasses from the cabinet. He opened the bottle of scotch and poured three neat scotches, about four ounces each.
“I’ll pass,” I said. “Not tonight.”
“You were really drunk, man. You might remember my girlfriend though, Janet? Do you remember her?”
“No. No Janet.”
“Sure you do.”
“No. I’m sure I don’t”
“Tall, long dark hair.”
I stood silently as he picked up the glasses, one in his right hand, and two in his pinched fingers gripping the inside of the rims.
“Janet. You should remember her. Think.”
“Nothing, man. Sorry.”
“You were hanging on her all night. Tried to leave with her. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. But I know that you remember,” he said. And then calling to the other room, “Carver! Get in here!”
“You’re right,” I said. “I was drunk and I don’t remember much of anything that night. I drank the whole way up and kept drinking after I got there. Too much too fast. The next day was one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. Top ten worst of all time, you know.”
“Yeah. You know who I’m talking about. She was my girlfriend.”
“I’m sure that I don’t. But what ever you thought I did, I apologize, if I was an asshole or whatever.”
“It’s okay, man. We haven’t been together for a while now. But you were all over her. It was pretty fucked up.”
Carver came into the kitchen and took one of the glasses from Jack’s left hand. Jack extended the other one to me.
“It’s okay. Take it,” he said.
“Jack, Charlie’s not drinking tonight.”
“Not at all,” I said. “I quit.”
“Really,” Jack said, looking me up and down, shaking his head to the side in order to move the errant strands of hair from his eyes. “Quit, huh?”
I stared back at him.
Jack set the glass on the counter and drank the one in his right hand in one swallow. Carver brought his to his lips and took a sip before setting it down on the counter next to mine.
“That’s all I’m going to have,” he said. “Jack, they’re all yours.”
Jack picked up Carver’s glass and used it to slide the other towards me. He then raised it with a little salute and drank it down all at once.
“Go ahead,” he said to me. “That one’s for you.”
“Don’t need it,” I said.
“Sure you don’t,” he said and opened the cabinet, removing a small saucer and placed it on top of my glass of scotch. “To keep the gnats out.”
The water in the pan was starting to hiss as little scattered bubbles appeared on the bottom, waiting for enough heat to break free. Carver took the glass French press that we had been using and emptied the spent leaves into the garbage, banging the pot on the side of the trash can so hard I thought it was going to break. He rinsed out the rest in the sink and washed them down the drain. Jack opened the cabinet door next to the range hood and pulled several paper bags out, each marked with black writing on the side.
“What are we having next?” Carver asked.
“I have a wicked gunpowder green,” Jack said. “What were you drinking?”
“Hmm. Then I would probably go something strong. The gunpowder is good. Or we could do a Darjeeling.”
“Jack is pretty well versed in tea. He’s teaching me.”
“You’re unteachable,” Jack said.
“Whatever. So what do you think?”
“I think the gunpowder is the way to go,” he said and opened one of the bags. Jack measured a small handful into his palm and poured them into the bottom of the French press, where they looked and sounded like ball bearings against the glass. “These are rolled by hand. Monkeys pick the leaves and roll them into these little pellets from the bushes on hillsides that people can’t get to.”
“Oh bullshit,” Carver said.
“I’m serious,” Jack said. “It’s expensive stuff too. You’ll taste why. If you’ve learned anything.”
The water was hissing louder and right at the point of boiling, when Jack turned the flame off and moved the pot to another burner. He took a thermometer from the counter and placed it in the water. The dial shot up to over 200 degrees.
“When this gets down to about 185, we’ll make the tea,” Jack said.
Then no one said anything for almost a minute.
“Well I’m going to have a cigarette,” Jack said finally.
“I could go for that,” Carver added. “Come on Charlie, let’s all go have one.
“No. I don’t smoke.”
Jack laughed. “Doesn’t smoke. Doesn’t drink. What a saint. Who is this guy? Okay. You watch the water. 185 degrees. Actually, go ahead and pour it in the press after it drops below 190. Can you do that?”
Carver looked at me and I could tell what he was going to say and I felt small and disgusted. “Go ahead, man. Go have a smoke for chrissakes.”
I stood watching them. Leaning against the countertop, arms folded, across from the refrigerator. Carver pulled a box of Camel Lights from his chest pocket and opened it for his roommate. He set the pack on the counter next to me and clicked the igniter on the stove as a flame burst high. They each leaned over, heads cocked, to light their cigarettes and then shut off the gas and went through the door to the balcony. As the door opened, a rush of cool wind and the sound of a driving rain filled the kitchen. It shut back to silence and I was again alone.
I thought of my dog. The dog I may or may not have killed by neglect in New Orleans. Dusty. He was the sweetest thing I’d ever had. And he died in my care. I remembered standing outside in the cold rain on Saint Charles Avenue during a parade. It was one of the throw away parades, weeks before Mardi Gras. But we were new to all of this and a parade was a parade and we were drunk and cold. He was wandering down Saint Charles with his leash dragging behind him, soaking wet, shivering. His tags said “Dixie” and we took him home and called the number on the tags but no one answered. Bella washed him in a flea bath. He was filthy and crawling with them. By that time we had fallen in love with the damn dog and never tried the number a second time. We called him Dusty and put a bandana on him and took him everywhere. He was our adventure dog. Whatever we wanted to do, he followed. He never barked. The time that Bella left the house and the door open after we had a big fight, he got out and wandered the streets for who knows how long. I rushed out the door and called for him at one in the morning, running as hard as I could up and down my street. I was unafraid of getting shot or mugged because I just wanted to find my dog. And I looked everywhere. I called his name. Screaming. Panicked. And then as I stopped to catch my breath, I heard the light jingling of his tags. He turned a corner and I saw him and he came running towards me. It was the only time I ever saw him run. I had never felt so grateful in all my life. I took him home and hugged him and kissed his head and swore I would never let him get lost again. And I sat waiting day after day like Carver, sure that wonderful things were going to happen anytime now. And when they didn’t and when my dog died, weak and exhausted, I left. I knew that place was damned. New Orleans was where dreams came to die in an alcoholic fog. They didn’t just die; they became diseased. And then you had to put them to sleep first thing in the morning and drive home as the sun rose overhead while you wept, stuck in that place where you’re not even hungover yet.
I picked up the saucer and placed it in the sink. I just held the glass of scotch as I poured the water with the other hand and made the tea. I let out a long, hesitant sigh. Tomorrow would be a better day to quit. For the love of God. The glass was heavy in my hands and I could smell the scotch, sweet and hot, tingling the insides of my nostrils. I held the glass. My head swirled and I felt the thickness of remorse rise again in my throat. I knew how to get rid of that. And until I knew of a better way to get rid of that, what the hell do you want from me? Who was I kidding? At least I’d be able to breathe for a second. Ah. That’s better. Best not to think now. What’s done is done and best not to think. I’ll have another and since I’m having another, I’ll just let go tonight. Might as well enjoy myself. I placed the empty glass on the counter and lit a cigarette before walking out on to the balcony, my face and chest warm in the rainy October night air.