Adios by X.C. Atkins

I poured whiskey in a glass and added some rocks and put it on top of a black napkin, just in front of Chip. Chip was having two drinks to his buddy’s every one. His buddy was tanked. Two old white guys from the neighborhood who always came in a half an hour before we shut down for the night. If they had the bar to themselves they were ok. If there were people in there, particularly young people, they got cranky and annoying. Tonight, they had the bar to themselves. 

     Chip put money down and said, “This son of a bitch is leaving us.”

     “Z’at true?” his buddy asked.

     “Yup.”

     “How can you leave New Orleans?”

     “You fucking kidding me?” I said.

     “No, seriously,” Chip said. “Where you going?”

     “California.”

     “California? The fuck’s in California.”

     “Plenty of things are in California. Last call for one.”

     We all laughed. Trudy was barbacking that night. She was off to the side, polishing some glass ware. She looked over at them, smiling benevolently.

     “Fellas, the thing is, you gotta have discipline to live in this city. I had that in the beginning. It was only me. Me was all I had to care about. Those first years, sweet Jesus, they were really great. I knew when to stop, I knew when to go. I was doing all the things I said I was going to do. Living by myself. I’d reached a peak. I was dangerous. I was fast. All these kinds of things you know. And then I met this girl and I hated to admit it, I resisted the truth of it, but I knew. I just fucking knew.”

     “Knew what?”

     “There just couldn’t be anyone after her. I mean, of course there could be someone after her. There can always be someone else. But I don’t want anyone else. She’s it. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the gravity of such a statement. This world is a big place, and it gets bigger every day. Nowhere is untouchable. Possibilities are limitless. I don’t pretend to live in that old timey world where there are soulmates and shit like that. Me and her, it’s still a gamble. It’s hard work. But right now, standing here before you, I’m letting you know she’s the best thing this world has given me thus far, and I’m not letting her go.”

     “But is she a good lay?” Chip asked.

     “And you wonder why you’re a lonely old man,” I said. His buddy laughed. “This fucking guy.”

     “So you’re leaving because of her? She wants to leave?”

     “We both want to leave. This is a hard town to be in a relationship in, man. At least for me, it is. I said before, I had discipline when it was just me. I gotta learn something completely different now. And that’s OK. She’s worth it. We’ll get out there, live healthy, she’ll do yoga, I’ll black out less, hopefully say less dumb shit. We’ll drive out to Joshua Tree. It’ll be nice.”

     “It’s nice here too. This is a beautiful city,” Chip said.

     I sighed, putting both hands on the bar and leaning forward. “It is a beautiful city. I was thinking that today, you know? I was on my way to work, gliding underneath those trees, Spanish moss hanging down like it does. I thought about falling in love in this city. Not just with my lady, but with life. The magic, you know? There’s no other city in the world like New Orleans. No other place. But you know what? New Orleans is still in the South. And I fucking hate the South.”

     “Things are kind of bad right now,” Chip’s buddy said.

     “Kind of bad?” I straightened back up, making a face. I poured myself a shot of whiskey and took it fast. “Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s tough everywhere right now. But especially so here. People are getting murdered every day. By people that are supposed to be protecting us. The kids are almost as scary. Health care is a fucking joke. I don’t know anymore what’s a conspiracy and what isn’t. It’s like the Wild West mixed with the Matrix. And you know what I hate the most?”

     “What?”

     “That there’s these classes of people here that make sure nothing ever actually gets better. You got the people who are mad at how things are all the time but don’t ever go out and actually do anything. They just complain all the time on their social media and drink their shitty beer and let their lives dwindle like sand in an hourglass,” I held up a second finger, “The transplants that don’t say shit because they figure, hey it’s how things are here, we don’t want to publicly disrupt that, we just want to quietly gentrify and subvert everything. We’ll just write some articles about how cool things are here and never actually talk to a real black person. We’ll just video tape ‘em dancing around in their costumes. And then the worst of the worst, and I really hate these ones. The motherfuckers that just say ‘That’s New Orleans.’ They throw their hands up and smile and shrug and say ‘That’s New Orleans.’ You know what I’m talking about? Someone gets shot, someone gets mugged, and these fuckers just say ‘Hey! That’s New Orleans!’ Like that’s some fucking answer. Like we should all just accept that we’re getting murdered and having our houses taken away and that a pothole the size of small planet sits in the middle of a street for half a year. This is not normal shit, man.”

     The two older men had leaned back in their chairs during my rant and blinked a hint of soberness back into their doughy faces. His friend finally said, “See, that’s why we need people like you to stay. People who have the voice. Who think like this.”

     I held my hands up and shook my head. “No, yeah, I get it. I’m a smart young black guy who has great and diverse taste in music. You know… I’ve thought about getting involved with the community. I’ve been in the protests. But the thing is: none of it matters. Those protests were hardly a blip on the news. We stopped traffic. That was it, man. See, I’m not from here. Maybe a part of me wishes I was. But I’m not. And the truth is, as much as I love New Orleans, New Orleans is still in Louisiana. I can’t fight for this place. These aren’t my people. You guys are sitting here, agreeing with me, saying yeah, it’s not right. You guys have been here the whole time. And now you’re old. What have you done? Why haven’t you stepped up?”

     The two of them just kept looking at me but they didn’t say anything else. I shook my head. “I’m gonna smoke one, fellas.”

     I came around the bar. Trudy was staring at me. She looked sad. 

     “Watch the bar, would you?” I asked her.

     The air was warm outside. I took out a cigarette and lit it and exhaled into the sky. I heard music suddenly, and it was coming my way. Down the street, I saw a little old black lady riding a tricycle. She was playing music from some speakers she had hooked up in a basket on the back of the bike. It sounded good. I smiled big, watching her ride down. She was smiling big too, and once she saw me, she waved. I waved back. I felt an urge to grab my own bike and just follow her to wherever she rode for however long her music would play. Follow her right into the night and watch the sun come up and be reborn. I never did that anymore. How the hell had I grown so old? 

     The little old black lady passed by, waving, disappearing into the night, playing her music, generous with her love and that magic I’d found in no other city before. I pulled out my phone and texted my girlfriend. I told her I loved her. She was probably already asleep. But she’d see it in the morning.

 

 

About the Author: X.C. Atkins graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University. He has short stories published in Makeout Creek, Whole Beast Rag, Richmond Noir, BLAAAH, The Devils We Know, and Annalemma.

Stoop by X.C. Atkins

Freddie stood behind his dirty screen door, staring out onto the street. Bunch of quiet. Everybody’s inside, Freddie thought. Where they oughta be, unless they had a pool. It was summer time. Way too hot. All it did was make people crazy. But really, he knew the real reason why the street was empty. These were the new days.

     He shook the cubes of ice in his Crown and Seven, his long black fingers curling around the glass like spider legs. He toed open the screen door, all matted with dirt and pollen, and stepped out onto his stoop. 

     He was in the shadow of his shotgun but even so the humidity wrapped around him thick. With a lot of grunting, clutching on the rail, he slowly lowered his butt down to take a seat. 

     “Ooh,” he said. 

     The stairs, once a vibrant green, were dusty and faded and chipping bad. He looked right, next door to him. That house had been boarded up for years now. Vines grew all over it and the boards that were nailed to the windows bore faded spray paint. On the roof, flowers bloomed. Somebody might mistake them for being pretty, but he knew they were weed flowers, so he didn’t like them.

     Sometimes, he had a hard time remembering who used to live there. At last he would recall. Danny Wheeler and his family. He hadn’t any inkling as to where they’d ended up. He wished one day they would just reappear, car pulling a trailer, all kinds of stuff pressed up on the windows. He wondered if he’d recognize Danny’s kids. If they would recognize him.  I don’t look so much different, Freddie thought to himself. He took a grip of his belly fat. He took another sip from his drink.

     He heard a door push open a few doors down and across the street.  One of the houses getting all the repair in the past months. Heavy renovation. Brand new paint. Bars on the windows. Freddie would bet a shot of Old Granddad the floors were glossier than a motherfucker. All that repair, and he hadn’t recognized a single soul.  Coming out of the door, a pale man with straw hair holding a briefcase. His head leaned down on his shoulder and a cell phone was lodged between. Freddie could just barely hear him talking. The man locked the door behind him, then the screen door, before stepping down onto the sidewalk. He walked up the block, towards Freddie. As he passed Freddie, he smiled and held up a hand. Freddie stared at the man hard and returned no motion. The man got into a shiny car and started it and drove away. 

     Freddie lingered on his stoop about a half an hour longer. The only other person to pass was a young boy on a bike, shirtless, onyx skin glistening in the sun. It was a very nice bicycle the boy rode. Freddie didn’t waste any wondering about stuff like that anymore. He got back up with some grunting and went back into his house to make himself another Crown and Seven. Maybe play a record or two.

*

A white and black taxi cab cruised down the wrecked street of the neighborhood at a leisurely pace. A dumb glossy beetle bumping along. When it stopped, a young woman stepped out. Blond hair, the ends pink. She wore a backpack, and pulled a rolling suitcase behind her. The cab left. She looked up and down the block, smiling. Down the block, she saw an older black man sitting on a stoop holding a glass. He was staring back at her. He stood up slowly, holding onto a rail, and returned to his house. Now she was completely alone. She stepped up the stoop, took some more looks up and down the block, and picked out a key from the soil of a hanging flower pot. The door was a bright purple. The window shutters were yellow. She almost laughed. She unlocked the door to the house and stepped inside. The air conditioning was running and the lights were off but she could see from the light coming through the blinds that there was a note on the table, just as she’d been informed. She closed the door behind her, locking it.

*

That first afternoon in town, the young woman discovered a coffee shop just a few blocks away from the house she was staying in. It didn’t take her long to fall into conversation with people. She’d always been easy to talk to. Her parents loved to tell stories of her walking up to complete strangers in airports and striking up conversations. It had carried on into her adult life, though of course she’d had to become more cautious. 

     She was gathering information about the neighborhood. Off of a recommendation, she checked out Frenchman Street later that evening. It was a weekday but there were enough people out to warrant walking in the streets. Food and music filled the air. Open guitar cases with dollar bills and coins. People sipping from to go cups and makeshift tables for street poets and their typewriters. She stepped into a bar to listen in on a band. She applauded with everyone when they finished a set. A bearded fellow came by with an empty coffee can afterwards and a smile on his face. She added a couple of dollars to it. He gave her a small bow. 

     New Orleans is so charming, she texted a friend back home.

     She didn’t stay out too late, still tired from the flight, but the next morning she returned to the coffee shop. The place had some real characters. One of them: a young cute guy from Omaha she’d talked to the previous day. He had a habit of breaking into song whenever he deemed appropriate. It embarrassed her terribly at first, but hardly anyone seemed to turn a head when it kept happening, so she assumed they were all already quite used to his antics. After the third song, he invited her to watch him play later that night. He made her laugh and she was winging the trip anyway, so yeah, sure, she told him. She’d come by. 

     She was on the phone texting her mother how much fun she was having as she turned onto her temporary block. As she did, she saw the older black man she’d seen the first day, pulling a large ladder off his truck. He seemed to be struggling. She rushed up to help him with the opposite end. His eyes met hers with suspicion initially, but once he settled on her intent, the look relented. He wiped his brow and muttered, “Appreciate ya.”

     He unlocked a wonky door and they hobbled through a narrow alleyway on the side of his shotgun, into the backyard. They set the ladder up against a tiny Tim Burton shed. In the yard, near the back entrance, there was a life size statue of an angel. The eyes had no pupils. Freddie wiped his brow again and put his hand to his hip, exhaling, staring at the ground. The young woman chewed her bottom lip, standing there.

     “Care for an ice tea or a beer?” he asked her.

     It was hardly past noon. 

     “Sure. I’ll take a beer,” she said.

     They sat on the stoop, drinking a couple of High Lifes. “I’m Freddie,” he said.

     “Andrea. Nice to meet you, Freddie.”

     She shook the hand he held out. She could feel the bones in his hand. “Likewise.”

     “I’m visiting,” she told him.

     “Oh, I figured as much.”

     “You lived here long, Freddie?”

     “All my life.”

     They drank their beer, looking out on the street. A car passed by, bobbing along. Their beer bottles sweat onto their laps. 

     “Do you do carpentry, Freddie?”

     “Yeah. Stuff like that.”

     “My dad’s kind of a handy man.”

     “Oh yeah?” Freddie said.

     "Yeah. The last house we lived in, where my parents retired, it was this big house that had all these things wrong with it. My dad called it a fixer upper. I was just a kid, so of course I thought it was a pile of junk. It was just an old house. But being retired, my dad had all this time to actually fix it up. He liked the work and in the end did a great job. Everyone on the block could see the difference. So instead of hiring other people, they asked him. Can you do this, can you do that. I guess he got kind of famous. On the block anyway. I bet you’re kind of famous around here, huh?”

     “Naw. I just know people,” Freddie said, tipping his beer back.

     They sat there some moments longer, drinking their beers. Andrea finished and thanked Freddie for it.

     “I’ll be your neighbor for the rest of the week. That house right there. Doing the Air BnB thing.”

     “Is that what they calling all that?” Freddy asked.

     “The houses you can rent. From owners. Yeah.”

     “From owners. Huh.”

     “A lot cheaper than hotels and you get to be in the cool neighborhoods. It’s pretty great.” She stood up. “So I’ll see you around, right, Freddie?”

     “Guess so,” he said. 

     She waved as she walked back to her house. Freddie nodded.

*

     Freddie was watching that boy riding his bicycle again. He wondered where the other kids were. He didn’t wonder long. He remembered himself as a kid, playing in the streets. Playing stickball. Playing til the sun came down. His uncle barbequing. Mom and aunt and sisters on the stoop, talking and talking. Music up loud, no one seemed to mind, it was just how it was, as natural as cicadas. His older brother had just bought a new car. He’d wash it every Sunday. Gave Freddie a beating that one time he hit it playing stickball, right in front of everyone. But Freddie knew he’d deserved it. He knew he’d hit the car on purpose. He loved his older brother.

     At least once a day that week, Andrea would catch Freddie sitting on that stoop, staring off. She’d approach him gingerly and he’d blink, lost in some child-like reverie, and then he’d nod to her and she’d sit down and maybe he’d say something about what he was looking at but mostly he did not.

     “It’s my last night,” Andrea told him. “Going to a big show on St. Claude. The music here has really been so great. We just don’t have it like this at home.”

     “It’s special here. In New Orleans. Always has been.”

     “Man. To have grown up here. I bet that was really something. All the things you’ve seen come along,” Andrea said.

     He sat there a long time after she left. It was that time of year. The sun was taking longer to come down.

     Freddie was really tying one on that night. He was playing his records loud. He knew he didn’t have to care about anybody complaining. Not as long as they didn’t Bnb ole Danny’s place. He took a swig of his plastic cap whiskey and chased it with a freshly popped can of beer. He stomped his feet, stumbled through his house, pacing, looking at the framed pictures on his wall like he hadn’t seen them in years. He felt like everyone was right on the verge of being with him again. He waited for someone to knock on his screen door. He picked up his cordless phone, looking at the numbers, seeingfamiliar faces rippling in the pool of his mind, just to trickle away. The phone fell from his hand, clattering across his empty dinner table.

     He’d fallen asleep with his head in his hand at the dinner table. He’d become some kind of master at being a statue. Just waiting for the pigeons. He could hear someone outside. The candle he’d lit earlier was out but the door was still ajar, just the screen door shut. He stood up, shaky, bracing himself on the chair, scuttling up to the door. From the dark, he peered out into the street from behind the screen. 

     Down the block he could just make her out. Blondie. Andrea. The street was very dark, but who else could it be. Her hair almost seemed to glow. Freddie nearly smiled.

     Then he heard someone else. 

     “Give me your money, bitch.”

     Freddie could tell the man was young. Maybe wasn’t even a man yet. But he couldn’t see anything besides Andrea. Could only see her turn around and put her hands up. He saw the man step from the shadows, his arm held up, pointing something at her. Freddie didn’t need to guess what. She handed over her purse. He lowered the hand holding the gun, and struck her with the other hand. Freddie could hear the impact. Hear her gasp. The dark figure dashed back into the night. Freddie could hear her sobbing. She’d fallen unto her knees. When she finally stood, she turned around. She was looking towards his direction. Like she could see in the dark. He closed his door as softly as he could, and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes. He just then noticed the record still spinning on the turntable, the needle long since lifted.

 

 

About the Author: X.C. Atkins writes, works, and lives in New Orleans. He has a B.A. in English from Virginia Commonwealth University. His work can be found in Annalemma, Richmond Noir, Whole Beast Rag, as well as other publications. He’s presently working on a graphic novel about spirit animals living in a post-apocalyptic world that dream of their human counterparts.