I wake up to the bright sun piercing through my tattered blanket and peering into my crusted eyelids. A strong mixture of terrible scents invade my nostrils: mule manure, cigarette smoke, burning coffee, and alcohol induced vomit. The humidity clings to my throat, as if there is an invisible hand choking me. The ache in my back snaps me back to reality: I no longer fall asleep in a comfortable, king-sized bed, warm and close to my wife, but alone and drunk on the steps of an abandoned building in the Quarter. That’s how the beast likes it, that bastard.
I notice a cluster of waiters outside a nearby restaurant, taking their morning smoke break. I sit up reluctantly and pull the thin, musty blanket off of me and check to make sure that my guitar case is still in the area between my back and the doorstep and that my small backpack still has my belongings tightly packed away inside: an alcohol-scented toothbrush, even though it was old and some of the bristles were missing, it still worked better than nothing, a couple of granola bars, a scarred notebook, two pens with hardly any ink left, a half empty bottle of warm water, and seven heavily crinkled dollar bills.
A sense of relief slithers through my aching body as I realize that, thankfully, nothing is missing. Well, except for my dignity. I sigh. The beast took that from me a long time ago. I slowly stand up and stretch, folding the blanket and placing it inside of the backpack. The sun was relentless, and the humidity was worse, intensifying the needle-like feeling behind my eyes. I rub the back of my neck with my hand, trying to piece together last night. I look up and catch the pitiful glance of a young mother in the midst of explaining why I look the way I do to her toddler. She looks away quickly, embarrassed for me. I roll my eyes. If only they knew.
A groan escapes my lips. My stomach flips and threatens to empty itself on the street. I pick up my backpack and my guitar case. Time to locate, then relocate. I squint upwards, looking for a sign. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. I head down the street, and in no time I find myself weaving my way through the throngs of sweaty tourists on the always crowded Bourbon Street. A gaggle of young women stumble across the street and into the next bar, giggling and spilling their secrets along with their strawberry daiquiris. These people have no shame; it’s not even noon, and the bars are barely breathable. Part of me, the part I no longer have control over, wants to go over and join the tourists taking cheap shots in the fluorescent bars. I shake my head, ignoring the beast for now, and pull myself together and do my best to straighten a couple of the dollar bills and purchase a gallon of water from the next drugstore I come across.
After what feels like hours, I reach the only place that feels like home anymore: the corner of Royal and Conti. The blossoming trees in the courthouse garden send over a scent much more pleasant than that of the previous street. I pull out my guitar, take a breath, push down the beast, and start to strum. The perfect amount of tourists pass by, coming close but not crowding me of my playing space. They’re always careful to avoid eye contact which makes rolling my eyes at them much easier. A fair amount of locals nod sympathetically in my direction as they go to and from jobs. I make sure to strategically place the case with a couple of dollar bills in it, so that passersby will feel slightly obligated to drop some spare change into it. I watch as the bartender crosses my path heading towards Bourbon, looking at me with pity-filled eyes. He makes a point of coming over and dropping a crisp five dollar bill into my case. He attempts to smile. I send him a grateful yet slightly embarrassed look but quickly turn back to my guitar. I ignore the constant dull thud in my skull and the urge to vomit as I leak out basic songs that every single, middle-aged tourist sings along to. Sweat seeps through my holey t-shirt, and I just know that the stains are becoming visible. The humidity makes my untamed, uncut, shoulder-length hair frizz up into a mane. I keep my focus on my guitar, not because of a lack of confidence in my playing skills (I know that I am flawless at the guitar), but because I don’t want to scare away potential tippers with my crazy, shame-filled eyes.
The day drags on. The sun intensifies. The threat of rain looms nearer and nearer. The air reeks of moldy coins. I gagged. Both my stomach and the beast begin to moan unsustainably, begging to be fed. I ransack through my bag for one of my granola bars. I open the package to discover a pathetic, wilted, soggy piece of cardboard-like substance. Obviously the snack had been through too many days in the New Orleans humidity. Ugh. I can’t imagine that my face is hiding my disgust right now, but this is all I have. I down the nasty bar in two bites and chase it with almost half of the gallon of water. I glance towards my guitar case. Dimes and pennies litter the threadbare insides. A few somber, crumpled dollar bills lay scattered haphazardly. My pride wilts. I can hear her voice inside my head, laughing and telling me that I would never be good enough to make it as an artist. The beast smiles.
I play the rest of the day with a little less enthusiasm, not that I had much to begin with in my hungover state of being. People flow back and forth, taking pictures of the scenery and slurping on alcoholic beverages. Most casually look the other way, questioning my beggar authenticity while refusing to acknowledge my existence. A few take pity and toss me the couple of coins they have in their pockets. The sun seemed to laugh in my face as it descended slower than a lazy Sunday in a boring, small town. I was suddenly no longer able to ignore the unquenchable thirst inside of me, consuming my entire being. I had to give in. With a new purpose, the beast’s purpose, I collect the money at the bottom of my guitar case. $23.12. It’s not bad, but I’ve done better. My breathing quickens as if with excitement while I bend over to gather my things. I close my guitar case and start to make my way back to where I started out this morning.
Before I got to the next corner, a couple walking into the pink doors of Brennan’s stops me dead in my tracks, a lump catching in my throat making it difficult to swallow. Her hair is shorter, her smile brighter. She looks happier, more full of life than ever before, as if the divorce was the best thing to ever happen to her. And the man that she’s with is undeniably good looking with his stupid curly blond hair and annoying muscular build. I stand in the middle of the street, sneering, and watch as she smiles and laughs at something he says. Great, he’s funny, too. The guy’s got it all. Resentment hangs in the air like week old food, rotting and fermenting. I pull away before she can see me. That would be the last thing I needed right now, and all I want to do is focus on the first: taming the beast while he laughs at the patheticness of my situation. Without wasting any more time, I head to Bourbon. Her voice calls after me, haunting me. My feet propel forward, as if by machine. I can’t turn back; I pretend not to hear her and continue on my way. Memories, could have’s, and should have’s swirl relentlessly in my mind. The pounding in my head worsens, bringing tears to my eyes. I breathe deeply and force them back. Man up. You’re being ridiculous.
As I reach Bourbon Street, the masses of people are even more wild and unapologetically trashed out of their minds. I dodge back and forth, cringing every time a sweaty, bloated body brushes up against me. Bright lights boast of being home to the best drinks, luring in the weak-minded plebeians who come here only to get wasted and laid. A beer-bellied, middle-aged man leans over and hurls, covering the Bourbon block letters on the corner of the street. His buddies point at him, snorting and spilling their Big Ass Beers. A cloud of marijuana smoke brings water to my eyes as I feel them involuntarily roll back. Annoyingly, the beast growls, yearning to be a part of the party.
Picking up my pace, I make my way past the crowded end and down to the more local end of Bourbon Street. I can barely see; all I can think about is the craving gnawing at my insides. There was only one way to satisfy it, or at least subside the constant gnawing and aching that was the beast. I open the heavy, wooden door and step inside the comfortable bar. The lights are dim, and soft jazz plays out from the old jukebox in the corner. Half empty liquor bottles line the shelves behind the bar, catching all of my attention. The bartender and the two men at the counter greet me by name. I am too focused on taming the monster tearing up my insides, so I only grunt out a quick response. I sit down at my regular stool and pull out my earnings from the day. Slamming the money on the table, I ask the bartender to pour me my usual: a shot of tequila, then a cheap whiskey on the rocks, and keep them coming. I am aware of how disgustingly unappealing this sounds, but it’s not supposed to taste good; it’s just supposed to do the trick. The bartender looks at me with the same pity-filled eyes as before, but pours my drinks without any more judgement.
Cent by cent, the glasses come and go, each one lasting less and less time. Time starts to speed up. The room isn’t so secure anymore. I’m almost out of cash, but the beast inside just isn’t satisfied. The bartender must see my distressed look and offers me a shot on him. I slowly grab the small glass and tell myself that somehow, I earned this shot. I pick it up with my thumb and first finger and lift it to my mouth and tip my head back. It goes down pretty easy. A good sign. I send another grateful glance towards the bartender, my eyes taking a second to find him in the dark, slowly revolving room. I think he nods in my direction, attempting a smile, when he catches my glance.
Her face pops in and out of my mind; her voice is suddenly the only thing that I can hear. I reach my hands into my pockets and fumble around for any spare change. I pull out my hand and open my palm to reveal several pieces of lint and two solemn nickels. The scent of desperation wafts up to my nose. I reek of it. I need more. I eye the bartender, or at least look in his general direction, and let him know I’m ready for another round.
His mouth is moving but I have no idea what he is saying. I can’t read lips. I gape at him. He moves closer and yells something about a ford brother? What the hell? The room is starting to wiggle. The bottles bounce on the shelves, taunting me with their hypnotic promises. One moment, her voice taunts me, softly whispering, giggling. And the next, she’s gone. On second thought, I might not need that next round.
I teeter off of the rickety barstool, my legs making a secure connection to the wobbly floor. My head is so full of clouds, making my movements foggy and slow. I nod in the general direction of the other lads in the bar, signaling my departure, but her face is the only thing I can see. I make my way to the door before I realize that I had left my bag and guitar case by my stool.
I turn. Too fast. The room is spinning. Perfect.
I grab my bag and the case and turn to leave. I stumble out the door and head down Bourbon Street, joining the hooligans and tourists living it up. The ugly neon signs jump out at me, making it harder to figure out the direction I am headed in. Terrible techno music drowns out my thoughts, the songs differing from bar to bar. For a moment, I let myself drift down the street, and I lose myself in the touristy happiness, forgetting about my life and all of the garbage I have to deal with every damn day. But then I remember. I remember how it started, the happiness and the love. I remember the firing. Then the bills. Then the hopelessness. Then the coping. Then the screaming. Then the divorce papers. Then the desperation. Then the empty pockets. Then the street. And now the beast, never satisfied.
I start to shove people out of my way, frustrated with the crowdedness of this damn tourist trap. Some people live here, I want to tell them. My vision blurs. Most likely a combination of my intoxicated state and the anger welling up inside of me, feeding the beast. I no longer have any idea where I am headed, but I don’t stop. Anywhere is better than here. Anything is better than this feeling. An idea emerges in my mind: I need to visit an old friend.
Minutes later, I end up on a side street. The beast is beginning to stir once again, reminding me that he is still there and still not satisfied, always needing more. A spinning world and cloudy mind is just not enough. I close my eyes and try to think. My foggy mind races to a new idea. I struggle to pinpoint my location, and then figure out how to get to the meeting point. I’m close.
I arrive in the alley. Confused, I spin my head around, trying to make sure I’m in the right area. I can feel the beast inside me, laughing. So this is what it’s come to. Suddenly, he’s there, as if he appeared out of nowhere. Magic. We greet each other. Hey man, are you in the business? I try to say, but the words come out slurred and almost impossible to understand. Luckily for me, he speaks drunk. He nods hesitantly, his eyebrows raising in concern.
I tell him I’ll pay him before next time, but he shakes his head. I hear him whisper, first time’s free. After sending him a grateful, intoxicated smile, I tie the bandana above my vein. I can see her frowning at my decision in my mind. You don’t have a say anymore. Without wasting any more time, I shoot up. I wait. It hits. She’s gone. I sigh. The beast inside is content for now.
Madison McLoughlin is a writer and an English literature and mass communication journalism junior at Loyola University New Orleans. She is from Southwest Michigan and has a passion for reading and writing. In addition to short stories, Madison also writes for her school’s award-winning newspaper, The Maroon.