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The Company of Strangers

by Jessica Erica Hahn

  September 2011 Fiction Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |  echapbook.com 


Teresa storms one way down Bourbon Street and I go the other, my hands balled into fists. She thinks it’s cool to get drunk when she’s never been to New Orleans before, she’s never squatted, and she doesn’t even have the fucking map? And then to argue about drinking more, just ‘cause we’re not getting carded? I never should’ve asked her to travel with me.

I stop at Esplanade Avenue, where the night reeks of rotten vegetables. Someone’s behind me; I expect Teresa’s ponytail and oversized UCB sweatshirt, but it’s a cowboy leading a sad pony with dollar bills folded into its mane, its hooves clicking. My stomach flutters at the thought, what if I can’t find Teresa?

I quickly retrace my steps to where we had our spectacle on Bourbon Street, and I stand in the air-conditioned blast outside a bar, next to a photo of a girl my age, in panties, her legs folded over her shoulders. People at the bar suck down Hurricanes and watch yesterday’s stupid O.J. Simpson low-speed car chase. The bouncer shakes his meatball head at my description of Teresa. I feel dizzy, but I tell myself: I’m a woman, I’m 19 , and I will survive.

I head for Jackson Square, chewing my nails, passing through Pirate’s Alley where there’s a bookstore I’d taken Teresa to, but she’s not here. The plaza before the cathedral is empty of Tarot card readers, artists, gutterpunks, Lucky Dog carts, and one drunken co-ed. No familiar face peers out of the three-story brick buildings, or from the garden where General Jackson rears up. My forefinger stings where I’ve chewed the nail and I taste blood.

Teresa had insisted on scarfing down beignets at Café du Monde this morning, when we got in, but the café is dark and quiet. Sweat drips off my face as I make my way to the Mississippi, thankful for the breeze. A couple is making out on the Moonwalk. What if Teresa’s waiting at the squat?

I run, people looking at me like I’m a purse-snatcher as I whoosh past, stopping outside of Walgreens, breathing hard, my hands on my knees. A police man on horseback trots up. I wonder what he thinks of me, dressed in black, my hair a rat’s nest, an old backpack draped over my shoulders. Hot oaty breath comes out the horse’s flared nostrils, and the cop’s face is a mean mug. I walk away.

My sense of geography is muddled once I’m downriver from the Quarter, even though I squatted here a year ago. I’m disoriented on the other side of Elysian Fields Avenue, walking down dim, pocked streets, past shotgun houses. One of my hands curls around a can of pepper spray, the other holds an Army knife.

At Desire Street, I inspect my hand-drawn map. It’s already falling apart at the folds, the chicken-scratch writing bleeding in the humidity. A dozen mosquito legs land on my arms. I’m so lost, I could cry. There aren’t any people, or even a liquor store.

One house has light on—a blue glow flickers on a screen door, and canned laughter emanates from a TV inside. It’s a ramshackle house like the others, paint peeling on its clapboard, fronted by a gallery, with a wild yard.

The gate squeaks as I enter. “Hello? Hellooo?”

A huge man appears, holding back a barking German Shepherd. “Who’s that?” A second dog shows its fangs, growling like a wolf.

“Sorry to bother you!” I say, holding my map high. “I think I’m lost.” I talk fast, like I’m hitchhiking, to show him I’m harmless. “I’m not from here, but I have this map…”

Both dogs bark but the man snaps a command in some foreign language, to which they respond in perfect, disgruntled obedience, sitting on their rumps. The man is wearing brown pants and a T-shirt—but what’s most noticeable are his height and girth, how he fills the doorframe. The porch light throws his features into relief, makes his face a mask, difficult to decipher. Cow-licked blonde hair waves above his face, and his jutting forehead reminds me of a Neanderthal—but there’s curiosity and stillness in his gaze, and his jaw relaxes.

The man approaches me, one hand reaching out like a chunk of ham. “May I see your map?” He turns my map over and over, his big speedbump of a forehead furrowed as he reads. “Off of Almonaster?” he cries with a twang, digging one hand into his hair for a deep scratch. “You gone too far. You need to go back to Franklin, and that turns into Almonaster, but it’s a long ways to the Ninth Ward.”

“Isn’t this the Fauborg Marigny?”

“You in the Bywater. You ain’t from here, are you?” There’s something like sympathy in his gaze.

“I’m passing through. And I’m meeting my friend at this warehouse.”

He shakes his moon pie head and sucks his teeth. “The Ninth Ward ain’t a good neighborhood.”

I think, why, because it’s black? The skin on my neck tingles. Maybe I should get out of here now, get away from this Aryan.

“My friend is waiting for me. Thanks for your time.”

The man shows me his palm. “Lemme walk you up the road a piece.”


“I’ll just fetch my bicycle,” he says, clomping onto the porch. “It’s safer if you let me walk you, you being a young lady and all. I’ll ride my bicycle home.” He locks one whimpering dog in his house, and carries a rusty Schwinnn on his shoulder as he leads the other dog, yipping and dancing, down the front steps. “Pardon me,” he murmurs, passing through the gate. “Can I see your map again?” As he mumbles and scratches his head, the tip of his tongue pokes out the side of his mouth. Maybe he’s a little slow? I see wrinkles and a greasy scalp through thinning hair, and smell old man deodorant, something like spicy mothballs. I'm guessing he’s on the deep-end of forty. He tucks his shirt in and we go.

Busted concrete and encroaching vegetation on either side of us make walking on the sidewalk a challenge, and this man is big as a Clydesdale. I’m still holding my pepper spray, hidden in a pocket, thinking this man better not start acting weird. “Let’s walk in the street,” I suggest, taking a deep breathe when we get in the middle of the empty road. “My name is Una, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you, Una. I’m Peer.” We shake hands, one clammy hand against the other. I notice a gold cross on a chain around his neck, and wonder if he notices my silver pentagram, but he says, “Per is P-e-r. It means ‘rock’.”

“Oh? I think Una means ‘the one,’” I say, “But she’s from The Faerie Queene.” Per nods, but doesn’t give any indication of having read Spenser, so I ask, “Who’s this dog?”

“This one’s Hans; he’s the baby. Ulrika is his Momma, but she’s getting soft and has to stay at home.”

Besides the noise of the night insects, the only sounds are the clump of my Doc Martens and the pad of his penny loafers, one squeaky bike wheel, and the click of doggy toenails.

“What brought you to New Orleans, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“It’s summertime, and I love this city.”

“You been here before?”

“Yeah, one time, under different circumstances. I’d been accepted to Tulane—”

Per isn’t listening. Hans growls at a figure at the end of the block, and Per shortens the leash. The stranger crosses the street.

Per clears his throat. “So you was saying?”

“Oh? I’m traveling with my friend, and we got in this morning.” I sigh. “It’s embarrassing, but we fought, then lost each other. She’s probably at this warehouse.”

“A warehouse hotel?”

“No, it’s abandoned, a squat. Some kid at the Drop-In Center on Rampant drew me that map to it.”

Per’s chewing his lips like they’re sausages. Shit, he’s going to get preachy, or advise me. Well I won’t explain that I feel caught between two worlds, the one of work and college versus the one of wandering around, being a bum. And if Teresa hadn’t ruined my day, I’d be happier now than I’d been in a year.

But Per surprises me by saying, “You been to Verti Marte on Royal? No!? They got the best jambalaya, the cheapest étouffée, and the biggest stuffed potato—with real bacon, and cheese and onion, mmm.”

“Maybe you ought to go home and eat?” Secretly, I’m wishing he’d go away. I don’t trust that he won’t get weird, and sure enough, he starts gnawing his fist, saying, “I’m always hungry.”

I knew it. He must’ve been a special ed kid. My fear dissipates, some. I guess I’m thankful he’s walking with me.

Five or six blocks later, Per says, “I think that’s your warehouse.” He points to a dilapidated building at the far end of a brown field, then crosses his arms. “I’ll wait on the street while you check your friend is there.”

Tiptoeing alone through the weeds, glass sparkling underfoot, I think, “Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” Who wrote that? Some Southern writer... But I’ve reached the front door, a black rectangle, and my heart starts leaping, imagining crackheads inside. Per and Hans stand on the far side of the brown field behind me, the moon tiny and cold above them, and I feel gratitude for their presence.

“Teresa?” I fiercely whisper into this steamed up port-o-pottie, seeing only forty-ounce beer bottles, Styrofoam containers, and wet clothes in the trapezoid of streetlight. “Teresa?!” There’s a scuffle, a body moving, a deep grunt. I jump outside and run across the field, back to the street.

“My friend’s not there,” I say, my throat constricted, one hand on my thumping chest. Forget Teresa, I think of my father, who died from a heart attack when I was a baby. “Can you show me how to get to the Quarter? I’ll find a cafe and drink coffee all night.” We walk, my legs feeling like jelly.

“You can have coffee at my home,” Per suggests as we walk down the street.

“Thanks but I’ve taken too much of your time. I’ll be fine in the Quarter.”

Per pulls the neck of his T-shirt with one finger. “It’s not safe to wander round this town. Ain’t you worried?”

I shake my head. “I feel pretty safe right now, walking with you. And you know, I believe the Universe will take care of me.”

“You’d be safer inside,” Per says. “You can watch TV with me and Hans and Ulrika, before Momma gets home.”

“Your mom?”

Per’s big forehead shadows his eyes, but he’s frowning. “Momma works graveyard shift. You can leave before she gets home.” As we walk, he keeps mumbling, “I’m just saying so.”

What would my Mom say if she was here? “Una, get the FUCK out of there!” Imagining my mom standing here, one finger quivering, so mad her tongue’s in a taco, frustrates me. Two thousand miles from home and my mom still tells me what to do?

“I’d love to stay for a cup of coffee, Per. Thank you.”

Per’s face changes from quizzical to pleased, his mouth opening into a goofy grin.

Two armchairs hog most of the living room, as does the TV on the long bureau slopped over with magazines. The air smells of mentholated cigarettes and b.o., but I haven’t seen Per light up. I go to the bathroom, through a bedroom where a large bed takes up most of the space, and shelves are cluttered with religious statuary and porcelain dogs, and through a kitchen done up in a rooster theme. The bathroom reeks of cinnamon apple and mold; a half dozen deodorizers dangle from the louvered shutters. I hover my ass above the squishy plastic toilet seat as I pee, thinking what am I doing? I should just leave. My reflection in the mirror shows me looking haggard with raccoon rings of eyeliner, a red nose, and frizzy hair. Angry pimples flare up on my neck. I wash my face and pat my hair with wet hands.

Coffee’s burbling in a pot, and when I plop down on the armchair closest to the front door, I decide I won’t leave, not yet. I remember now. William Faulkner said to not be afraid. What would he do in my shoes? These feet ache from all the wandering around I've been doing. Small white moths bat against the screen and Hans comes up for a scratch on his noggin. Everything feels comfortable.

Per extends a tray of animal cookies after shoveling three in his mouth. “Do you like Happy Days or The Andy Griffith Show better?”

I flick a wet crumb off my arm. “Actually, my favorite old show is Good Times.

Per’s shoulders sag and we settle down, the dogs curling into canine loafs on either side of their master. We drink cup after cup of coffee, and watch reruns late into the night. At four a.m., while David Carradine creeps around an episode of Kung Fu, I start nodding off.

“You can sleep on Momma’s bed.”

I think, no freaking way. Is this not some fucked up Goldilocks story crossed with Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Yeah, Momma comes walking home with her bunions aching and sees me in her bed. Next thing you know, I’ve got no legs and Momma’s got a bloody ax.

I fight a nervous yawn with a frown and flared nostrils. Still, I follow Per’s pointed finger, considering the bed, then the statue of Mother Mary. Just to lie down and put my feet up would be nice. I can stay awake. And the front door is ten feet away.

“Maybe I’ll just lay down?”

“You do that. That’s fine. I’ll wake you up before Momma gets home.” Per stands, plucking a stinky crocheted blanket off his armchair.

Almost strangers, almost friends, we stand oddly side-by-side. We each have separate concerns—Momma being the foremost for both of us, I’m sure. Per sits back down as I enter the bedroom and perch on the edge of the bed. “I’ll put my shoes on the floor,” I say to the empty doorframe, hearing Per fumble with the clicker. Now more than ever, a score of unacknowledged rules still apply.

As if reading my mind, Per says, “I won’t bother you none, I won’t.”

I wonder if I’ll live through the night. Being here is revealing just how odd I am, how I don’t know Teresa, or even myself. I’m not such a good person—I wouldn’t let a stranger into my mother’s house, and certainly not to sleep on her bed. This can’t be reality; these hands and arms must belong to my doppelganger.

I align my shoes against the ruffled bed-skirt and lie down, gripping my canister of pepper spray. My backpack is my pillow, and the crocheted blanket is over my chin, its stinkiness reminiscent of my childhood dog. Against my best intentions, my eyes close.

Someone has touched my big toe. My eyes jerk open. Per is at the foot of the bed, a silhouette, but he withdraws with immense care, murmuring, “Oh sorry sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you.” A physical impression tingles through my sock. Did he pinch my big toe? Floorboards squeak as he retreats into the living room, where the TV chatters. There’s a whoosh as Per settles into an armchair. Did he actually pinch my big toe? My thoughts chase themselves around. Should I get up? I’m so tired. Per must’ve accidentally brushed against my foot. He’s harmless but weird, kind of like Sloth, that monster from The Goonies. He’s okay. And my eyelids fall shut.

“Wake up, it’s five-thirty,” comes a soft voice. Per’s head peeks around the doorframe, one hand waving. “Momma’s fixing to come home.”

Nothing gets me out of bed faster than that warning. I lace my boots and run fingers through my hair, suddenly aware of a rich smoky smell. My stomach rumbles and I salivate. Blue light from the TV casts a ghostly hue on a plate loaded with fried eggs, slabs of bacon, and grits glistening with margarine. A glass of orange juice stands next to a mug of coffee. Per smiles behind his hand.

“That’s for you, Una. But—but I’m sorry I gotta ask you to eat quick.” He glances at the door. I sit down and cram food in my mouth, sending compliments Per’s way.

The eastern sky is bright but cloudy, and though my shoulders ache where my backpack straps are, I’m excited as I step outside, breathing the cool morning air. “Goodbye, dogs,” I coo to Hans and Ulrika. “Thank you for not biting me.” I turn to Per, saying, “You’ve been so nice,” then wonder if I could reciprocate such kindness to a stranger. I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker. “Why did you help me out, Per?”

He looks wistful. “When you knocked, I thought of the Good Book.”

I cross my arms, thinking, oh Jeez. “Well, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Per. I don’t normally enter strange houses—except abandoned ones.”

“I don’t normally open my door to strangers.” Per veers towards me for the coup de grace. “To be truthful, I thought you might be an angel.”

“What? Me?” Can angels be this disheveled, this smelly? I bite my lip to not laugh.

Per looks down and pats Hans on the head, spittle flying from the dog’s jowls. “Y’never know when you’re being tested.” Somewhere a mockingbird imitates a car alarm, and we’re distracted by the sound. “Would you stop by sometime so as I know you’re okay? You can meet Momma.”

“O-okay,” I agree, but the truth is, I won’t return. “Goodbye, and thank you.”

Dawn breaks as I plod on the dew-damp streets towards the Quarter. The sky promises rain but for now the storm gathers itself on the horizon. I’m so tired I can barely think. Many blocks later, there’s a green and white striped awning on Decatur Street. Men in white aprons are washing the pavement in front of Café du Monde.

end of story

© 2011, Jessica Erica Hahn

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