A Cautionary Tale

 This page is dedicated to "a little something extra" which will change from time to time according to the prevailing winds. It might be a humor piece or an essay or a poem, or a rant, or a fairy tale, or all of them mixed together. 

a man goes out walking in the heat of an August day in New Orleans. He is walking down Canal Street, walking down the middle of the neutral zone. It’s noon, and the sun is ticking away like a Geiger counter. The heat rises from the street in waves, in gusts. It’s the kind of heat that kills scorpions and cures lepers. The streetcar tracks on either side of the man pulse like the veins in his temples. He doesn’t even notice this heat. He’s walking, deep into himself, thinking about a job he’s lost, or a girl he’s lost, or a man he'd like to kill, if only he was the kind of guy who could kill a man and still sleep at night. He couldn't sleep as it was.

But his shadow notices the heat, alright. It’s so bad, the shadow has caught fire in places, curling up puffily around the corners like burning paper. The shadow is desperate to get out of the sun, but it can’t get the man's attention. The shadow whispers to him all day long, but the man never answers, never pays it any heed. The man just keeps walking a straight line all day,

maybe all the way from the Mississippi to Lake Pontchartrain. Maybe back.

The shadow is a slave, and a faithful slave at that, but it can’t endure the heat any longer. The asphalt has blackened its backside. It has a right to self- preservation, the same as any of God’s creatures. The shadow unhooks its feet from the man’s feet, tearing them a little in its haste and pain, and it scuttles away like a crab, looking for shade. The man walks on, not even noticing. If you asked, he'd figure he left it at home.

Of course, the shadow winds up in Lafayette Square, where all the bums hang out drinking, waiting drowsily for their government checks. There’s a guy sitting on a bench there, kind of a down-at-heels dandy, dressed in a white suit and Panama hat. He holds a large black parasol, wide open, and a green jug of dark red wine, also wide open. He likes to let it breathe. Be kind to your wine, that's his motto. The shadow gets a little delirious when it sees this, and it can’t decide which looks better: the underside of that parasol, or the bottom of that jug. It sidles over to the bench, and shinnies up on to the seat. Trying to look casual. Trying to fit in with the winos, and doing a passable job.

But the guy in the white suit is no fool. He spotted the shadow as soon as it came into the square, and his third eye has been watching it all along, though it had to suint against the sunlight. It's a lidless eye. If you said he had come to Lafayette Square that day just looking for a little lost shadow, you wouldn’t be far wrong. Come on, little shadow, he’s thinking, just a tad bit closer. His eyes seem to be fixed on the bar across the street, but not his third eye. It's trained for more delicate prey.

The shadow makes its choice. It jumps onto the lip of the wine jug, and then does a perfect Esther Williams swan dive to the bottom. Quick as razor cuts throat, the guy screws the cap back on the jug, and puts the jug in a black bag he’s been sitting on. He slings the bag over his shoulder, picks up the parasol, and meanders home through the French Quarter, all the way through to Elysian Fields on the other side. He’s bagged his limit for the day.

Meanwhile, the first man, sans shadow, arrives, if a man can be said to arrive when he doesn’t know where he’s headed. But the woman he wanted to make up with, or the man he wanted to kill, isn’t home. The neighbors don’t know anything, and wouldn’t tell him if they did. Standing outside the shuttered house, he finally takes notice of the heat. Hey, it's hot, motherfucker.

 He finds a dark, cool bar nearby, and goes in to drink a beer or six. As he sits in the bar, his sweat dries to a high shine, and his pupils expand. His sanity returns. His heart murmurs slowly and sweetly to him, like the sea.

When the man emerges from the bar, it is into the relative cool of the evening. The scent of wisteria hits him like heroin. His feet want to go home.

Night in New Orleans is no different from night in any jungle. The same rustling and whirring in the live-oak and Spanish moss, the same weird calls that could be animal or human, the same rush of shadows on their way somewhere your shadow wants to follow. A man walking down the street has a shadow that looks like a daddy-long-legs perpetually falling off the walls of the houses he passes by.

Son of a bitch! --The man comes to a sudden stop-- where’s my shadow? He looks all around him, he retraces his steps a couple of blocks, Goddamnit, everything else that’s happened, and now I lose my shadow? Did I leave it in the bar? 

He goes back there to search. He even asks the bartender, who’s heard it all before and just nods his head like a dashboard doll. He goes back to the house of the woman he loves or the man he hates. There’s still no one home, thank God, but there’s no shadow, either. I feel sorry for the man, so I’ll give him a name now. Ed, I’ll call him. Hardly a name at all. Why waste your breath? You're not going to be lifelong buddies with Ed. Ed wants to retrace his steps for the whole day, but soon it gets too dark to search for a shadow, so he goes home. Maybe his shadow is there. Maybe he did leave it.

He gets home, where there are plenty of shadows in his tiny apartment, but none of them belong to him, to Ed. He promises himself he’ll get up before dawn to go look for his shadow. It’ll be just like getting up for a fishing trip. Ed loves that dank, dripping quiet just before the sun.

When Ed, Edward, wakes up, it’s noon. His sheets are wet with his sweat. All his loss, loss of love, loss of hate, loss of his shadow, comes swarming over him, and he feels too tired and lousy to go out even in the evening to look for his shadow. He lies on the couch, watching the ceiling fan beat its slow wings over his face. It’s gone by now, Ed figures, run over by a car, or carried off by kids. Nothing gets wasted in New Orleans, least of all a good working shadow. He’ll just have to learn to live without it, like he’s learned to live without so many things. Ed’s problem, maybe, is that he lets go too easily, that he’s not jealous enough. Some things there are that you should obsess over.

So Ed’s life goes on in its fucked-up way. He keeps his eyes open, he gets to know the cut of a shadow pretty well, but he never sees his own shadow. And nobody seems to notice that he’s lost it. If you live in a big northern city, you might not be astounded by this. But in New Orleans, people tend to know each others’ shadows on a first-name basis. Maybe they’re just too polite to say anything to Ed. Maybe Ed is becoming a shadow himself.

Pretty soon, though, some disturbing news filters its way down to Ed. The newspapers are full of it. Some society babe, apparently, last year’s queen of Comus, has had her house on St. Charles burglarized. Nothing missing, ma’am, except her shadow. This is a new one, even for New Orleans cops. They sit around scratching their heads and sipping hot coffee even in the heat, because that's what cops do.

It doesn’t stop there. There’s a rash of burglaries all through the garden district, even out by the lake. Rich people, important people, are having their shadows stolen from them. There are no ransom notes, no anonymous tips to the police. It’s no laughing matter when the district attorney’s shadow is stolen. A lot of cops are getting called on the carpet, and the carpet is not a pleasant place for cops. You can’t insure yourself for theft of a shadow, even with a million dollars.

The papers think there’s a syndicate behind the thefts, maybe a group of Islamic extremists. It’s well-known that some of those Arab sheiks wouldn’t mind adding a few important shadows to their harems. There are mysterious Hong Kong billionaires who collect shadows. And the Chinese still use shadows, in some mysterious way, as aphrodisiacs. Maybe they grind them up and sprinkle them on their rice. The Chinese seem to think anything hard to come by is an

aphrodisiac, but there are always plenty of Chinese to go around. There's even a Free Shadows Movement, though they're a little murky in their demands.

Ed doesn’t like the idea of his shadow being ground up for some Chinese hootchie-kootchie. Worse, he’s afraid that if the cops catch these shadow-stealers, his shadow might be in the thing up to its skinny neck. It’s not a shadow of the rich and famous. It’s more likely to be an accomplice than a victim. And Ed may very well be liable for any felonies his shadow might have committed. The Napoleonic Code has a lot of quirks like that. It's ready for just about any eventuality.

By this time, Ed can sort out a shadow faster than Rin-Tin-Tin can sniff out a kilo of coke. So he keeps his eyes wide open all the time, looking for signs of the outré. Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, he’s sitting in the Spanish Plaza, watching the secretaries sun themselves, and he spots a shadow slithering out of the trade center--unescorted. It’s not his shadow, but it must be somebody’s, he figures, so he follows it. The shadow flits from door to door like--well, like a shadow, but it doesn’t really expect to be shad--tailed, and Ed keeps up, doggedly and discreetly. 

The shadow winds up at a little shotgun house over on Elysian Fields, just north of Chartres. The house’s windows are all shuttered, but Ed sees the shadow slip in through the mail slot. He spies on the house from some azalea bushes across the street, watching shadows come and go throughout the day, till the night falls so gently it would make a sensitive reader cry. Once night has curled up comfortably,

  and you have dried your eyes, the guy in the white suit comes out of the house, locking the door behind him. He has the black parasol stowed under his arm, and he can’t help whistling “Spanish Harlem” as he strolls away down the street. 

I may as well tell you that his name is Carl, and he is a sorcerer, a wily and dangerous sorcerer. He doesn’t smuggle shadows to sell at all. He uses them as spies instead, turning them back on their owners like KGB defectors, listening to the secrets of the wealthy and powerful. He’s a stockbroker and a blackmailer, which kind of go hand in hand anyway. He used Ed’s shadow to lure other shadows to his house, where they all live together in scandalous squalor. It’s a fine little scam.

If the sorcerer (I’m not really on a first-name basis with him) has a tragic flaw, it is his weakness for raw oysters. He is on his way now to a bar where they serve oysters by the dozen, with Louisiana hot sauce, and Dixie beer so cold it gives him head-aches. The bartender snicks the oysters open with a little hooked knife, as though he were cutting the throats of sixteen-year-old girls. He chuckles nervously and never speaks. The sorcerer buys him shots of Cuervo all night long, hoping to get the bartender to either slash his hand or confess to murder, but he never does either. He just picks the locks on oysters and beer bottles. Small-time crimes.

That’s a segue to Ed picking the lock on the sorcerer's door. You could do it yourself, with a pocket-knife. Most apartment doors in New Orleans are mildewed papier-mache, their locks as complicated as Tinker Toys. The sorcerer's door is no different. He’s never even thought to put a closing spell on it. He half-asses a lot in life. It's a New Orleans tradition.

As Ed’s eyes adjust to the darkness in the apartment, he finds the decor to be a bit too post-modern. The sorcerer likes to keep his floor clear for drawing pentagrams, so all the furniture, a complete living room suite from D.H. Holmes, a stereo, a bookcase--are on the walls. The television hangs from the ceiling, screen-downward, like a sack of onions. Yesterday’s newspapers and a half-eaten pizza also cling to the walls, smugly defying gravity. It makes Ed dizzy. He walks through the room like a drunk walking the white line. In the bedroom, the kitchen, the bathroom, the furniture and rubbish all sit calmly on the floor, as if put there on purpose to piss you off once you got used to the living-room. There are a hundred dusty boxes and chests lying around, and a thousand dusty books, but Ed knows better than to open any of them. He is not one of those characters in a dark house who insist on unsettling your nerves by opening one damn thing after another.

Yes, he is. There’s a small closet in the corner of the bedroom, like an afterthought. The camera gives that door a long Alfred-Hitchcock stare. Ed’s hand is on the door-knob. It turns.

Do I mention first the candles stolen from the cathedral, each as tall as a man, or the shadows leaping across the walls like a thunderstorm, or the sheer size of the closet, a room larger than the house it is in? Instead of telling you what Ed sees, I’ll tell you what sees Ed: his own shadow, in the farthest corner, crouching in the darkness, undetected, its one emotion (perhaps shadows are allowed only one emotion at a time, they can't muster enough corporeality for more) hate for his former master. Because hate is the shadow of love.

The rest of the shadows don’t know Ed from Adam. They just go back to their dance. That’s what they were doing, dancing. That’s how the sorcerer keeps them in line. He lights the candles every night, leaves the house, and lets the shadows party. Shadows that used to drag around after rich, tight-assed Anglo- Saxons all day, shadows that used to get a stiff waltz once a year at a Mardi Gras ball, shadows that were measured out like Brooks Brothers suits, those shadows now get their chance to strut their stuff, and never was dancing wilder or more free, not even in the deeps of the Congo on a full-moon night with the scent of stewed missionary wafting through the trees. These shadows can dance! Ed can’t hear music, but he can see the percussive pulse of the candle flames slapping like high-hats. Those shadows spin and gyrate, bump and grind, shimmy and shiver, jerk and jive, doing the watusi waltz five-quarter time, shoop-shoop-de-boop rat- a-tat-a-tat mmmmnnnyeah! along the walls like nothing he’s ever seen, till soon he’s got to join in, he can’t help it, and they don’t mind, he’s got some pretty good moves himself, and he actually starts to feel that pure animal joy that he could hardly remember, that no man can live without for long, and his sweat flies across the room, spraying the candle-flames, making everyone ¡jump! like accordions. And some of these shadows have some pretty sexy curves, like little debutantes on ecstasy.

But Ed’s not crazy. He’s not getting caught in that cavernous closet when the sorcerer comes home. He knows his own shadow is somewhere in that room, and he hopes to coax it out, but after a couple of hours he calls it quits, he makes his goodbyes and gives up the ghost. By the time the sorcerer burps his last goodbye to the oysterman, Ed is ordering coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde.

The next day he takes his car over to the sorcerer’s house and parks across the street, figuring a man in a car doesn’t look as suspicious as a man in the bushes, He sees plenty of shadows come and go through the mail slot, but he never sees his own shadow. What Ed doesn’t know is that his shadow is the dispatcher and pretty much the eminence gris of the spying operation these days. The sorcerer spends most of his day sitting on the wall-sofa, watching TV and eating cold pizza. You might say he is under the spell of an even more maleficent sorcerer. What Ed also doesn’t know is that jealousy has replaced hatred as his shadow’s emotion du jour.

That night again the sorcerer hears the oysters singing each to each, and must needs go to find out if they will sing to him. As soon as he is down the street and out of this paragraph, Ed is in the house and opening the closet door. The shadows have just started their dance, and they welcome Ed like a long-lost brother. Ed’s own shadow is incensed, but all it can do is hunker down in the corner and hope not to be noticed. 

Ed doesn’t even seen to care. He just throws himself into that wild dance, shaking it up so fine you’d think he’d had his bones surgically removed. There’s only one of the shadows can even keep up with him, a little eighteen-year-old thing with more curves than a moonshiner’s driveway, and pretty soon no one is noticing that they’re slow-dancing together in the corner--no one except Ed’s own shadow, who keeps getting stepped on by them, but is afraid to move. Needless to say, the shadow is furious.

Ed’s not crazy--yet. He gives his belle a good-night kiss and makes it out the back door while the sorcerer is still fumbling with his keys at the front door. Ed’s shadow wants to spill the beans to the sorcerer, but the sorcerer passes out drunk on the bed without even taking off his clothes, much less checking on the shadows. Incipient wealth is making him careless, and that's the hazard of wealth on its way. The shadows can’t get out of the closet by themselves, so they have to dance all night until the candles gutter. 

When the sorcerer sends them out to their assignments the next day, they mumble and mutter, dragging themselves tiredly out through the mail slot. Ed’s shadow is so angry at the sorcerer that it tells him nothing. It'll handle this shit itself.

So the sorcerer goes off to the oyster beds unsuspecting that night. He is angry with the shadows for being angry with him, and he’s thinking more about his first beer than his first oyster. By now the door opens for Ed when he says boo to it, and soon he’s dancing in the arms of his little honey from the night before, whispering into what he guesses to be her ear. His own shadow is seeing red, stomping all around the wall, but Ed doesn’t seem to notice. He and his sweet thing aren’t even pretending to dance anymore. So no one should be surprised when he puts his arm around her and they leave the closet together, not even bothering to shut the door behind them. And no one should be surprised that Ed’s shadow slips out behind them, murder on its tiny mind.

I would like you to be surprised that the sorcerer is already on his way home, but you’re probably not, you mystery buff. The first oyster of the night was a bad one, and his stomach is threatening to go home to mother. He wants to barf, but first he wants to hex the bartender’s hands so they’ll shake so much he’ll never shuck another oyster.

Ed and his honey are out the back door (left open); his shadow is two steps behind. Suddenly (this is a suspense story after all) Ed pushes that sweet little shadow into the grass. At the same time, he jumps backward, knocking his own shadow to the ground, pinning it with his weight. A judicious application of a little Gorilla Glue, and they are man and shadow once again. What Gorilla Glue hath joined, let no man break asunder. Maybe Ed had planned it that way. Maybe he just carries Gorilla Glue with him wherever he goes. It's a good habit to get into. He gets up and hurries to his car, his shadow right with him, to its eternal: wrath? chagrin? delight? We can only choose one, remember.

As he starts the car, Ed sees the sorcerer coming down the walk, still muttering maledictions on the bartender. Then he flicks on the headlights and sees something else. The girl’s shadow is limping across the street towards his car. It must have twisted its ankle when he pushed it to the ground. He watches dumbly as the shadow comes to him, beats its frail arms on his window, begging to be let in. 

What the hell? Ed doesn’t need two shadows. But now the sorcerer has seen them, he’s running toward them, yelling, opening his parasol. The shadow beats against Ed’s light like a moth. He cracks his door open and she flows around him, surrounding him like a promise you can’t take back. He slams his foot on the gas. The car chokes the obligatory choke, then spurts forward, almost hitting the sorcerer. The sorcerer tries to lay a curse on Ed’s car, but he’s not fast enough, although the car will never get good city mileage again. The sorcerer throws up on his shoes. 

All the shadows are out in the yard under the street-lamps, waving up and down, cheering the getaway. The sorcerer reaches for his parasol. The shadows scatter. Poor Carl.

Let me catch my breath and kick in a new paragraph.

That’s the story, really. The sorcerer tries to catch the shadows, but a sick drunk can’t catch shadows at night, even if he is a sorcerer. His own shadow gets caught up in the excitement of the mutiny and runs away. Some of the shadows make it back to their masters. Some join the merchant marines. One becomes a stripper on Bourbon Street. Maybe some even get ground up for Chinese hootchie- kootchie. That would be a shame. Them sumbitches could dance!

Maybe you wonder what Ed did with his two shadows. Maybe you want to think Ed found the girl that shadow belonged to and they hit it off. Maybe you think she made him forget all about the girl that might be at the beginning of this story. Fine. I don’t know what happened. If it’s that important to you, his apartment is on Magazine Street in the Irish Channel. Pass by there on a summer night some time, you might hear ‘Fess Longhair on the record-player, or maybe Irma Thomas singing “It’s Rainin’”--a slow, bluesy ballad. The shade will be pulled down and you’ll see the shadow of a man and a woman, slow- dancing.

What does that prove?

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