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Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ worldKing Lear, Act 3: Scene 2
A young summer’s dusk falls along Mississippi’s southern coast. In Fishbone Alley, twilight ricochets off red brick to pinken the moon-vine blossom. The traveler here is confronted by more than fading light. There is the scent of brine from the shucked-shells of oysters and the sweat-saturated backs of seersucker suits. There are also the perfumed scents arising out of the confederate jasmine climbing the walls and the sweet putridness of French dressing, which, as is local custom, is poured liberally & arbitrarily over anything & everything. Ears hum with a mixture of Delta Blues and Zydeco, each competing against the crash of dishes and the collective rabble of slurred ‘Sippi twang. Summer dusk has fallen and Gulfport is sleepy. In the afterglow of daylight, downtown fades: sediments of humanity are dispersed while only the humidity remains. Bar patrons, whether their thirst has been satiated or not, are swept into the streets with the breeze-blown sand, stumbling along curbs, fumbling keys, while others, more pedestrian, wander afoot south across the highway, towards the purple hues of Gulf of Mexican beaches. Straight-ahead are the docks and the ferries. To the right is the resident casino. To the left, in the distant east of the crescent shoreline, is the glimmer of Gomorrah, or rather, Biloxi, which appears ablaze with neon radiance. In the nearer east, a gentle walk through less than a mile of sand is the Courtyard Marriot where the lounge remains open as long as platinum members with AmEx expense accounts are swigging cocktails.
We are not refugees as much as pilgrims, holding our boat shoes or pink heels in-hand as we shuffle through the soft sugar-sand towards the hotel. The subtle crush of surf disguises the voices of those persons known and familiarizes the voices of those unknown; the blue light casts a luxuriant appeal indiscriminately; alcohol has loosened the inner Id from its shackles allowing adults to play along the beach as children. The waves beckon as a tempting reminder of nearby coolness in the heated remnants of day, but these waters are not to be trifled with. Don’t soak your wounds in the tide, a cab-driver had warned me, or a flesh-eating virus will chew you to the shin-bone by daybreak.
Welcome to Gulfport.
Amidst all the southern splendor and casino charm, the atmosphere here, to those paying attention, is thick with dread. The spirit of the local denizen isn’t broken as much as near-drowned via hurricanes surged and oils spilt. My grandmotherly cab driver measures time with the nervous ticks of the traumatized survivor, but she does have hope in the second coming of her lord and savior, as evidenced by her baseball cap TRUMP 2024: Make America Great Again Again.
On a previous visit, I digressed over whiskies: if Trump were to be re-elected in 2024, he would be considered the 45th and 47th president, just as Grover Cleveland is considered the 22nd and 24th president. This seems illogical. Grover should only be the 22nd president, who just happened to return after a term away…
“This the shit keep you up at night?” Jaq asked all those moons ago as she plopped medicinal cherries into my nightcap from her place behind the Courtyard Marriot bar. “The stupefying shit smart people go ape over baffles me, but go for it, pal. Spread your wings and fly to the flame, silly moth.” She’s direct, but there is a dint in her stoic criticism: a joyful perk in the corner of her lips. Jaq went on, describing America as my mother. “If your mama leaves Uncle Joe to go back to her abusive ex, Donald, he would be her 47th husband.” I disagreed. I would only count Grover Cleveland once regardless of how many times he came back around, patting me on the shoulder, telling me to call him “dad”, smiling until I ask for a loan to make something of myself by overthrowing a second-rate banana republic. “First of all” Jaq interrupted me and pulled my cocktail out of reach, “nobody counts Grover once. Second of all, you’re getting all Tom Cruisey on this metaphor. I’m getting you a bottle of water, pal.”
Your mama sounds like someone I used to know, Hundo Pete said, leaning over from his barstool, speaking in his slow Florida Panhandle drawl. If Hundo Pete comes across as crass, he isn’t. The dude is harmless; Hundo Pete was the last Boomer baby born of his generation, a down-on-his-luck beachcomber selling solar panels or time shares or Colombian Gold, depending on which decade he’s crossed your path. He’s got a Kurt Russel wolf-boy charm to him with a mercurial flowing lupine-mane and white tumbleweed hair along his tanned forearms. He’s married with children, an alleged grandfather with an estranged bastard’s bastard in Gainesville, but the family life back home hasn’t kept Hundo Pete from becoming enraptured with Mississippi Jaq. Can I have your phone number, Hundo Pete asked our bartender one Wednesday last spring with a face wide-eyed and simple, half-joking while drunk on vodka & soda & Miller Lite. My number is on your Marriot receipt, Jaq told him without jest, call between the hours of 3 and 11 and ask for me. She then continued processing a martini for a Big Pharma sales rep on a conference call. Hundo Pete wasn’t the first hotel guest to become infatuated with Jaq, nor the last.
Last October, or Wednesday, Jaq stopped asking what drink I would like, preferring to serve me what I had coming, i.e. comeuppance in a martini glass. The last devious elixir she shook on my behalf was a Mississippi Mai Tai, using bourbon instead of rum, heavy on the orgeat syrup, thus the name, “Orgy of Almond”. It was sweet, nutty and alcohol-forward. Was the alcohol cut with anything? Yes, ice. Slurring at first sip, I complemented her, this is a damn fine drink.
“Don’t go leaving your wife over me or nothing” she responded over-shoulder and walked away.
Jaq occupied herself with the soda-gun, preparing a highball for a gaoler in town for an incarceration conference. She stands six-foot flat-footed when not hunched-over the sink. Jaq is slim with zigs here and zags where it matters. Her jet-black hair is of unknown length as it is always tied-up, revealing the aquiline path down her neck to her shoulder. A music note is tattooed under her right ear. I watched her with my peripherals as Hundo Pete rambled about the price of concrete. His words fell on distracted ears; my mind was swept-up in the rip-current of her words.
Jaq of Mississippi City has the Babylonian beauty of the miscellaneous mestizo; a creole confusion of tongues, she is everyone and no one. She has a tattoo on her forearm, après moi le deluge (after me, the flood). It is an ominous quote attributed to King Louis XV, who died 15 years before the French Revolution. For Jaq, who has been treading water her entire life, the quote inspires a vengeful epitaph, once I am gone, the whole motherfucking lot of you might as well drown. She was only a kid here during Katrina. New Orleans received the media coverage, but the Mississippi coastline was equally apocalyptic. It was like a primitive Sears showroom, Jaq told me. After Katrina passed, the beach was littered with what was too heavy to flow up-state in the surge. Gone were the homes. What remained were the sarcophaguses of washing machines and refrigerators sticking out of the beach like jagged-teeth from here on east to Mobile and west through Louisiana. Everything else was gone.
This hotel bears the markings of the 2005 apocalyptic storm. The high-water mark is memorialized on the wall: 22’ feet higher than sea-level with waves as high as 34’. Katrina wasn’t just a hurricane, she walked ashore as a wall of water, an uninvited tsunami crashing the party. This is a newly built building, yet the carpets on all floors are mysteriously damp and spongy; the ghost of Katrina remains. There’s never been a decent night sleep in this Courtyard Marriot. The lounge is its saving grace.
Without any better words to express sympathy, I once raised my whiskey glass to Jaq, toasting to better times ahead. Bullshit, Jaq scowled, putting down a Zinfandel bottle mid-pour. Look, dude, she said derogatorily, don’t give me this wishful-thinking shit you people pillow-hug at night. We’ve been waiting for “better times” for all-time. I mean, don’t think I am a negative person as much as I am anti-positive. Positive-thinking undermines resolve, dude, Jaq said, addressing me as a hapless cowboy. Hear me out, she said, the American Dream is by invitation only. There are a lot of unhappy people out there with every opportunity in the world. You ask me, people who are miserable are miserable people. I can’t help you, Babs, she says to her imaginary miser, but I can mix you a drink. Jaq stood, as she often does, with her right-hand over her heart as her left hand clutches her right elbow. She turned back to me, saying, I don’t think you are a miserable person, Vic. You’ve a hop in your step. You tip well. You seem decent enough. But you hear what I am saying, right? I hear you, I told her. Hundred percent, Hundo Pete said.
We get busses full of toxic-positivity cult members, Jaq said after closing a hefty tab for a pilot due to fly from Biloxi to Texarkana. She continued, in a conspiratorially-hushed voiced, Clam Chowder for the Soul types pledging their intention to the universe as if the universe gives a shit. Do you think the universe wrecked Mississippi and Louisiana with Hurricane Katrina because there weren’t enough positive thoughts? Fucking bullshit. My sister once made a vision-board, Jaq said. She glued a picture of Paris onto her 2017 vision-board as if the image alone was going to book a ticket to France. Do you know what the universe provided my sister? Herpes. That’s the closest she got to Paris. It’s like she made the trip without ever leaving her duplex or ever seeing that awful tower.
A pair of Missourian women in matching leopard-printed muumuus, Daughters of the Confederate Rebellion who were visiting the nearby estate of Jefferson Davis, asked Jaq for sweet tea. Behind them, a Baptist youth pastor had an order for milkshakes. It was a busy Monday night in Gulfport. Hundo Pete, at my elbow, took the moment to advise me never to go fishing with a Baptist. Oh? He’ll drink all your beer. Instead, go fishing with two Baptists and neither will drink in the company of the other.
Baptists are fine. It’s those fucking toxic-positivity gurus, Jaq said when she arrived back upstream, they drive me up a fucking wall. They try to explain Hurricane Katrina in terms of a personal challenge to overcome. Fuck you, dude. Go back to your fucking downward dog. Cataclysms aren’t gym routines. Storms don’t feed off human strife like motherfucking King Lear in the goddamn heath. Storms feed off of warm water and shit. Science can explain hurricanes, perhaps not fast enough, Jaq continued, but science can connect the dots. Science isn’t afraid of hurting feelings.
Jaq once hurt Hundo Pete’s feelings. He immediately shrugged it off, he was okay. Jaq pouted her lip at the Boomer. Don’t take this the wrong way, Boo, Jaq told him, it’s okay to be sensitive. I mean, look at those eyes. Softness is radiating from your fur. Jaq then turned towards me and spoke gruffly. You, on the other hand, I haven’t quite figured out.
The feeling is mutual.
Don’t go forgetting us when you’re gone, Jaq said the last time I settled my bill. I over-tipped and over-promised my return. Mmhmm, she hummed a skeptical acceptance.
And so I have returned. I checked-in this morning. After dining on catfish in Fishbone Alley, I migrated with the other pilgrims back to the Courtyard Marriot. We walked the sugar-sands, sure to steer clear of the flesh-eating viruses in the cool waters. We crossed back over the highway to the Courtyard Marriot where a spit-shined young man at the front desk recognizes me, hullo there, Mister Neverman, how goes your Tuesday? Fair-to-middling, I tell Slick. The lounge is dark. Can I get a bottle of water, I ask, flashing my AmEx expense account card. After a moment’s hesitation, I ask of Jaq. Who? His spit-shined eyebrows rise into a furrowed brow of confusion. Who? Jaq. Mississippi Jaq. He isn’t sure who I am referring to. She ran the bar, I say, pointing at the lounge. Oh! Our happy-hour runs from five pm until eight, Slick says.
I take my bottle of water to the dark lounge and search for Jaq’s jar of cherries and bottle of orgeat. I search for any signs of her legacy. Mister Neverman, can I help you find something? Nah. Fuck off. The moment has passed. She is gone.
Now there is nothing but the deluge.