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I didn't evacuate New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina despite the desperate exhortations of our mayor, our governor and every other public official who paraded across the television set during the three days that led up to the storm. They could have done cartwheels naked across the screen and I still would have switched channels in search of The Brady Bunch or The Partridge Family reruns.
The reason? I like stories about happy families. Oh, and I'd already decided to commit suicide.
It wasn't the first time I'd thought about cutting my losses and taking that leap. From the time I was sixteen and my mother made her first attempt (failed, fortunately), it has always been at the back of my mind as a way out if life got too tough.
I held it against Mom for a long time"all her life, actually" which lasted an additional fourteen years until she died suddenly in a freak car accident. After that, I felt guilty for never forgiving her, for always showing her by my exaggerated gestures of benevolence that I was so much better than her, that I could cope and even thrive, while all she could do was fold.
The fact is, she had a boatload of reasons to give up. Being abandoned by her husband to raise two kids alone had changed her from a sunny, happy person into a prematurely old, overworked and mainly sad woman.
Even though I was only nine, it had changed me into a cynic. Not that I'd known what the word meant. I didn't learn that until the seventh grade when I should have won the spelling bee, but the principal's daughter did. I had to spell atrophy. She had to spell peanut.
But I digress.
I've lived most of my forty-seven years moving from crisis to crisis. My great-uncle Dan used to call Mom Little Orphan Annie, and me Calamity Jane, and I guess he was right. I was Calamity Jane, never meant to be happy for long. My college boyfriend"the love of my life"turned out to be gay. Then after I married, I couldn't get pregnant, even with the help of every fertility clinic in the Deep South. My husband went to jail for insurance fraud. My wonderful boss died suddenly of a heart attack, and his replacement tried to seduce me.
And of course there were my own spectacular screwups, which cost me my profession and my self-respect.
Anyway, by the time Hurricane Katrina was in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, expanding swiftly from a Category One to a Category Five monster, I'd long gotten over my disdain of Mom's weakness. I was no better than she was. In fact, I was a lot worse. At least when she'd first attempted suicide, she'd known I would be around to take care of Clark. He's my Down-syndrome brother. But if I committed suicide, who would be there for him?
Sure, Clark is happy in his group home. But he's a Medicaid patient and the way money is always being diverted from the system, who knows what could happen to him? That's why last year when I won the Super Bowl lottery at a bar where I'd once worked, "Six thousand dollars!" I took a major chunk of the money and bought a big, fat life-insurance policy for myself, and set up a trust fund with a medical trustee to handle the money for Clark if I should die.
Clark might lose a sister, but he'd gain a personal aide to take him on outings and provide other opportunities that a state-run group home just couldn't do.
Like most insurance policies, though, mine has a suicide clause, which didn't bother me too much at the time because I was more or less in love, had a good-paying job by bartending standards, plus extra money in my pocket and no clouds on my horizon.
I guess I knew in my heart that it wouldn't last. The good times never do. That's why I hadn't told my so-called boyfriend, Hank, about my winnings or the insurance policy. He would have wanted us to party with the proceeds until nothing was left. That's how he went through his electrician's pay every two weeks. Why not my money, too?
But that life insurance money is to protect Clark, whom I love dearly. It's not like when we were kids though, and lived together. Sometimes when I'm really down, I worry that Clark doesn't love me any more than he loves the aide who helps him get dressed each day, or the one who coaches him through his meals.
I know that's not true. But sweet soul that he is, he loves anybody who's nice to him. He's a happy child in a man's body, one who delights in sunbeams and dust bunnies, and thinks Cheerios are the greatest food in the world. I have to remind myself that his innocent happiness is something to be thankful for.
Sometimes I'm jealous of the affection he gives everyone else. It's like sibling rivalry gone amok. In my stupid, emotionally screwed-up way, I'm competing in an insane contest for his love with his caregivers. Whom I adore! Go figure.
The truth is, he doesn't really need me on a day-to-day basis. Nobody does.
Which brings me to my dilemma on that Friday afternoon in August. Hank was out of town. As a self-employed electrician, he bounces around from job to job. He'd been working a lot in Mississippi and only coming to New Orleans on the weekends. Since I work a lot on the weekends, our primary time together was him sitting at the bar with me feeding him free drinks. By the time we'd go home to my place, he'd be drunk and amorous, I'd be tired and pissed off, and that would be our weekend.
Suffice it to say, I wasn't looking forward to him coming in that night, so when I checked my messages, I was relieved to hear that he planned to ride out the storm in Biloxi, helping to board up the casino expansion he'd been working on.
I erased the message, then plopped down in the shabby slip-covered chair in the corner of my kitchen/dining/living room. I'd dragged that chair up the stairs myself, rescuing it from a garbage pile around the corner. A nineteen-dollar slipcover from Anna's Linens had spiffed it up. But now the slipcover was threadbare and I couldn't afford another one.
Just like I couldn't afford the bill from the Great Southern Life Insurance Company that still lay on the table beside the chair. Four days it had been there unopened. Why open it when I had no way to pay it?
You might say that bill was the final blow. The clichÃ©d "straw that broke the camel's back." For me, it symbolized more than just not being able to pay another bill. It symbolized my life being completely in the toilet.
Things had been bad all year, and not just in the money department. Hank was a pain, long past even pretending he loved me. I sure didn't love him. So why did I take him in whenever he was in town?
And why did I stay in my stupid dead-end job, mixing drinks for tourists who came to Bourbon Street to do things they'd never dream of doing at home? Respectable people from buttoned-up midwestern towns and neat New England villages getting drunk in strip clubs, puking in the streets. Wanting me to "show my tits" for the Mardi Gras beads they'd just purchased down the street. I was sick of all of them, and sick of catering to them.
Maybe that's why my tips had been so lousy lately: my bad attitude. Just this week I'd been demoted from the primo weekend evening shifts to the day shifts.
So bad attitude equals bad shifts equals less pay equals worse attitude. I was in a downhill cycle, personally and professionally"if you consider bartending a profession, which I hesitated to do.
Then came this bill. Eleven hundred plus change a year. Hell, I couldn't even afford the two-eighty quarterly payments, not with rent due next week and utilities, and not much to eat in the kitchen.
Where was my money going these days?
A glance at the garbage can gave the answer. I'd been drinking a lot lately. A lot. A depressed woman shouldn't indulge in depressants like alcohol. But let's face it, alcohol and other drugs"which I'd refrained from, give me some credit" are the opiates of the depressed masses, no pun intended.
I'm down, so pour me a drink. Isn't that how it works?
So of course, what did I do? I turned the bill facedown, then pulled out a bottle of Southern Comfort, poured myself a healthy dose and turned on the television.
Everything on the tube was about Katrina. Where would she hit? Would she still be a Category Five when she came ashore, or would the shallower waters decrease her power? How high would the storm surge be? When would the calls for mandatory evacuations begin?
I nursed my drink, sipping slowly, enjoying the warmth of it sliding down my throat. I closed my eyes and imagined that warmth slipping into my bloodstream, spreading throughout my body, relaxing me, dulling my senses, and turning the Channel Four weatherman's voice into a drone of white noise that worked with the liquor. I drank; he droned on; and everything slowed down and faded.
It could be like this forever, the smooth voice that had tempted me before whispered in my head. Just give up on the world and let go. No more bills. No more Hank. No more drunk tourists propositioning me, laughing uproariously when I told them to go jerk off in the men's room.
Just let go, sink into the darkness".
The phone rang, yanking me out of my dark reverie. It was an old-fashioned phone with a loud, mechanical ring.
"Hello, Jane? This is Verna Jenkins from Community Homes."
Clark's group home. I straightened up in the chair. "Hi, Miss Jenkins. Is everything all right?"
"Yes. I'm just calling to tell you that the house is evacuating for the storm. Do you want us to take Clark, or would you rather he evacuate with you?"
"I'm not evacuating," I decided on the instant. "So maybe he'd better go with you. Where are y'all heading?"
"We have a standing arrangement with a group home in Baton Rouge. We're leaving on a bus tomorrow morning. I'm just letting all the families know where we'll be and how to reach us."
I took the information, then asked to speak to Clark. "Hello, my baby brother," I said when he came on the phone. "How are you?"
"Fine," he said, and giggled. As a kid I'd been embarrassed by that overgrown baby giggle. But I'd learned to love it, just like I loved him.
Emotions clogged my throat, but I forced them down. "So. You're going on a bus ride, aren't you?"
"Bus ride," he answered, giggling with increased glee.
"Okay, then. Have fun. And remember that your Janie loves you. I love you, Clark."
And that was it. He handed the phone to Verna and she wished me good luck. I guess that's when I finally knew what I had to do. Clark was in good hands, and a three-hundredthousand-dollar life-insurance policy would cement the cracks in his care a lot better than I did with my weekly visits.
I filled my glass with that courage-giving amber liquid, and stared at my life-insurance bill. The problem was, it couldn't look like suicide because they wouldn't pay off, and Clark wouldn't have that extra layer of protection I wanted him to have.
Then suddenly, like a light at the end of a tunnel, it came to me. If I died during the hurricane they'd have to pay. I could feel the adrenaline surge through my body. If I committed suicide by storm, they'd never know. I'd just be an unfortunate casualty of the horrific wind and waters. Too bad; so sad.
But what if the storm turned away from New Orleans? What if it veered east as they so often did, sparing the city?
Then I would drive to where it was going. My car wasn't in the greatest shape, and my car insurance was overdue. But so what? If I stalled out somewhere in the road, the storm would just get me there.
I aimed the remote control at the television and upped the volume. Walter Maestri, emergency management director for neighboring Jefferson Parish was on, urging everyone to leave. This could be the big one, he predicted. With the storm surge this hurricane was pushing, we could have twenty-five feet of water in the streets.
The easier to drown in, I decided, switching channels.
I watched television all night, fell asleep around six, woke up at noon, and called in sick.
"The hell you say," the day manager barked at me.
"You're not sick. The whole damn city's going crazy. Tourists leaving early, and half the staff is cutting out for Texas. Don't bullshit me, Jane. You're evacuating like everyone else. But look. Come in today. You can work a double. I know you need the money. Then you can leave on Sunday if you really have to."
"I'm sick, Robbie. Really."
"Come on, Janie," he said in this wheedling tone.
I smiled to hear the asshole beg. "Sorry. No can do."
"Come in or I'm firing your ass!" he shouted in an abrupt change of tone.
"Whatever," I said and hung up on him.
It felt good to do that, and it felt even better to hear him pleading on my answering machine ten minutes later. I guess he'd called around and gotten no takers, so he was back to begging me.
I just poured myself another nice glass of Southern Comfort for breakfast and took it into the bathroom with me.