William Torrey| Longreads | October 2021 | 30 minutes (9,100 words)
I: My Protector
Our brotherhood begins with me in a blindfold, one that’s been on for what feels like forever. I’m 18 and pledging a fraternity, and to be a pledge, I’ve learned, means you’re a constant disappointment. You have not properly mopped the bathroom after chapter dinner. You have not properly memorized the Greek alphabet. You have not attracted sufficient pussy to the Gameday tailgate.
On this night, a hot one in late September, we’ve been summoned to the house for a meeting, one that at first seems promising, in that it involves Natural Light, but soon enough begins to get weird. The Actives line us up and tie rags around our faces, then shove us into rooms with music blaring. “NONE OF Y’ALL BITCHES SAY A MOTHERFUCKING WORD!” someone with beer breath shouts at my face. Then he slams the door so hard I’m sure it’s broken. We sit and wait for God knows what.
In time — Twenty minutes? An hour? — they lead us out back, where we’re stripped of cigarettes, cell phones, watches, and wallets. A very drunk Active screams that we are, in essence, complete losers, unworthy, a bunch of faggot-ass pieces of shit who ought to be thrown into the Mississippi River. “That’s a great idea!” another Active yells, and before I know it, I’m in a car, still blindfolded, lying in the backseat, “so the cops don’t see,” and we’re zooming to the levee. “Torrey?” someone keeps asking. “Does your bitch ass know how to swim?” My heart pounds so hard I worry I’ll faint. I’ve been in college a month now, and until this moment, I’d fooled myself into believing fraternities weren’t that tough. But now I’m facing danger. I’ll be sodomized with a broomstick or forced to eat shit. I’ll sink to the bottom of the Mighty Mississippi. I picture my mom, asleep in Texas, getting the call in the deep dark night: Pick up your boy at the Baton Rouge morgue.
The car stops and they line us up again, somewhere that could be anywhere but sure seems like the levee. The whirr of cicada song, the stink of refineries. Wet grass sogging our Sperrys. More yelling. Who’ll go in first? Who’ll sink and who’ll swim? I shift my weight, try not to shake.
“Repeat after me!” a drunk Active calls. “I love my big brother!” (We repeat.) “My big brother’s better than me!” (We repeat.) “My big brother’s gotta bigger dick than me!” (We repeat.) “My big brother can fuck my date!” (We repeat.) It goes on like this, this litany, the fear inside me cooling to confusion and finally relief.
Then off comes the blindfold, and he’s there, beaming at me in the shadows by the river, my big brother: Mike from Chalmette. I blink as he hugs me. Pressed tight there against his chest, I am, for the first time in hours, not afraid. I am cared for. I am safe.
“Come on, baby bro,” he grins, “let’s get fucked up!”
Hours later, after we’ve won a game called Beer-a-Minute, Mike somehow drives us back to campus. Sitting in his old green Chevy, watching the first bands of dawn push through the black, he tells me he could’ve had any pledge as his little brother, but the only one he wanted was me.
“There’s just something about you.”
“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling special.
“I don’t know.” He shakes his head. “But I do know we’re gonna be more than just fraternity brothers. Me and you, we’re gonna be real brothers. Me and you, we’re gonna be great friends.”
“Okay,” I say, and that’s what happens.
In many ways, we are brothers. “Fraternal twins,” we joke, separated by a state line and precisely 13 months. We’re both silly and sensitive dreamers. The kind of guys who can’t help but push the bit, who once they’re going, can’t stop until everyone’s doubled over. The kind of guys who egg each other on until they can’t even breathe. Whenever we run into somebody Mike knows but I don’t — at Reggie’s in Tigerland, smoking Camels in the LSU quad — he never fails to introduce me as his real little brother, and more often than not, never mind that we look nothing alike — he’s short and tubby; I’m tall with a sharp-lined face — people believe him. He’s that charming.
Like all brothers, though, we’re not the same. I make Dean’s List grades every term while Mike eeks by with C’s. I’ve dined at fancy restaurants, been to the MoMa and the Smithsonian, but when it comes to street smarts, Mike’s got me beat. He can fix a flat no problem, has a job on top of school, pays his own rent. He’s also got more self-control. As time goes by, it becomes clear that, while we both love to party — or, as we’ll call it, “rage” — I’ll always be the lightweight: snoring in the bar, blacking out, and stealing Kit Kats from the Brightside Circle K. But Mike’s always there to save me. When my eyes go glassy, he puts me to bed. When I pass out at a fraternity formal, he lays my tuxedoed carcass in someone’s car and dances with my date. He’s my protector, there for me so steadily that, by the time I’m midway through college, if I go out and Mike’s not there, I don’t feel quite safe.
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And then there’s where we’re from. I grew up in a fancy San Antonio neighborhood called Alamo Heights, where everybody’s dad is in oil and gas and lots of moms live in yoga pants. My grandfather was the president of a bank, and my dad, who divorced my mom when I was 2, is a lawyer. My mom and I weren’t rich, at least not compared to the kids in my grade who got BMWs at 16, but I drive a new Mitsubishi, and college is covered.
Ask Mike where he’s from, and he’ll tell you, New Orleans. But that’s not true; Mike is from Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish — a place just east of the Industrial Canal that real New Orleanians call “Da Parish.” Early on in college, I get that Da Parish isn’t exactly the place you want to be from. These are your blue collars, your Y’ats, people who say axe instead of ask. My fraternity brothers from well-to-do families on the North Shore and Lafayette give Mike constant shit about it, but he takes it in stride. Chalmatians, as they’re called, are used to such jokes.
I like to think I always knew Mike was coming from less than me, but in truth, it wasn’t a subject I gave much thought. Back then we were just two guys eating frat house jambalaya, drinking cheap beer and Ten High. His cash came from waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant off I-10; while mine showed up like magic in a bank account set up by my dad. And anyway Mike never said much about Chalmette. I knew only that he was the first in his family to go to college. His dad’s some kind of mechanic and his mom’s some kind of secretary, and his little sister, who’s my age and not going to college, is expecting a baby. During freshman year winter break, just a few months into our friendship, Mike drove 500 miles to visit me in San Antonio, but it took a whole other year before I saw where he grew up, never mind that it was an hour from campus. In those days, it never occurred to me that maybe Mike didn’t want me to see where he was from, that maybe he was hiding something. But even if he was, and even if he’d told me so, I wouldn’t have understood. Of course, in those days I didn’t understand anything.
II: Bourbon Street Knockout
Every Mardi Gras, our fraternity fills a U-Haul with busted couches and kegs and claims a spot beneath the Pontchartrain Expressway. For days we sit in the false dark and watch parades and drink and drink and drink. Sometime on the Monday before Fat Tuesday, both of us blind with hangovers, Mike tells me he’s got to go by his parents’, and if I ride with him, I’ll get a free meal, a shower, and a clean bathroom. I’m caked in street mud and very tired of holding my breath in the St. Charles port-a-potties, so I hop in his truck without thinking. I didn’t know New Orleans well then, but as we whizzed past the Superdome and the city seemed to vanish, I knew we weren’t headed Uptown where our other friends lived.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
I roll my eyes and think, Da Parish.
“Well, how far’s that?”
He shrugs again. “Fifteen minutes.”
The little house on Rose Street is just that: little. It seems too small for Mike, let alone for Mike, his mom and dad, his sister, and her new baby. His mom greets us from the cramped front porch. She’s got a tattoo and wears a Rolling Stones shirt that’s been washed a thousand times. All I can think is how young she seems.
In my memory, we don’t stay long. There’s tension, the source of which I don’t get, and everything starts to feel rushed. We don’t eat. I don’t see his dad or sister. Mike gets what he needs, we shower and go.
“How old are your parents?” I ask.
We’re crossing the bridge back to Orleans Parish. Mike tells me.
“Jesus,” I say, “so your dad was like … 16 when you were born?”
“Yep.” He stares straight ahead. “How old was yours?”
“I don’t know, man, like 38.” A year older than Mike’s dad is now.
That night, sipping a Bourbon Street Knockout in a camp chair under the overpass, my mind won’t stop spinning. How is that where Mike grew up? How was that his mom? How did she have babies in high school? How could our lives be so … different? Da Parish, I think, what had I expected? I brood there until I’m pass-out drunk, waking with a start when my cigarette burns me.
His cash came from waiting tables at a Mexican restaurant off I-10; while mine showed up like magic in a bank account set up by my dad.
Days later, I call my mom and tell her about Mike’s. She listens while I ramble on about the tiny house in the neighborhood filled with other tiny houses, about his mom’s tattoo, the old shirt, but after a few minutes, she breaks in.
“Honey, don’t you get it?
“Mike,” she says, “he’s poor.”
“Oh,” I say.
My eyes go wide. I see it now. She’s just ripped off the blindfold.
“Well, I don’t know …” I trail off.
I knew it already — I had to — but couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it. Mike was from a place where poor people lived, and yet he wasn’t poor. Not my big brother. Was he leery that day, to show me his house? Was his mom flustered to host me? Will whose dad’s a lawyer? Will in his short shorts and his Brooks Brothers shirt?
“Now don’t get me wrong,” my mom breaks in, “Mike’s got a heart of gold. It doesn’t matter.”
“Right.” I snap out of it. “Of course. It makes no difference.”
Six months later a storm hits, and I see that it does.
III: A State of Emergency
Katrina won’t stop changing her mind. She’s coming right at us, then she’s not, then she’s bouncing back from Florida, en route to kill us all. In my two years in Louisiana, every hurricane that was ever supposed to destroy New Orleans has petered out into a thunderstorm, and I’m sure this one will do the same. But not Mike. Mike is freaking out.
The morning before landfall, he gets me up early to help him raid the fraternity’s ice machine. I’m annoyed. Fifteen minutes ago, I was in bed with a naked Theta. Now I’m hungover and sweating while we lug a huge cooler.
“Why are we even doing this? Even if the storm hits New Orleans, won’t we be fine in Baton Rouge?”
Mike says we might lose power, then he tells me his parents have to come to stay with us.
“In our apartment? Can’t they just get a hotel?”
As soon as I ask this, Mike gives me The Look. It’s the one he uses when I brag about backpacking Europe. Or when my dad, out of nowhere, mails me an envelope containing not one, not three, but five hundred dollar bills. Or when I pressure him into giving up his Friday double so he can get smashed with me and be my protector. It’s a look thick with envy and contempt, one that asks the big question without saying a word: Why does your life get to be so easy?
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I backtrack. “I just meant, like, wouldn’t they be more comfortable?”
“It’s a mandatory evacuation,” Mike tells me. “There won’t be a hotel from Baton Rouge to Houston.” What he doesn’t tell me: Even if there was, his parents couldn’t afford it.
Late that night, Mike and I drink Bud Selects in the bed of his Chevy. Upstairs, in the apartment, his parents sleep in his bed. The storm’s just hours away. The sky above us: a grey-black swirl.
“This is gonna be fucked,” Mike says.
“I still think it’ll be okay.”
This is the lie I’ve told myself all afternoon, one born of a nagging question: If the storm does destroy Mike’s parents’ house, will they move in with us permanently? And, if so, how might this impact my liquor, cigarette, and TV intake? After showing up this morning in a tiny black Civic, Mike’s mom spent the entire day cleaning our shithole apartment. His dad, after arriving in a truck packed to the hilt, immediately went out and bought a generator and has otherwise barely spoken. Mike’s parents are quiet generally, but when I’m around they’re practically silent. I don’t see then what’s so plain to me now: On top of worrying they might lose everything, they don’t want to be in my hair.
“I mean, it could still turn and hit Texas,” I say, lighting a Camel.
“No,” Mike says. “It’s coming right at us. This whole thing’s just gonna be…”
“Yeah,” he says. “It is.”
And he’s right.
The next morning, I wake to find Mike and his parents in front of the TV. The national news is on — Special Report — and they’ve been watching for hours. Apparently, while I snoozed like a beer-drunk baby, one of the worst hurricanes in history made landfall and destroyed the Gulf Coast. The Mr. GO canal has flooded Lake Pontchartrain; the wind has shoved the water onto land. Much of New Orleans is underwater. Canals and levees continue to breach. We are, I learn, in a State of Emergency.
Not knowing really what any of this means, I ask what they’ve heard about their house. Mike stares empty-eyed and mutters something that sounds like OK.
“It’s OK!?!?” I ask.
“No.” Mike sighs. “It’s underwater.”
I’m standing in our apartment. The power’s on. Outside it’s barely raining.
The little house on Rose Street. Chalmette high. His dad’s shop. Da Parish. Thirteen feet.
“Underwater,” Mike says again, the word already too familiar on his lips.
As the day drags on and the big ugly picture gets bigger and uglier, I start to feel strange. On the one hand, I’m thankful I’ve escaped disaster. A devastating storm has struck within an hour of where I live, but I’m totally fine. On the other hand, I can’t help but notice my being totally fine is all I can think of. I’m surrounded by people who are newly homeless, people who happen to be my best friend’s parents, a man and a woman who cleaned my house and bought me groceries, and a generator we never had to use. I’m staring into the face of human suffering, yet all I can think of is me.
Not that they’re complaining, these refugees. Life’s hard, but they can take it. That tired old phrase: It is what it is. I don’t like to imagine how I’d react, at 20, to the news I’d lost all my earthly possessions. The tantrum. My God. Even picturing it makes me sick.
LSU shuts down and the Whole Foods where I’ve started to work, just part-time, operates on a come-in-if-you-can basis. I call my boss and say that, while I’d love to get ten bucks an hour to make free-range turkey and aioli wraps, I’ve got my roommate’s parents with me. They’re from Chalmette, so I need to help out. “Just focus on your family,” he tells me. I should correct him but don’t.
Apparently, while I snoozed like a beer-drunk baby, one of the worst hurricanes in history made landfall and destroyed the Gulf Coast.
For the next week, instead of helping, instead of telling Mike’s parents they’re welcome to stay, I ghost and pretend Katrina didn’t happen. While poor blacks are herded like cattle into the Superdome, I fart around my fraternity house, playing MarioKart and shooting Jim Beam. While people too sick to move die horrible deaths in a hospital without power, I apathetically text the sorority girls I’m constantly leading on, until one of them tells me to come over for sex. While my big brother has to process that not simply his home but everything he’s ever associated with home — his childhood, his community — has been destroyed, I grow impatient waiting for everything to go back to normal.
After a few days, Mike gives me a call.
“Are you gonna sleep at the fraternity again?”
“There’s a bunch of people here,” I tell him. “I’ll crash on the couch.”
I say the names, all New Orleans guys, but not from Da Parish, so their houses are fine. We both pause to inhale smokes.
“My parents are gonna go soon,” he says. “In case you’re worried.”
“Worried? Why would I be worried?”
And then they do go, just as fast as they came, only leaving behind a cleaner apartment.
As to where they went, I have no idea. It has to be someplace, but the details didn’t matter. I’d had my fill of tragedy and victims. Once they were gone, they were gone. At last, Mike and I can get back to being drunken goofballs, a couple of flat-footed dreamers. We can resume our fraternal twinhood, keep pretending we’re precisely the same.
And we can, so long as my blindfold’s on. And for the next few years, it is, tied tight. Because, for me, the storm’s over. But for Mike, it’s only just begun.
Mike and I live together another year-and-a-half, a time during which he declares a theatre major, hardly attends class, declares a general studies major, basically fails out, and then decides to “take a break.” A time during which I declare a creative writing major, get a girlfriend, study in Spain, and finish college on time. A time during which Katrina’s barely mentioned.
My last summer in Baton Rouge is a bacchanal of self-congratulation, one fueled by graduation checks and the insane presumption that I’m on my way to fame. Over the past few semesters, my fiction professors have given my stories way too much praise. Praise I rolled in like a pig in shit. Praise I’ve turned into a smug certainty that I’m destined to be some literary darling. And while I’ve spent hardly any time actually writing, the universe has nonetheless rewarded me with a full-ride fellowship to an MFA program. I’ll have the next three years to read, dream up stories, and surely win the Pulitzer.
Mike is waiting tables.
But we’re still raging, still cracking everyone up, still staying up late on the porch drinking Franzia and smoking Camels. Still brothers. And yet, in these waning weeks, as I pack my room, things feel out of sync. I’m off to a cool new life. Mike’s staying right where he is. He’s the big brother, but he’s fallen behind.
On my last night in town, in August of 2007, after boudin balls and Jack and Cokes at The Chimes, a group of us heads to a friend’s for one last whatever. Once we’ve rid the fridge of Natural Lights, once we’ve told our stories — the time Mike motorboated a friend’s big sister, the Halloween I evaded arrest while dressed as a Twinkie — once we’ve stretched the night as long as we can, my girlfriend yawns and looks at her phone.
“Time to get moving,” she tells me.
“Guess so,” I say.
Mike and I light Camels in the courtyard while she gets the car. It’s a moment. We both know it. Not goodbye forever, but goodbye to this. We hug and cry. Mike tells me he loves me, says I’m gonna write some beautiful book. For graduation, he gave me a Royal Deluxe typewriter with a page in the spool. A two-word message: Good luck. I tell Mike I love him, too, and as we sway there beneath a flickering floodlight, I feel a pang of guilt. For the first time, I have the urge to say sorry. Sorry the storm fucked up your house. Sorry the last few years have been so tough. Sorry I never asked if you were hurting. But the moment passes. Our hug ends when my girlfriend honks the horn.
“You’re my brother,” he says, and I tell him he’s mine.
“Wow,” my girlfriend says as we drive off. “Mike’s really broken up.”
I tighten my blindfold and say, “He’s fine.”
IV: Trapped in Fantasyland
“I feel like I just gotta move to France,” Mike tells me.
We’re on the phone, on a summer night when I’m home from grad school. I’m smoking on my mom’s front porch, drunk on cheap vodka.
“And do what, exactly?”
“I don’t know, man. Work at a cafe. Learn cuisine.”
Mike’s obsessed with cooking. He watches the Food Network religiously, loves Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, wants to work for Thomas Keller.
I sigh. “You don’t speak French. You don’t have a visa. You don’t have the money to get to France, let alone rent an apartment.” But at this point, I’m barely listening to myself.
I’m starting to see that Mike might be terminally stuck, starting to worry he’ll burn his entire 20s fantasizing over dream lives. Last we spoke, he was moving to Austin to be an indie rock drummer. Before that, it was Second City in Chicago. Now it’s the CIA. And while everyone’s allowed to dream big, what’s all the more crazy-making is that Mike can actually do the things he dreams of doing. He’s a wonderful actor, has performed Shakespeare with LSU Theatre. He’s a talented chef, has a knack for flavor, can pull loose ends from the fridge and whip them up into something fancy in no time. He’s a good drummer, too, and has been in a Baton Rouge band that makes cool music. And yet, when the chips are down, he never commits to any of these dreams; he commits instead to dreaming up new ones.
I’m off to a cool new life. Mike’s staying right where he is. He’s the big brother, but he’s fallen behind.
In the years since I’ve left Louisiana, Mike’s kept waiting tables and now has a side gig as our fraternity’s House Dad. He lives in a little apartment in the back, a five-second walk from the restaurant. When he told me his plan to move in, it seemed less than ideal, but House Dads get free room and board, and he’s got debt, so I figured he could pay it down. He’s back in school, too, part-time. So maybe this will end up good. Maybe he’ll snag a girlfriend, graduate, and get back on track. Maybe. But, of course, that doesn’t happen. What does happen is Mike finds himself, at 24 and 25, surrounded by out-of-control college kids, at the restaurant, at the fraternity, all over campus. What does happen is he drinks away his tips at the bar, gains weight, keeps ungodly hours, saves no money, never goes to class, and while the rest of his buddies get advanced degrees, buy houses, and get married, he lives in the bowels of our fraternity house, hiding.
“Just finish school,” I tell him, incredulous. Me, the little brother who’s never been out of school. Me, whose harrowing experience with Hurricane Katrina is fodder for stories at cocktail parties.
“Easy for you,” he could’ve said but never did. Mike never called me out on a single thing.
Whenever I come to Baton Rouge, I stay with Mike, and by the end of each visit, booze-whipped and bloated, I’m amazed that my deeply indulgent nostalgia trip is to some degree his normal life. But when I show up at his apartment just before the start of my last year of grad school, in August of 2009, I’m no longer amazed; I’m alarmed.
A plumbing disaster has occurred — and, by the looks of it, not recently — destroying the room where he used to sleep. The place is a wreck. Half the ceiling is gone. Mold and mildew all over.
“What the fuck happened?” I ask.
“Oh,” he waves it off. “Some shit with the pipes.”
“Well right. But is it getting repaired?”
Mike tells a story that can be boiled down to: He owes a guy money but won’t pay the guy until he fixes the leak, but the guy who’s owed won’t fix the leak until Mike pays.
“So it’s a war of attrition?”
“But you have to live here,” I say. “So … you lose.”
“Yeah, well. I’m not livin’ here much longer.”
“What are you gonna do?”
He shrugs. “Cooking school.”
“How? With what money?”
“I don’t know, man.”
The rest of the trip is unpleasant. We hole up in the dank apartment, drink oceans of Early Times and watch Top Chef. We play beer pong with college kids we don’t know and don’t really like, guys who get blackout drunk, take Percocets, and fight. We take Percocets ourselves one night and wake up the next morning on the deck.
What’s going on, I wonder. The last time I saw Mike, at summer’s start, we had a blast. We went Tiki Tubing down the Amite River, played putt-putt, ate crawfish. We got stoned and drank Abitas with his bandmates and laughed until our sides hurt. Why does this trip feel so different?
Back then, Mike kept a LiveJournal, one that’s still online. In an entry made after my first visit in May, he writes on his “dilemma.” His bandmates — the friends who replaced our crew when we graduated — have just graduated themselves and will soon move to Austin. Mike wants to go but feels like he can’t. The entry, posted at 4 a.m., is titled “What is and What Should Be.” Here’s how it ends:
As I’ve come closer to the day my bandmates leave, I find myself staring at nothing and thinking of everything.
…[E]very day I spend not … doing the things I know in my heart I need to do, I die a little. I’ve known for some time now the path I need to take and yet, I’m afraid to take that leap. I do nothing to help myself.
I want to go. I need to go. Why can’t I?
I want to cut my losses and start fresh. I want to be happy.
The opening line of Twelfth Night reads, “If music be the food of love, play on …”
I want to play. I want to cook. I want to eat. I want to go.
I want, I want, I want. But he never did. And over the summer, while his bandmates settled into new lives and I finished my thesis, he stared at nothing and thought of everything. He died a little. He began to fall apart.
As I pack to go back to school, it dawns on me that, ever since I’ve left Baton Rouge, it’s become my Fantasyland, a place where I can pretend I’m still the crazy drunk I was in college. A guy who’s yet to dream of becoming a writer, to feel the pressure of expectation. A guy who doesn’t fret constantly about what comes next. Usually, when a visit ends, I’m sad. But this time, I’m thrilled. There’s a danger in idling. You’re not supposed to be in college forever. Mike had a similar realization back in May, but he’s still here, trapped in Fantasyland. Since Katrina, he’s survived on the idea of starting over, the idea of escape. Now he’s come to the end of the line. He’s got to do something, but he doesn’t want to disappoint anyone, so he locks up and disappoints everyone, most of all himself.
Like the leak in the roof, it’s a war of attrition.
Before I leave, I tell him I’m worried.
“You need to get out of here, Mike. This is no way to live.”
What I don’t say: This is the home of a depressed person.
“I know,” he says.
We hug in the grim fluorescence, and I head off to school. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how Mike felt as he watched me drive away. Was he happy to get back to hiding? Or did he feel more lost than ever? I remember precisely how I felt: equal parts guilty and relieved. And as my Honda hummed east along the Gulf Coast, and the endless green swathes of Alabama became the slow sweeping hills of Georgia, as I got farther and farther away, I relied hard on the bad brother’s mantra: He’s at rock bottom. Things can only go up from here.
V: The Very Worst Thing
Another year. Another call from Mike. Only this time, I don’t answer.
I’m hammering away at a fresh story in my new apartment in New Orleans, where after a summer of living with my mom in Texas, of writing, manual labor, and endless nights of abject drunkenness, certain I’ve fucked up my life — I’ve somehow landed a job as an adjunct at a commuter college on Lake Pontchartrain. My students are mostly poor — black and Vietnamese kids from Gretna and Kenner, white kids from Destrehan and Da Parish. Compared to my fellow MFA grads who work as shopgirls and movers, I’m lucky to have this low-paying gig. I’m starting to see that a so-so writer with delusions of grandeur, and a penchant for blackout drinking, can end up in an unglamorous place. I’m starting to get why people study medicine or law. Starting to see that life takes money, and the more you’ve got, the better it is. Through all of grad school, I’d presumed my degree from an unheard of regional program would automatically yield a slam dunk job at a liberal arts college in the Berkshires: But lo and behold, here I am, desperately thankful to escape my mother’s, to net $20,000 a year “teaching” freshman comp in sad classrooms with overflowing trash cans on a campus so ghostly it seems like Katrina’s surge hit last month, not five years back. This is not where you’re supposed to be, I tell myself while I freak out about barely making rent and grade essays with mistakes so basic I don’t know what to say. You’ve got to live up to your potential. You’ve got to write yourself out of this mess!
Which is what I try to do — write — unless of course, I’m busy carousing the Marigny or the Quarter, resuming my college persona, undoing the maturing I did in grad school, getting kicked out of Cooter Brown’s and Tipitina’s, and Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club … and maybe moving to America’s booziest city wasn’t my best move. And look now: Mike’s calling again, and I’ve put in a solid 20 minutes today, so I may as well power down the old laptop and see what he needs.
“Yello?” I say.
“Will!” he says like he’s fucking choking.
“Mike? What’s wrong?”
“My father” — again that choking sound — “My father’s. Killed. Himself.”
I stand and spin in a circle. That’s what I remember: saying “Oh my God!” then standing and spinning in a circle. Like I had to confirm I was still in my room. That I was still Will Torrey, still 25, still a man alive in the world. “Where do you need me?” I ask, and Mike tells me: his parents’, right away. Then I hang up and call my mom.
“Why does this keep … happening to Mike?” I ask.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” she says through tears.
But, of course, we both know that’s a lie.
The hours and days and weeks that follow are a whirlwind of strangeness.
I’m in Mike’s parents’ yard, in Lacombe, surrounded by his buddies from Da Parish. We pinch our lips and nod as this or that uncle or cousin goes in to be with Mike and his family, all of us just waiting there, simply existing as we try to grasp that, just after dawn this morning, Mike’s dad — a month shy of 44 — drove out to some bayou and put a bullet in his heart. That is all Mike can say when I get there, all he can cry into my ear as he hugs me so hard my back cracks: “He shot himself in the heart.” My mind goes to the morning after Katrina. “He shot himself in the heart” — the delivery, so matter of fact. It may as well be, “Our house is underwater.”
Days later, I’m up at 3 a.m., on the phone with Mike, whose mom has just shown him the shirt his dad wore when it happened. “The hole,” he says, breathless and sad, “I saw it.”
Later still, I’m beside Mike at a funeral home in St. Tammany Parish, staring down at the body that used to be his dad’s, a body that now seems small, his coat and tie almost juvenile, like he’s a kid getting dragged to a Sears family portrait. Mike lays a hand on his dad, and I lay a hand on Mike. I try to recall the last time I saw Mike’s dad, I’m sure it was Katrina, the day he and his now widow left our apartment.
What follows is a lost time. Mike is okay but not. Sometimes, cracking jokes over hurricanes at Lafitte’s, he seems like himself. Other times, calling me from Bourbon Street, drunk off his ass with friends from Da Parish, crying and screaming, he does not. He tells me he’s worried his mom’s losing it, that maybe there’s money from a will that may or may not exist, money that he and his sister and her son should get, and could I maybe call my lawyer dad? I tell Mike to go to therapy, and he says he can’t afford it, but even if he could, I know he wouldn’t go. He shaves his head, gains weight, lets his beard puff out until he looks like Zack Galafinakis in The Hangover.
I write. I publish. I teach. I take pretty girls out to bars in New Orleans.
I drink and drink and drink and wonder why I never feel good about anything.
That is all Mike can say when I get there, all he can cry into my ear as he hugs me so hard my back cracks: ‘He shot himself in the heart.’
At some point, the restaurant where Mike’s waited tables for what feels like an eon opens a new place on the North Shore, and they pick him to run the kitchen. When he tells me the news I’m so excited I can hardly contain myself. This is it! I think. An actual dream come true! Get out of Baton Rouge, make money, grow up!
Which he does, sort of. Mike scores a great place in Covington, starts his new job. But then he calls and says he can’t afford where he’s living. I ask him his new salary and his new rent and then tell him he absolutely can. “I dunno,” he says and sighs a long sigh.
I visit soon after and the place is half boxed.
“Please tell me you’re not moving out.”
He cuts his eyes to the floor. Standing with him there in this gorgeous apartment, with skylights, new appliances, exposed brick — a place that’s the precise opposite of the ruined House Dad Suite — I lose my patience.
“Why the fuck would you do that?”
He throws up his hands. “I can’t afford it!”
“Yes, you can!” My cheeks are hot. I want to grab him and shake him. “And you can’t just walk away from an apartment, Mike! Where the fuck are you gonna live?”
Mike tells me some story about how he never signed a lease, that he’ll eat the deposit, load his shit into his new pickup, the one that belonged to his dad, and drive off into the night. He says he’ll move in with a buddy from Da Parish, a guy who needs a roommate because his crazy wife just left him. What he doesn’t say is that the buddy’s mom will live there too. And what he doesn’t know is that having been shuffled around after Katrina, she’s grown bitter. That she’ll treat Mike like an unwelcome guest. He won’t be allowed to cook and “smell up the kitchen,” won’t be allowed to play drums. What he doesn’t see is, after just a taste of life as a grownup, he’s trading it all to live on the margins of a house that’s not his, to live by the rules of a mom that’s not his. He doesn’t see it — or he pretends not to — but that’s what happens, and in the months that follow, when he vents about it over the phone, I have no sympathy. What did you think was gonna happen. What the fuck did you think?
I don’t recall what we did that day in Covington, but whatever it was, it was ruined by my annoyance at Mike. Why can’t you just live in an apartment like a normal person? I wonder. You’re making progress. Why sabotage yourself? What I don’t see then: Mike’s terrified of being by himself, alone with his thoughts, his ghosts. What I don’t see, too, is how tight I’m still wearing my blindfold. I’m angry at my friend because he won’t accomplish what I’ve accomplished without the touch of my privilege. I’m angry at my friend because his life’s so hard.
Why can’t you just be like me? I wonder, sitting up at night, getting drunk by myself.
Why can’t you just be like me? Lazy, but bitter that I’m not rich or famous.
VI: Off the Grid
I keep teaching, publish stories and essays, and get a better job at LSU, where I go out for beers at the Chimes with the same professors who, years back, told me I had what it took. I live in a funky yellow house in Capitol Heights with the woman who’s now my wife. We take jogs through the neighborhood, walk to Calandro’s to buy wine, go to Radiobar with the editor of The Southern Review, have lively dinner parties with all our lively, literary friends. Life’s perfect, but that doesn’t stop my complaining — about making bullshit money, about never getting an interview for a tenure-track job, about always getting the runaround from agents, about my failure to finish the novel I’ve wallowed in for the last three years. I’m doing most of the stuff I set out to do, but all I can think of is how little I’ve done. I’m making it, I guess, in a failing kind of way.
Mike in the meantime has gone “off the grid.” He’s still running the kitchen at the restaurant, still doing mostly fine, but he’s bought a house way out in the sticks. He builds a chicken coop and talks about farming. I don’t see him much, and when we do talk, he pinballs from one new dream to another: He’ll open a vegetable stand or his own barbeque joint or a food truck or he’ll move to Colorado to grow weed. By now, this stuff washes over me, yet I can’t help but worry that, in getting this house, he’s found a new way to hide: a little compound in the middle of nowhere, a permanent home where the world can’t find him. And why don’t you want to be found? I wonder. Who do you think’s coming to get you?
Over the summer of 2014, two of our best friends get married, and Mike skips both weddings, each time coming up with a half-cocked excuse. Can’t get off work. Can’t afford gas.
I’m engaged now myself, and after the second missed wedding I send Mike a text.
If you pull this shit when I get married, I’ll kill you.
You know I won’t, he writes.
We need to hang. Been too long.
How would you feel, he writes, about doing some yard work?
I head up the Causeway the next afternoon, Lake Pontchartrain spreading out alongside me like a giant, brackish bathtub. I remember the day Mike’s father died, zooming up this bridge from my old place in New Orleans, trying to understand the pain he’s in, trying to imagine what it’d be like if my dad had done what his just did. My dad calls himself “the absent father” — and I don’t know him well — but he’s always had a knack for being there when I need him. When I finished grad school and couldn’t find a job, when I was sure I was a failure, moving back in with my mom, I called him. “You’re a white man with an education,” he said, almost laughing. “The world was made for you.” Then he mailed me a Treasury bond for $10,000.
What I don’t see then: Mike’s terrified of being by himself, alone with his thoughts, his ghosts.
The next morning, after a night of grilling pork chops, getting drunk and high, and watching “No Reservations,” Mike and I rise early, eat Adderall, buy mulch and shovels and rakes, and embark on a monumental day of work: mowing, trimming, pruning, weeding, pulling jasmine from his fence. At lunch, we break for Budweisers, and Mike gases up a chainsaw. It growls to life as he yanks the cord. He hoists it overhead, revs it with a laugh.
“What are we doing with that?” I ask.
Mike smiles, teeth bright against his dirt-caked face.
“We’re gonna cut down a fuckin’ tree.”
The most important thing we know about the tree we’re cutting down is that if it falls the wrong way, it’ll destroy Mike’s house. The most important thing we don’t know about trees is how to dictate the direction in which they fall. Either way, we know that when it falls, it’ll fall fast. Either way, we know that this, like everything, is an act of faith.
Mike saws until the tree’s about to tip, and then — employing some silent brotherly language and a panicky series of moves that are at once like dancing and not — Mike pivots one way and I the other, and then, gasping for air, we push, step back, and … womp! Just womp! A sound like I’ve never heard before. A thud, a sucking, the inverse of sound.
We are alive. The tree is felled. The house stands undestroyed.
Mike and I blink there in the yard and share a look of wonder. Then we race over to one another and holler as we hug.
Late that night, drunk as skunks, sitting in the pale glow of his porchlight, Mike looks up at the moon and says, “almost four years.”
“I know,” I tell him. “Hard to believe.”
I start to form a thought — how proud I am of him, how sorry I am, for all this shit, for always being so hard on him — only I’m too drunk, so what I say, instead, out of nowhere, is, “I’ll never forget, Mike. That day. The sound of your voice when you called.” And then I double over in a sob. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever cried without warning.
Mike gets me up and holds me. “Don’t worry, baby bro,” he says. “It’ll all be OK.”
Hungover the next morning, I remember Mike’s dad’s viewing. A gang of us went out after and got wasted. At some point, those of us from New Orleans figured we’d better head back, but Mike asked me to stay. “I’ve got all these people crashing at my house,” I told him. He said he got it, but as I left and he lingered with friends from the Da Parish, I could tell he was sad.
“Wish you coulda hung the other night,” he told me days later on the phone.
“What’d y’all do?”
“We cut down a tree.”
The next summer I get married, and on my wedding day, as I sip scotch in my tux and gaze upon the scores of guests, all gathered to celebrate the love I share with my wife in a beautiful library on King Street, in Charleston, South Carolina, I feel a pang of fear. I’m 30, make no money, have nothing close to a book deal or an agent, and will never get a tenure-track job. I’m a faker, a fuckup, a whiner, a bitch.
“I’ve got to figure out my life,” I mutter to myself, paranoid, and realize I’m drunk. “I’ve got to figure out my life.”
Two weeks later, thanks to the magic of cronyism, my wife and I are both hired at a prestigious boarding school. Campus like a country club. Huge raises. Free housing. Smartest kids.
When I call Mike to tell him we’re moving, he’s genuinely thrilled.
“Damn, Will,” he says, “You’ve got the best life.”
VII: Helpless, Happy, Confused, Content
I see Mike next in New Orleans, and he meets my son. In the fancy condo owned by my friend’s parents, where we’ve stayed for free while savoring long strolls through the Lower Garden District and eating ourselves sick at Clancy’s and Cochon and Bacchanal, Mike holds up my boy and kisses his belly until he squeals that perfect laugh that belongs only to infants: helpless, happy, confused, content.
Chatting after, smoking cigarettes on Coliseum Square, Mike asks what it’s like to be a dad.
“Pretty great,” I say. “Intense, but you get the hang.”
What I don’t say is how terrifying it is, how, when the midwife pulled my son out and I locked eyes with his swollen purple face, I felt not love but pressure. How night after night, as he screws his lips into the shape of a lemon and screams like a pterodactyl, I feel the stinging sense that I’m not cut out for this. How throughout my wife’s pregnancy, I made myself believe that being a dad would cure me of all my bullshit — the drinking, the depression, the anxiety — but none of that’s happened, and now that it’s too late, I get that kids aren’t some panacea; they’re a spotlight for your flaws. They’re needy little puzzles that can fucking break you. How, in my first weeks as a father, as my wife sank into postpartum as she struggled to breastfeed, I hid in the shed behind our house, inhaling Marlboro Reds in the bitter cold, certain I’d squandered my life’s easy years, that the person I was — a writer, an artist — was gone forever, that I may as well fucking vanish.
“You’re gonna be a great dad,” Mike tells me.
“We’ll see,” I say, and we both light new ones.
“You think you’ll have kids?”
Smoke creeps from Mike’s nostrils as he smiles. “No,” he says, “I don’t.”
That night, we meet two friends at Patois. We drink martinis and eat steak frites. We remember college, how our fraternity rented whole floors of a Holiday Inn on Dauphine Island, where we’d smoke blunts and finger girls in the hot tub, how I once broke a girl’s nose during sex and then she wet my bed — and I see then that the whole of New Orleans is my new Fantasyland. The place where I can pretend I don’t have to work to be a good teacher at a great school, where I don’t have to fret about never writing enough, where I can get crazy drunk and not have to get up at 5 a.m., hating myself for being angry at my child. Where I can eat dinner with people who don’t read books and feel like the serious intellectual. In a few days, when my family and I fly back to reality, and I’m too fat to fit in my pants with a throat scorched from a hundred cigarettes, I’ll feel ready to run away from the old me, but for now nothing is real.
And then I double over in a sob. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever cried without warning.
After we pay our tab, drunk on gin and nostalgia, we plot our next move. We decide on Avenue Pub, but just as we get moving, Mike gets wishy-washy. He needs to drive home, he says, needs to head back to the North Shore. The rest of us are up in arms.
“What!?! We never get to see each other! You can crash with us!”
“I don’t know,” Mike squirms, “I gotta work.”
“I gotta be there for noon.”
All of us laugh. “We have babies! We’ll have you out the door by dawn.”
Mike says he’ll think about it while he drives us to the bar, but he’s quiet all the way down Magazine, and I know he won’t stay. This, I see, has been his plan all along: to check in from his hideaway, then hurry back off the grid. When we get to the bar, Mike asks me to stay while the others go in. I stand beside him in his idling truck. It’s a moment. We both know it.
“I gotta go,” he says. There’s fear in his voice, like the world will end if he doesn’t.
“Why? We’re all here. Why are you so obsessed with leaving?”
He stares out the windshield and starts to cry.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just everything. Just stuff with my dad.” So rare, this mention of his father. So often I wonder, but I always fail to ask.
“What is it?”
“I’m just so … angry.”
“I know,” I say, even though I don’t. He looks right at me.
“Why did all this have to happen, Will?”
A streetcar rattles by. Cars whisper along the Pontchartrain Expressway.
“It was the storm,” I tell him. “And depression. And …”
“All of this happened to you,” I say. “It wasn’t your fault.”
After the suicide, Mike told me he wished he could knock his dead dad to the ground, to pin him there and ask him flatly if he was satisfied with what he’d done. “What do you think he’d say?” I asked. “That killing himself,” Mike said, “was the worst mistake of his life.”
Whenever I think of Mike’s dad, I don’t see him in that casket, his face all stunned and made-up. I see him alive, stock still on our ugly couch in the Baton Rouge apartment, watching the news, saying nothing, but knowing for certain he’d never be the same. I see the storm surge. I see the waterline and the mold. I see a day years after his death when on a drive through Da Parish, Mike and I turned down his grandparent’s street and happened upon his dad’s dad just sitting there, drinking Budweisers alone in a camp chair, broken. And when you shot yourself in the heart, I wonder, in that final beat before it all went black, did you get one last second to know what you’d done? Did you see the hurt you’d cause? Could you see your son the way he is now, afraid of a world that’s been so cruel? And what if Katrina had missed? What if all this belonged to someone else?
“I just feel like y’all have all made it,” Mike says. The engine’s running. He’s still in the truck. “You’ve got houses and kids —”
“We haven’t had to deal with anything,” I say, and the truth of this feels good.
I tell Mike he’s gotta get help, gotta talk to somebody, and then I see that’s what he’s doing right now.
“I’ll get better,” he says. “I promise.”
“I know,” I tell him, thinking so will I.
Mike gets out and hugs me. We don’t worry about food trucks or book deals or fathers or sons. We just sway there, two brothers, connected forever. I think of that night by the levee, that litany: I love my big brother. My big brother is better than me. What did you see in me all those years back? What made me so special? Who would I be if I’d had your life? What would you say if you wrote about me?
“You’ve still got the best life,” Mike says and gets in his truck.
I shake my head. “I’m just lucky.”
“Maybe so, baby bro,” he says. “Maybe so.”
And then he pulls away.
I stand alone there on Polymnia Street and watch Mike’s tail lights disappear down St. Charles. The night air is hot. The moon a faint ghost. In a few minutes, I’ll go into the bar to get drunk. But in this moment, I feel a whirl of emotions that leaves me unmoored, like I’m hovering over my shoulders. I’m outside of myself, I think, and then I say to no one, “This is it. This is the end of an essay I’ll write.”
William Torrey’s writing has appeared in Salamander, Boulevard, River Teeth, Colorado Review, and The Florida Review, among many others. He is Writer-in-Residence at St.Andrew’s School, where he lives on campus with his wife and sons.
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Editor: Carolyn Wells