The Devil's Punchbowl
by Julie Whitehead
Shea and John had come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. All along the waterfront of the new city, boats sold all the old favorites—po’boys, etoufee, gumbo, blackened fish of indeterminate origin, beignets, beer. The boats were always gaudy, but for Mardi Gras, they went all out with the purple, green, and gold banners and flags flying off the railings, the walls of the tiny restaurants, and the flagpoles.
They were crawling the boats with the rest of the crowd—going from one to another with an appetizer at one, a drink at another, an entree at the next, a dessert at the one after that, and an aperitif at the last. It was noisy but fun—no loud or messy drunks, no drama, no teenagers.
They went light on the drinks because they didn’t want to fall off the boat when the parade started at six that afternoon. If you fell off a boat into the Devil’s Punchbowl, it was good bye to you forever—if the snakes and the gators didn’t get you, the spirits of the floating dead would.
The krewes started arriving at five—each group to their own boat. The Krewe of Orpheus, who owned the biggest and nicest boat, was the last remaining of the old krewes—they had been around since before Hurricane Catalina drowned the old New Orleans for good, dumping more rain than Harvey did in Houston all those years ago. The levees failed, the pumps gave out—when you have a direct hit from a category six, there’s nowhere to hide from the rushing waters. So the world bid good-bye to the Big Easy and turned off the pumps.
The stagnant water covered everything—Jackson Square, the Garden District, Audobon Zoo, the Ninth Ward. Everyone still remembered the old names because the more adventurous boats in the off-season would take you on tours where they would point to the water and say, “That’s where Ruthie, the duck lady, would walk every day from her home to Jackson Square.”
Shea and John had gone on one the first time they came to New Orleans about six years ago. It was the biggest tourist trap—no one could tell where any of it had been now. The tall buildings that used to serve as landmarks were crumbled now. The spring and summer rains pushed the boats farther inland every few years.
Shea watched the Krewe of the La Chiens as they headed to the boat she and John were on. Their tiny, tiny costumes didn’t leave much to the imagination—if they followed the old shouts from the crowd of “Show me your tits!” all they had to do was turn around and smile. Their hair was done up in the old tignons the voodoo priestesses used to wear until they were outlawed by the government. But no one cared anymore. Laissez le bon temps rouler, indeed, Shea thought.
John was staring at the ladies a little too hard. Shea kicked him under the table. “You’re with me, now remember?” she said.
“I know,” John said, his speech a little slurred from the Johnnie Walker Black he was holding. “You look at dresses you won’t buy—I look at women I wouldn’t fuck.”
“Oh, sure,” Shea said. “That’s what they all say.”
John tried to look indignant but couldn’t hold it—it slipped into a guilty leer instead. “Show me your tits, then,” he said.
“Not here, you idiot,” she said. “Later.”
“Gonna hold you to that,” he said.
“Whatever,” she said.
He put his hand up in the air to get the attention of the waitress. “Another one of these,” he said, handing her his glass. Shea knew he knew the rules—once the boats started moving, no more alcohol was served. So he was getting his last kicks in before the trip.
The La Chiens lined up at the inside railing of the boat and started waving to the crowds lined up on the docks. The boat crews started casting off the lines, and the captains fired up their engines as soon as they were free of the docks. The loudspeakers started blaring Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan”.
Shea knew people were resting on the hills surrounding the old city to see the fireworks show the Krewe of Le Triomphe sponsored after the parade. All the boats had to be in the docks before the show started. They were so heavy with crew and krewes and tourists that they had to move slowly, making the ten-boat parade go for about an hour or so.
Shea and John moved to the outer railing to look out on the Devil’s Punchbowl. They had never seen the old city except in photos and old movies that took place there, like “King Creole” and “A Streetcar Named Desire”. She particularly remembered the French Quarter mostly from repeat viewing of “Live and Let Die” with John. If the floating dead spirits had second-lined for everyone who had died in Catalina, they would be about three-fourths of the way through the carnage by now.
She saw something moving in the water as the boat crawled along. She shivered. Probably a gator, she thought. No one bothered shooting them anymore—no one ever ate them now.
Suddenly whatever it was broke water—and Shea stared. It was a hand, waving to her. “Oh, my God! John, look! Someone’s fallen in!” she screamed.
She heard John behind her. “I don’t see nothing, hon. Get back from the rail, baby.”
She reached out over the water to the hand and felt its clammy grasp. Then it tugged on her, and she was in the water before John could catch her.
She floated on top of the water face down for a moment holding her breath. Then she felt the hand caress her back and pull her down. She had been floating over the French Quarter, and the spirits were second-lining for her.
Julie Whitehead is a MFA candidate from the Mississippi University for Women. Her fiction has appeared in China Grove Press, The New Southerner, and POMPA. She teaches British Literature at Mississippi College and lives in Brandon, MS.