Breatfast on St. Charles
Alright, dig this. It's 2am and amongst the noise of motorway traffic and the electric cable hum of
cicadas in the distance, Toby thinks he hears someone sneak up on us and he reaches for the
Walther P22 in his back pocket. This particular type of pistol is carbon-fibre, just one magazine.
Toby's hand is shaking a little as he points it, although I can't imagine it weighs very much.
We wait ten seconds. Ten seconds becomes one minute. Two minutes. The noise turns out to be
nothing, which is just as well because I don't think Toby has ever fired a gun in his life.
He says, “Remind me whose idea this was again, mon amis?”
I want to scream because of course, it was his fucking idea. I make myself breathe, the way you
tell yourself to breathe when you're feeling carsick. I relax my arms and return to the task at hand,
telling Toby with my calm voice that that he needs to stop dicking around god damn it, 'cause we
got a job to do. Toby ain't a bad guy, but my arms are already tired and I don't think he appreciates
how heavy a bolt cutter can be.
You want me to set the scene? I'll set the scene.
Round the back of an abandoned school just outside Baton Rouge, there's a parking lot lined with
refrigerated trucks. Each of these trucks contains half a dozen or so dead bodies and each of
these trucks has it's back doors secured with a padlock and chain. Outside, in the parking lot, I'm
sweating so hard I swear I can feel it drip down my back. It's hotter than hell. It's always hotter than
hell in New Orleans. This is April 2006. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina.
I lift up the bolt cutter and get to work on the chain, applying as much pressure as I can. I feel the
muscles of my forearms warm and then burn, before seizing up entirely. This is our third truck
tonight. The first two didn't have what we were looking for.
There's got to be about thirty trucks here. We'll never get through all of them. We won't even
get through half of them. Me and Toby, we're big believers in luck. We're hoping we get lucky
sometime between now and when the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team find us
sneaking around their property. Or worse, the FBI. The Parish Coroner. The cops. Toby doesn't
get on so well with cops.
“Ca c'est bon!” He's hissing in my ear, as the chain gives and metal hits metal. I shouldn't be here.
I should be at home. I should be with my wife.
And dig this. These are the bodies they couldn't identify. Most bodies, they had drivers licences
in their back pocket, or dental records, or pace makers with serial numbers on them. Not in these
trucks. In these trucks, over two hundred people lie unclaimed. People who were lost to Katrina.
People with no tattoos or identifying features. People who were stuck in putrid water and late-
summer heat for weeks, decomposing beyond recognition. Their skin peeling off. Their fingers
being eaten by raccoons or dogs.
Some, they say, were bloated so bad their clothes had popped off. Bloated so bad that they had
trouble identifying them as male or female. All these people, waiting to be claimed. And one of
them could be Christopher. We're working on a schedule here.
I open the doors and pass the bolt cutter to Toby. Oh lawdy mercy, it doesn't matter how cold they
keep these trucks, because you can't stop the smell of death. I tell Toby to start work on the next
truck and I'll check this one.
He takes one look at my face and says “Don't look so freaked out, mon amis.”
He says, “What we're doing here is heroic. What we're doing here is for Chris. We representing the
people here. We're like Robin Hood or some shit, non?”
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I say. Just start work on the next truck, thanks.
“Alrigh', let's finish this.” He turns to go, “And when we get done here, I'm thinkin' we get a Bloody
Mary down on St Charles.”
When I look up, he's already gone. Not for the first time, I'm wishing one of us had thought to bring
a flashlight. Bracing my hands against the floor of the truck, I have to lift my leg practically to my
chest to reach the first step. The inside is flat out cold. It's so dark that it takes a moment for my
eyes to adjust and even when they do, it's still dark, but I think I can see the outlining shapes of
shadows against the walls. Outside, the clang of metal on metal lets me know that Toby's in the
Y'know, I read somewhere that the smell of death would have an almost floral essence to it.
Something flowery, maybe. Maybe I've been smoking too long, but all it smells to me is rotten
This isn't really where the story starts, by the way. Me – in a refrigerated truck, using the light of
my cellphone to guide me as I unzip the first body bag. This is sort of in the middle, I guess. The
person I see in that first bag has decayed pretty bad, but whoever it is has long hair so I know
that ain't Chris. The next person is in pretty good shape, but that ain't Chris either. The back of my
throat is burning, stomach acid is rising to my throat. I regret putting hot sauce
on my red beans
that evening, but I'm not going to throw up. I'm doing this for Chris. And this story, wherever it
starts, this story is for Chris too. I zip the bag up. I think about my wife. This was back when our
marriage still meant something.
You know how to make the perfect Bloody Mary? You need an ounce and a
half of vodka in a
highball glass. Tomato juice. Some worcester sauce. Horseradish. Tabasco. The idea is to sweat
out those nasty bar room toxins.
As I'm zipping and unzipping bags as I go, I'm looking at people and trying not to see them as people. You can skip the ice and celery, if you want. It just takes up valuable room in the glass
I'm on my seventh dead person, when I hear a noise outside. A crash. Metal on metal. And my
heart is in my throat, because I think to myself no way, no way, has Toby managed to make it all
the way on to the next truck already. Over the whirr and rattle of the refrigerator fan motor, I hear
raised voices and I'm perfectly still. Frozen in position. I stop breathing. I've never listened so hard
in all my life.
I hear Toby say, “Hey! We ain't doin' nothing wrong, brah. This school is public property.”
And a gunshot.
So call me a coward but that gunshot is the only thing that can get me moving. I zip up the bag.
Think of the endocrine system in your body. Think of the 'Fight or Flight' response. My hands are
shaking as I tuck my cellphone in to the back pocket of my jeans. In the cold air of the truck, I
suddenly feel too warm. Think of your wife. My heart is just about ready to leap out of my chest.
This was a bad idea. This was always going to be a bad idea. I'm listening again for a sound,
any sound, of what's going on outside but I hear nothing. I'm listening for the sound of guns. I'm
listening for the sound of Toby's cajun drawl, cussing out authority figures the way he's been doing
ever since I moved to New Orleans. I hear nothing. And all I can think of is, I guess we're not going
for Bloody Marys.
Taking a step towards the entrance of the truck, and a guy steps out in front of me. I'm cool. I'm
calm. Looking down at the man where he's standing, I can tell right away that he's not a cop, but
whoever he is – he's got a .38, and he's pointing it at my chest.
“Down on the floor.” he says.
“Listen,” I try to say, “I know what this must look like...”
“Down on the floor!” he says.
I look at him, and something ain't right. I was expecting military, I was expecting cops. This guy?
This guy is wearing Levis. His hair is pretty long and I don't know much about guns, but I know he
ain't holding it right.
“You're not a cop.” Is all I manage to get out.
And he shoots me. Even the NOPD aren't this trigger happy. I don't fall to the floor. Not yet. Think of the 'Fight or Flight' response. Think of the adrenaline, the noradrenaline, the cortisol. Think of
your wife. I stand there and watch, in slow motion, as the blood blossoms from a gunshot wound in
This isn't the story I want to tell you. This isn't even where the story starts. The story doesn't start
in 2006, it doesn't even start in New Orleans. It starts years later. It starts in my hometown. Look,
maybe I should start again.