It’s nobody’s fault, Miss Clarice

In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.

One afternoon on St. Charles Avenue I saw a woman die, fall forward over the wheel of her car. “Dead,” pronounced an old woman who stood with me on the sidewalk a few inches from where the car had veered into a tree. After the police ambulance came I followed the old woman through the aqueous light of the Pontchartrain Hotel garage and into the coffee shop. The death had seemed serious but casual, as if it had taken place in a pre-Columbian city where death was expected, and did not in the long run count for much.

“Whose fault is it,” the old woman was saying to the waitress in the coffee shop, her voice trailing off.

“It’s nobody’s fault, Miss Clarice.”

“They can’t help it, no.”

“They can’t help at all.” I had thought they were talking about the death but they were talking about the weather. “Richard used to work at the Bureau and he told me, they can’t help what comes in on the radar.” The waitress paused, as if for emphasis. “They simply cannot be held to account.”

“They just can’t,” the old woman said.

“It comes in on the radar.”

The words hung in the air. I swallowed a piece of ice.

“And we get it,” the old woman said after a while.

It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy, in New Orleans as if in Port-au-Prince, and all the king’s men would turn on the king. The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness. “All we know,” said the mother of Carl Austin Weiss of the son who had just shot and killed Huey Long in a corridor of the Louisiana State Capitol Building in Baton Rouge, “is that he took living seriously.”

Joan Didion, South and West, 2017.