To get to New Orleans, you’re pretty much going to have to drive across a bridge. That’s what I was doing the morning of July 16, on my way to sign at Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop. I was still thinking about warnings from dead friends, and about balance and patterns and nice fans and fires and the theory of Eternal Return.
I don’t like bridges. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like flying. It’s not a fear of heights. It’s a loss of control. On an airplane or a bridge, your fate is taken out of your hands. When I drive across bridges, I tend to stick to the middle lane, as far away from either side as I can, and stare straight ahead, not looking down, not thinking about how I’m fucked if there’s a wreck or the bridge suddenly collapses.
Driving into New Orleans, it is impossible not to cross those bridges and think about the damage and devastation in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the seemingly post-apocalyptic aftermath. It’s impossible not to think about the hundreds of thousands of people who sat there, suffering, waiting for the government to help them—only to discover that help was not forthcoming and they would have to help themselves. It’s impossible not to think about the lawlessness and savagery on display in the weeks following that disaster—a brutality perpetrated by both civilians and the law enforcement and military who were there to ostensibly help and assist them. What we don’t tend to remember is how it wasn’t just New Orleans that Katrina devastated. Surrounding towns, parishes, and states were hit just as hard, but the media tended not to focus on them, because a flattened town of poor people in Mississippi isn’t as telegenic and good for ratings as a flattened city full of trapped tourists.
I remember Katrina. I remember it because I listened to it happen. I was out on tour, just like I am now, driving from Rue Morgue magazine editor Monica Kuebler’s house in Toronto, Canada, to a signing in Chicago. I had satellite radio and I listened to coverage of Katrina during the entire long drive. I had friends in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Some of them got evacuated. Others were trapped inside. Those who were trapped were irrevocably changed.
All because of those bridges.
Take a bridge away, and people become islands. That’s what has happened in this country now. The bridges that used to exist between us have been swamped and destroyed. Those bridges are overrun. They are burned down and blasted. And now, all across America, every day is post-Hurricane Katrina. We are divided along social, political, and religious lines. We have formed our own little islands, dependent upon which team we identify with. With our bridges gone, so is our dialogue and any chance for mutual respect or middle ground. Now we’re just islands. Law enforcement. Civilians. Black. White. Latino. Republican. Democrat. Conservative. Progressive. Christian. Muslim. Jewish. Atheist. Marvel. DC. Pepsi. Coke.
I got to the store a few hours early. Rather than stopping by and checking in, I decided to grab some lunch and check my email. Over a burger and fries, I learned that yet another signing had been cancelled—this time in Spokane. That feeling of impending doom returned. First I’d been orphaned. Then a bookstore had cancelled on me. Now another venue had cancelled on me.
“At least there aren’t any more fires,” I muttered.
When I got to Tubby & Coo’s, I learned that the store had caught on fire earlier that morning. It was an electrical fire, and although there was no flame or heat damage, the interior smelled like smoke and there was no electricity. The owners were heartbroken and apologetic. I could tell they’d been counting on this appearance to make some money. I knew there would be a crowd showing up. And I was goddamned if I was going to lose yet another in-store appearance.
“Can you use your cell phone to ring up credit card transactions?” I asked.
They confirmed that they could. So I told them that I’d be happy to sign books outside the store, and that’s exactly what we did. This was mid-July in New Orleans. It wasn’t just hot. It was fucking sweltering. But I didn’t care and neither did my hosts. I sat out there in the sun and the heat and signed books and took photos with everybody, and by the end of the signing, the store had sold out of Pressure and The Complex. We had a steady influx of people. Some were local. Others came from as far as Texas. I saw old friends and made new ones. I was given eight bottles of bourbon, a six-pack of craft beer, four books, a t-shirt, and a compact disc. I also got to see the interior of the store, and even though the power was off, and it was hot inside, and there was very little light, I was impressed. If you are ever in New Orleans, please do stop by and support Tubby & Coo’s. It’s a two-story building, and the second floor has been converted into an awe-inspiring children’s section with a wonderful, curated selection of age appropriate horror, fantasy and science-fiction titles.
When the signing was over, I hopped back in the Jeep and headed out back across the bridge. I was facing an eight-hour drive to author John Urbancik’s house. I was tired, running on caffeine and stubbornness, and wondering what else would go wrong, and how I would salvage it when it did. During that drive, I saw Trump signs and Clinton signs. I saw homes that had been foreclosed on and shuttered businesses. I saw four—four—police cars parked behind a lone black man in a BMW along the highway, and several passersby who had stopped to film the proceedings with their cell phones. I saw gut-wrenching poverty and obscene wealth. I saw bumper stickers proudly proclaiming the driver’s child was an Honor Student and other bumper stickers gleefully announcing that their kid beat up the Honor Student. I saw support for various professional sporting teams, but no support for each other as individuals. I was informed that #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter, and when I turned on the radio, I heard people arguing about which lives mattered the most. I saw signs telling me to repent because the end was near and billboards asking me if I knew Jesus Christ as my personal savior and graffiti telling me that there was no God and even if He had existed at some point, He was dead now.
I crossed many bridges between New Orleans and Tallahassee, but I crossed them alone.
Night fell and so did my spirits. Dread seemed to loom everywhere, suggesting itself in the most innocent of scenery. I became convinced that this tour was pointless, doomed to failure, and that nothing I did mattered. I thought about Charles L. Grant, dying broke in a hospice. I remembered when I was younger, and I’d attended a party at author Matthew Warner’s house. Myself, Mary SanGiovanni, Matt, Brian Freeman, and a few others of our generation had been standing in the kitchen, talking about how unjust Charlie’s method of passing seemed to us. And I remember the absolute gravity and fear in Douglas E. Winter’s voice when he stared at me and said, “Now you know what keeps us up at night, kid.” I thought about J.N. Williamson, dying in an old folk’s home with only his sister, Gary Braunbeck, and Maurice Broaddus at his funeral service, which was presided over by a preacher who informed them that J.N.’s life’s work had served the devil. I thought about Richard Matheson, still trying to write even as dementia ate away at his ability to do so (or so I’ve been told). I thought about Richard Laymon spending the morning writing and then collapsing in his kitchen. I thought about Pic and Jesus, and I thought about how it never ends well for us writer types. Nobody gets out alive, of course, but is it too much to ask that just one of us goes in our sleep with the knowledge that what we did actually mattered, and that we touched people’s lives with our stories about zombies and ghosts and vampires?
What the hell was I doing out here? It was the middle of fucking summer and I should be at home, playing with my son. I was wasting my life writing stupid pulp novels that would entertain people for a few days and then languish on the shelf of some used bookstore, quickly forgotten.
I, too, was an island.
When I reached Tallahassee, it was well after midnight. John was awake and waiting for me. I’ve known John over twenty years. He is one of my oldest and closest friends in this business. He was happy to see me. He had a glass of bourbon waiting for me. And he’d made cookies. Five minutes spent in his company, and my gloom had passed. I hung out with my friend, talking and laughing, and enjoyed the bridge over troubled waters, a bridge that only the bonds of brotherhood can build—and that no storm can tear asunder.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.