We sit at the Fly, a patch of grass overlooking the Mississippi in New Orleans, and watch the bob and sway of an anchored tanker filled to the brim with barrels of light – barrels of light, sweet, West Texas Intermediate crude. My son’s fluttering feet send out elongated shadows like stilts across the grass before diving into the barge and for a moment I can’t remember where his mother has gone, something about frozen daiquiris or the oyster bar she waited tables at years ago...or something, sometime ago. So I set about explaining the nature of a Super Contango, how a crash in demand makes WTI’s future price greatly exceed its spot one, mainly because I think he’ll like the mythic nature of the word – Super Contango – but also because of what I’d tell him next: that age-old commodity trader’s tale of the poor naïf who forgets to roll the futures contracts over and so ends up receiving delivery of the physical thing itself, the bushels of wheat or corn or packages of pork belly left out in some suburban driveway, basting in the noonday sun.
But prices had gone impossibly negative, and though I imagine speaking the words I don’t, or if I do he doesn’t acknowledge hearing them. His incessant movement – the motoring glee of his feet, a fevered gnawing of a denuded popsicle stick – does not suggest excitement so much as a subconscious loss of hope, or a need to pee. He wears long silky blonde hair in a ponytail I don’t understand, and little watercolor-like smears of green corn syrup stain the sides of his lips that I want to lick up and swallow for myself. We can all be greedy; sometimes it amounts to love, of a kind, or even hallucination. Yet I don’t tell him any of this or reach out a hand or think again of his mother, not even as the setting sun shines across his pale face and threatens to disappear him in its bright blonde light. I don’t mention how she and I used to come here, sit on two cheap towels purchased at the Rite Aid down the street, towels with Disney princesses and mud stains, and how we’d eat Kraft Singles before they melted, make up stories about the future, share a box of lukewarm white wine, the way her sundress, when she finally sat up, formed a trampoline of sorts, stretched taut between her crossed legs as she reached over her knees for my hands. More than once she threatened to leave her job, come back, and I’d say, “But don’t you just like the idea of coming back?” – as one does – and she’d say, “But how will I ever know?” – and I’d respond lamely, “But come back where? If it’s just about options, I can give you options” – revealing then my dealer’s wide smile, each newly bared tooth a speckle of white gold. One time a plane traced across the sky, and I could hear her say something about how isn’t it weird that index funds now make it so all the airlines are basically owned by the same few large shareholders? One day it might even be one. “What does that have to do with anything?” I asked – though she’s always pivoting conversations midway, turning things around – and she said, “Well, all the planes just go around in fucking circles anyway, don’t they?” And we’d ended up nowhere again, another Sunday afternoon spent dozing, sipping light beer, lazily pontificating about how things work: toilets, engines, refineries, veins. I looked into the sun until my vision blurred and I couldn’t see anything at all anymore, nearly mistaking, once again, bodily manipulation for transcendence. My son’s foot comes down on his own shadow as his ankles dig into the grass. I am depleted. My once stalwart optimism for financial innovation has blown up into another sad, reductive philosophy: that maybe the problem is not a mere failure of democratization – an ostensible purpose, we thought – but simply one of space. There is nowhere to put anything anymore.
And so how can one tell whether the ship I thought to be an oil tanker actually was an oil tanker, or whether it might, to my son’s delight, be carrying loads of hard yellow-green bananas? It calls to mind long walks along Tchoupitoulas after leaving some Thursday-night happy hour, the wharf on one side and the International Longshoreman Union building on the other, then a Walmart, some new affordable housing complex with perfectly square little gardens. On one of those walks in college we passed a po’boy shop called Mahoney’s, and I got up on a friend’s shoulder and stole the sandwich-shaped sign; until we graduated, it hung in the front room of the house we shared. During Mardi Gras I found cocaine once on the street and rushed back home to snort it. And our senior year, we stole three mesh nets filled with oysters off the back of someone’s truck parked behind a bar in Mid City, the night after seeing Springsteen at Jazz Fest.
I don’t even like oysters, but they have this aura about them, this slippery briny promise of sex, sort of like how the tongue, when lifted up to the roof of a mouth, comes at you thick, bulbous, gurgling, alien, also hot. We walked off the fairgrounds that day directionless and with a fading day-buzz, that spacey ache of having drunk but not for some time. We couldn’t find a cab. It was, at dusk, still boiling hot, and we began to walk, disoriented from the three-hour show, towards where we thought was City Park.
Instead we found ourselves on a sidewalk perpendicular to a wide, busy boulevard. It didn’t even look like New Orleans anymore. It felt instead like Rome. Grandiose. A small, bourbon-toned wooden shack of a bar faced the gulf of incoming traffic, a remnant of some other world. Horse drawn carriages went by, and bicycles and motorbikes and buses, people in tie dye and suits, military personnel. By the bar’s entrance, someone boiled crawfish and corn. Steam spilled out about our sweat-filled faces. Metal-gray clouds thrust their way across the sky. It was just like nature to do this right as the concert ended, to act in such a way that invited some deeper meaning that was, when you thought about it even a little bit more, meaning’s direct opposite. As the dark gathered around us in front of the bar, a shiver of cool air, as preempts a downpour, slid through our wet t-shirts, up our pastel-colored khaki shorts, tickling us the way air conditioning might coming inside a hotel lobby on the hottest of days; it was like not knowing the difference between outside/inside at all, or what time it was anymore, whether the clock even started at 1 or 12 or 13 – especially for me, coming from the segregated seasons of Chicago to a place like New Orleans, where all year round the city tempted you to think nothing ever really changed even though it did. We stood under the bar’s awning as it started to rain and got to talking with the man boiling the crawfish. It didn’t take long for us to divulge our dilemma. He offered us a ride. All of us had been taught never to take candy from strangers, but once you’d taken drugs that dictum just seemed beside the point.
By the time he’d cleaned up and taken us around to the car, the rain had turned to a light hail. The white brick behind the bar made it feel momentarily palatial, and the night was hued in navy blue, no stars in sight, just a dark velvet curtain whose fuzz we could almost feel brushing up against our shoulders. One of us might’ve sat up in front with him but we elected to stick together. The rain and hail picked up. We could hardly see. We blinked and blinked, catching glimmers of rust-yellow streetlamps and jagged concrete. It took half the ride to realize we were sitting on these bags of oysters, but when we did we immediately, and without any thought at all, agreed to take a few for ourselves. We would host an elegant happy hour at the house – it wasn’t even 8 o’clock! – and invite girls, beckon their cool tongues with cheap champagne and popsicles and the promise of something forbidden. When we recognized the outline of some campus buildings one of us suggested throwing the bags overboard and collecting them later. At the first thunder’s roar we tossed one onto the front lawn of a friend’s neighbor (we missed our target). At the Rite Aid at the corner, we let out the next; it clacked and rolled once on the sidewalk before nestling up near a fire hydrant. Just as we turned the corner by Vincent’s, the Italian place our parents took us too sometimes on St. Charles, we slipped the last bag over the side. The deed done, we smiled through our shivering jaws. All of it felt free and right. We weren’t thinking about the future, not long ahead anyway. We had a feeling as though we could simply not veer too far from any path we’d had set out for ourselves, that no matter what we did nothing would be too bad or too good, that things would just keep tracking on their general trajectory: a bullish sign of youthful hubris, sure, but one that maybe never wholly goes away. Ours were the lives of coinage, collateral, junk-bonds, LBOs, exaggerated price to equity ratios where catastrophes no longer exist – the story of credit and leverage and making something out of nothing in a time and place and country where there seemingly weren’t any other options, even when you had all the options. This, the great illusion of our time, our persistent misallocation, the way I look at my son and then down to the cheap beach towel from Rite Aid before gazing at the setting sun, so hard and so long that tears fill my eyes and when I look down again all I can see are the remains of someone’s half-sucked green popsicle, bleeding out its green onto the grass.
I still, for the record, have blonde hair and a prominent birthmark on my left cheek, under my eye. A girl I dated after college said it gave me an extra something, or something, and maybe because of that I fall in love often, with waitresses and waiters and people at gas stations, malls, the voices of old Southern men on the radio. And why not? Could you really hate me for being so optimistic? For thinking that the tanker wouldn’t be anchored for long, that it’d ultimately reach its final destination? Or was this – the market’s stubborn cyclicality – just another spiral disguised as a ride, a Ferris Wheel stopped at night, its steel compartments filled with children and the fumbled beginnings of their conception? In the bluing light of dusk the ship seems to hang in the distance, its yellow, red and white lights flashing mutely like those of planes floating in the pitch black, absorbing everything, my joy and sadness and shame and grief and regret and love, lapping it all up and storing it for some vaguely desired sometime, until I, too, could disappear into it.
When we get off the back of the truck, it’s still storming. We’re a block away from where we live, on Pine Street, and in front of our house lies a fallen telephone line. We have the love of family and friends and no practical application, just hazy and fluid notions of character, like freckles and nice hair, legs like stilts, a well-made bet, menial summer jobs, a minor gap between two front teeth. The bags of oysters have been under a sheath of canvas; we cover this up before hopping onto solid ground. When we leave, we all chip in and pay the man 40 dollars for the ride. Having made the deal, we shake on it before watching him drive off. Then we walk together to Vincent’s and pick up the last bag we’d tossed aside. Someone has to pee. And we never do go find the other ones. What do we need them for anyway? We can always leave them be.