Crescent City Connection by Daniel Webre

Her name was Facetia, or so she told me anyway. I met her on Interstate 10. She was hitchhiking, maybe stranded, and I was bored and curious, on my way to New Orleans from a city across the swamp.

I had picked up hitchhikers before. So it wasn’t just because she was a young woman and reasonably attractive. But those other times, I’d been drinking, which I realize now made it a bad idea for both of us.

I was barreling down the interstate in a mid-nineties Town Car—coal black. This was one of my rare excursions beyond the city’s limits. I had inherited the car from an elderly aunt and couldn’t really afford the gas or the upkeep. My aunt had also taken the name of the car quite literally. She confined herself to trips to the mall, church, grocery store—that kind of thing. She’d bought it new, and it served her well for the rest of her life. In return, she kept the mileage low, just barely breaking the ten thousand mark at the time of her passing.

It was the start of the new millennium when she died. I was between jobs and believed having reliable transportation might help. I thought it might change my life or my luck, and it didn’t take long before I had a job, though not one I liked, and a knack for steering the big car, even as I got lost in its plush leather interior. In Aunt Sally’s funeral procession, I drove behind the coach and the limousine from the church to the cemetery and home again.

So I felt quite comfortable behind the wheel the morning I stopped for Facetia. The car drove fast and built up quite a head of steam once it got moving. If I hadn’t slowed down and gotten into the other lane, thinking I’d smelled a cop, I might have blown right past her.

She had platinum blonde hair. It was long and caught my eye first. For a moment, I thought she might be an old lady, but like I said, I’d already started slowing down because of the cop—who wasn’t there, incidentally—and I could swear I thought she looked into the car and made eye contact, maybe smiled at me, and was sitting with her legs crossed on some kind of a trunk or platform. She had a pretty figure and wore black riding boots. I was able to stop just a few yards down the road and backed up down the shoulder toward her.

I kept her in sight in the rearview mirror. I didn’t want to hit her. She leaned over to grab whatever she’d been sitting on. It turned out to be a large backpack—olive green and canvas, like an army surplus model or something. She flung it over one shoulder and broke into a trot toward the car and wobbled ever so slightly because of those boots.

By now, I’d come to a complete stop and was waiting. I didn’t notice at first the six or seven dark-clad figures, probably male, that seemed to appear out of nowhere. More than likely, they’d been hiding in the bushes, knowing some poor fool would stop eventually for a blonde woman traveling on her own.

If I hadn’t happened to glance out the passenger-side window, I would never have seen them until they were on me, taking as they were a slightly different angle of approach from the woman. My first thought was to drive on, get the hell out of there, and back onto the road as quickly as I could before they got any closer. But on an impulse, I threw the car once more into reverse.

I watched the woman stop, startled, then begin moving toward the car again in a broad, sweeping arc that skirted the edge of the shoulder and met up with me at my passenger-side door. She was leaning over, knocking on the window, and I could see her uneasy smile, dark roots, and pretty face looking in at me. She must have been in her late twenties, no more than a few years younger than I was. Her smile was without a doubt directed toward me, but her eyes were preoccupied, unfocused, and seemed to be making calculations, all at once.

I lowered the power window enough to speak to her. “Get in if you’re going to New Orleans.”

She seemed hesitant, maybe outright nervous, and acted as though the bag she’d handled before with such apparent ease was now unbelievably heavy.

“Just you,” I said. “Not them.”

She glared at me.

I put the car into drive and eased up on the brake pedal until it just rolled forward—only barely, but enough to force her hand.

Her backpack suddenly became filled with feathers again and she tossed it into the car. Within seconds, she was sitting in the front seat next to me.

I let the car continue rolling forward before she could even shut the door. She got the message, closed it, and I was already hitting the gas, getting up to speed, and well out of earshot of all the curses, rocks and whatever else those men were hurling at us as we merged back onto the highway and made haste for New Orleans.

For the first few miles, neither of us said anything. She faced straight ahead with her backpack in her lap. She clutched it to herself as though it were a child or maybe a security blanket. I glanced over a couple of times but decided to stay focused on the road until she felt ready to talk. Her first words surprised me.

“This is kidnapping, you know.”

Her voice was exotic. I couldn’t quite place the accent. Maybe Latin? Eastern European? Who knew? I let the sound of it sink in.

“I thought you were hitchhiking.”

We were hitchhiking. Your car is big. You could have carried all of us.”

“If I had seen all eight of you, I never would have stopped.”

“We were only six.”

I didn’t bother responding to her at first. Within a few moments, though, I said, “I could pull over. Let you out.”

She seemed to consider this, then said, “No. The damage is done. We must go on to New Orleans now.”

“Suit yourself.” I’d stopped for her just before the Donaldsonville exit. We were fast approaching an elevated section of the interstate that went on for miles. We’d be over water until LaPlace. If she was going to change her mind, she needed to do it soon. I got the feeling though that she was starting to settle in. I could hear her rustling around, searching for something inside that backpack. Maybe she had a gun in there. I didn’t really care. If it came down to it, I’d give her the car. I didn’t see how Aunt Sally would mind, and maybe I would give hitchhiking a try myself, from the other side for a change. But what she pulled out was some kind of shawl, I guess from the Old Country maybe. It was white with a pattern of black reindeer or elk knitted into it. I thought it matched her hair.

“I can turn the air off if you’re cold.”

“I am fine now. Where is the seat belt? I would like to ride safely.”

In truth, I didn’t know. I assumed it had to be there. I had never ridden as a passenger in this car, not even when Aunt Sally was alive. “Look around. It should be there.” No one had ever said anything about there not being one.

She sighed and groped and gasped in exasperation. She was being overly dramatic in my opinion, but I just told her to keep looking.

Then I heard the click, and I knew she’d found it. That was when she decided to tell me her name.

“And those guys you were with?”

“My brothers.”

“All of them?”

“They are like brothers.”

I wanted to know more but didn’t think this was quite the time. We were just about to cross Lake Pontchartrain, and I think we both wanted just to sit back and enjoy that spectacular view—so much glittering water. It was my favorite part of the drive, and I wasn’t sure if Facetia had ever had the chance to experience it before. I liked that she seemed duly appreciative—of the view, I mean. I think she was still put out with me for driving off without her friends or brothers or whatever they were. All I knew was that I was willing to take my chances with this Facetia—having her with me was kind of thrilling, really. But all those hardheads—no way—I didn’t want to end up beaten to a pulp and left for dead in some marsh.

If she was still mad, she was at least calmer now. Her breathing had become more even, regular. She seemed to have a genuine interest in what she was seeing.

But then she started squealing and shifting. “Oh my God! That bird! It’s flying with a long, nasty snake in its feet!” She shuddered. She sounded like she was crying. But when I turned my head to get a better look at her, what I saw was more like shock and profound disgust. I hadn’t been able to see the bird at all.

“I’ll bet it was an osprey. They’re big like eagles. I’ve seen them carry fish like that.”

“It was a snake! A long, disgusting one. It was alive. I saw it trying to get away!” She made a new sound, a raspy moan, and I almost lost control of the Town Car. If I hadn’t known better, I would have guessed that that writhing snake had brushed itself against the exposed portion of her arm. She pulled the shawl closer to her body until the two edges overlapped across her chest. From then on, her interest in the scenery lessened, and she let her head slump, her line of sight directed toward the toe of one of her boots. “We don’t have snakes like that in my country.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. In fact, the next time I looked over, her eyes were closed and she was resting her head on the backpack. I felt disappointed at first. I was curious about my exotic traveling companion, who was becoming more and more attractive to me with each passing mile. I wanted to gain her confidence. But then I decided she must trust me to some extent if she was comfortable enough to sleep in my car. Or maybe she was simply exhausted and had no other choice. I was her only escape. But from what?

While she napped, I was able to relax a bit. I’d grown accustomed to long stretches of being alone, and though I liked having her with me, I was beginning to feel the strain of keeping another’s company. Still, I didn’t like the quiet. I’d turned down the radio earlier when I’d stopped for her, and now I was becoming aware again of a barely perceptible but garbled noise coming out of the speakers. The signals I’d tuned into were no longer discernible, and I wondered if I could find a New Orleans station. I raised the volume ever so slightly, but the static was making it difficult to concentrate. Finally, after adjusting the tuner, I detected the swell of a brass section. I continued easing the volume upward until I could clearly make out the sounds of the other instruments in the combo—piano, drums, bass, and vibraphone. I looked at Facetia. She twitched as though she might be dreaming. Then she wrinkled her nose and opened her mouth and I thought she was beginning to wake, but instead she made a kind of snort and continued to sleep.

I was feeling even better now, and starting to get more excited about the trip ahead. I didn’t know much about jazz—the town I lived in had only a smooth jazz station—but I began to imagine hanging out with Facetia on Frenchmen Street, making the rounds of the clubs together. The music was literally in the air, and if I hadn’t been much aware of it before, I was definitely beginning to sense the presence of New Orleans.

The gloomy, overcast day was brightening, and as the clouds parted, even the music was picking up. I wondered if this was a sign. I knew more than likely it meant nothing. How could it? But I looked again at the sleeping woman beside me, and I wanted to read something more into it all, as though this was a moment just for me and that there would be many more special times for the both of us ahead, and that once she woke up, we would both be able to know for certain that neither one of us was only dreaming. But then the song changed, and I realized what a fucking weirdo I was becoming.

Around this same time, I also noticed that a white pickup truck with tinted windows passing in the fast lane wasn’t loaded down with cargo as I had first assumed, but was carrying several passengers who were wearing dark clothing and sitting with their backs against the edges of the bed. A few others stretched out and reclined between them.

I couldn’t tell for sure, but they mostly appeared to be napping and worn out, and I wondered if it would be better to step on the gas or slow way down and let them pass. I’m not sure it really mattered, because the next instant, one of them was wide awake and staring at me with what I interpreted as intense anger. He began shaking the man sitting next to him until he too sat awake and, staring and angry, initiated a chain reaction of sorts throughout the bed of the truck.

At that point, I guess I must have panicked because I nearly floored it, passing the truck on the wrong side, just wanting to get the hell out of there before any more of those sleeping faces could wake up and menace me.

I noticed with some satisfaction that Aunt Sally’s Town Car had produced a cloud of black smoke under the strain, and though it was probably something I needed to get checked out, for the time being it made me feel like a spy or a secret-agent man digging into his bag of tricks to elude the bad guys.

The extra engine noise or maybe just the jolt from the sudden acceleration woke Facetia, and I felt glad that she had made the extra effort earlier to buckle herself in. She gradually drew up until sitting fully upright again, and then after an overly theatrical exhalation of breath, she rubbed her eyes and said, “Why are you driving like a maniac?”

I checked my mirror to make sure the truck wasn’t speeding up too, but I could no longer see it, even though the smoke had mostly parted. I was feeling edgy and sort of snapped at Facetia. “Hey, what do you even know about me? I’m a guy who picks up strangers on the highway. How do you know I’m not some kind of maniac?”

“Because you aren’t. Behave yourself and drive normal.”

I thought about what she said, but couldn’t decide how to take it. It was both an affirmation and an affront, it seemed to me, but I didn’t get a chance to brood because the truck was approaching again. It pulled up even at first, then forward just enough so that it was impossible to look out the windshield and not see the faces, torsos, and raised fists of a half dozen or so angry foreigners.

Facetia started making new sounds, like she was hyperventilating, but I was reluctant to take my eyes off the truck or the road to see what was the matter.

“Drive faster!”

“A minute ago you told me not to drive like a maniac.”

Drive. Faster. That is my husband.”

“Yeah? Which one?”

“The one with the gun.”

Sure enough, the one I’d woken first, and who I would have picked out as the angriest, was holding a pistol. But rather than pointing it at me, he held it up in the air at a sharp angle. He gesticulated wildly, indicating it with his index finger, I guess in case I somehow had missed it.

We continued roughly the same rate for several more miles. There were only the two lanes of traffic, so when I slowed down because of a car in front of me, the truck did too. I couldn’t see inside the truck—the tint was too dark—but whoever was behind the wheel had either been hijacked or was one of Facetia’s brothers. Who else would have made such an accommodating driver?

The traffic stacked up behind us since there was no room to pass. But when any other motorists got too frustrated and started zigzagging between lanes, it wasn’t long before they settled down again, dropping back once they processed the enraged man with the gun.

Meanwhile, Facetia regained her breath and was screaming at the top of her lungs, though that didn’t last for long. Soon she switched to a low moan that sounded so despondent I would have preferred for her to go on yelling. But then she spoke again: “What is the matter with you? Can’t you see that he is crazy?”

I wanted to tell her of course I could see that. But all I could think of was the injustice of it all. If I was normal, he was crazy, and they were married, then why were we traveling together at seventy miles per hour in my dead aunt’s car? Finally, I found some words and answered her. “Don’t you think he would have shot at us already if he was going to?” Facetia was quiet. I thought I might be getting somewhere with this line of reasoning. But the silence went on too long, and I had to glance over to make sure she hadn’t fainted.

She hadn’t. But for the first time she looked world-weary. The hitchhiking, the sleeping, the dreaming, the screaming—none of it had been enough to produce this look of utter bewilderment until now. It was as though she had left her own body and was hovering outside of herself, indeed outside of this very car, and was now looking back on everything from some more enlightened distance.

“Idiots,” she said, finally. “You are all idiots.”

I would have taken exception to this, but I’d been watching the road signs for the Interstate 310 exit. I didn’t think he’d shoot, and I’d been maintaining this holding pattern because I didn’t want to unveil my intentions. At the last possible second I swerved and noted with no small satisfaction that the truck continued forward while Facetia and I were curving up and away, transcending a forest of cypress.

Although I-310 was technically something of a detour, we could still get to wherever we wanted to go. But where was that exactly? What was I hoping to find in New Orleans?

From this height I could see the giant pillars of fire flaring up from the oil companies’ chimneys in the city of Norco. The town itself was an acronym—New Orleans Refining Company. Its reason for being—grim industry. I knew we didn’t want to go that way.

If we kept driving straight we would eventually cross the Mississippi River, but well upstream of New Orleans. And if we continued beyond that, we’d end up even deeper in the swamps. Clearly, we’d need to turn left toward the city at some point, but I didn’t want to see those guys or that gun again anytime soon.

Facetia was being unusually quiet, considering what had just happened, and I was curious to see what she had to say about it all. When I looked at her, though, I quickly turned away. I didn’t care for the scowl that had taken over her face. It was the mirror image of her husband’s.

“Now you are going to get it,” she said with a surprising lack of emotion.

I’m going to get it?”

“That’s right. He will hunt you, and I will tell him what happened.”

“And what, exactly, is that? I stopped to give you a ride. I gave you a chance to back out. And now some guy threatens me with a gun. What did I ever do wrong?”

“You never should have stopped.”

“Well, we can fix that.” I started pulling over onto the shoulder.

“What are you doing? You can’t leave me here.”

She had a point. There was nothing around but swamp and elevated highway as far as the eye could see. I eased back into my lane. “You’d better start working with me. Promise I’ll never see any of you again once we get to New Orleans.”

“Fat chance of that.”

“Why would that be? Why are you going there anyway?”

“That is none of your concern.”

I was getting nowhere with her, and when we finally cleared the swamp and could see the turn-off for Airline Highway—the most direct route into the city from here—I kept on going. She must not have been familiar with the roads or else wasn’t paying attention, because she didn’t complain until we were crossing the river at Luling.

“Are you sure this is right?” she said.

“Right? Right? What difference does right make? I haven’t done a single thing right all day.” And this was true. I should have stayed in town, gone to work in my Town Car, saved my day off for some time when I had the flu. But now Facetia seemed concerned, maybe scared even, and despite the extraordinary circumstances, I didn’t want to be the cause of that. “We can still get there from here,” I said. “I just wanted to put some distance between us and your husband. We’ll come in from the Westbank.”

She relaxed. “The Westbank. It sounds very nice.”

Again, I wasn’t sure if she was putting me on. If she was, I couldn’t tell from her expression. “I suppose it has its charms.” In fact, I was thinking of a couple of good Vietnamese restaurants in Gretna. It wasn’t what I had had in mind when I left the house that morning, but neither was any of the rest of this. “Are you getting hungry?” I asked.

“Like the wolf,” she said, emphasizing each word and playing up her accent so that the phrase came out something like a growl. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought she was flirting with me.

I’d gone to college in New Orleans, or a couple of years of it anyway, and so I still had a rough mental map of the city and its surroundings. I knew a lot had changed since Katrina. I’d only been back a time or two since then and never to the Westbank.

By the time I pulled off at what I thought might be the correct exit, Facetia had fallen asleep again but was waking with the change in speeds. She seemed to survey the storage centers, convenience stores, and half-deserted shopping malls with sleepy eyes and sat up straighter in her seat.

“Lovely,” she said.

“This is your Westbank. Part of it anyway.”

“Please take me to another part.”

“Patience. There’s good food to be found here.” I knew this was true at one time and hoped it was still the case. Even if we couldn’t find the restaurant I was looking for, this was New Orleans, or at least the metro area, and if there’s one enduring truth about this city, it’s that there would always be something good to eat.

But this was oddly becoming a point of pride for me. I wanted to impress Facetia, show her a nice time. Maybe even make her feel wistful that she would be going back to her husband soon instead of continuing on with me. I was no adulterer, and would never want to disrupt a marriage. But in the car it was just me and her, and well, it was easy to imagine a life that was somehow different from my own. I guess it was the loneliness.

The thin scrim of commercial development lifted and was shifting toward buildings designed for light industry. Facetia removed and folded her reindeer shawl, tucking it away inside her backpack again. And once more, the environment changed shape, becoming out of nowhere a residential neighborhood of small but well-kept brick houses with rose bushes planted in the front yards.

I’ll admit, it didn’t look like we were getting any closer to our lunch, and I wondered if Facetia might be ready to call me out on this. She wasn’t saying anything, but I did catch her shaking her head slightly, and at one time situating the fingers of both hands beneath her blonde bangs to apply invisible pressure points to her forehead.

But when I saw the back of the bowling alley, I knew we had arrived. Whether the restaurant would still be there waiting for us, however, I hadn’t a clue. I had to concede that not everything was within my control. I made the turn and steered clear of the numerous potholes, hoping for a pleasant lunch.

“Where is this you have taken me? It looks to be the moon.”

We bounced across the rough asphalt, not unfrequently to the sound of metal scraping concrete, and I cursed under my breath. Too many things to focus on at once. “Seems that way,” I said, dodging another crater-sized hole.

Clear of the bowling alley, I could now see a swirl of Vietnamese characters sweeping across the facades and awnings of the other structures. Up ahead there were cars in the parking lot near the area where I believed the restaurant to be. Another good omen. But vaguely I also recalled this particular restaurant operating on an unusual schedule, closing Tuesday or Wednesday or some other odd day of the week.

My thoughts elsewhere, I almost didn’t see the tall, old Asian man wearing something like a kimono but longer. He was moving directly into the path of the car. The train of his robe bunched into inky, cobalt ripples around where his feet must have been; but how he was moving them I could not say because his entire person seemed to glide across the pockmarked parking lot, as though he were hovering. He paused only briefly—long enough to look through us. As though Facetia, me, and the massive steel Town Car, with which he’d charted a slow-motion collision course, were completely immaterial and in no way a threat to his progress.

Apparently, Facetia found all this unremarkable, but then I realized she was preoccupied, inspecting her appearance in a handheld mirror, and I supposed she hadn’t even seen him.

I was right about one thing, the restaurant was closed on Tuesdays, which was strange in my opinion, but today was Thursday, so it didn’t matter. We could go inside and have Pho. I didn’t go for all the tendons and belly fat and such, but the broth was supposed to have anti-flu properties, and even though this wasn’t flu season, I figured one could never be too safe.

Once inside, I ordered a large bowl with sliced rare ribeye and well-done brisket. I’ll admit, I felt somewhat disappointed that Facetia ordered grilled pork chops and eggs instead of the soup. I believed this to be a far less adventurous choice. But I was still happy to have her with me and that she hadn’t insisted on a different restaurant in the first place.

When the food arrived, I couldn’t help thinking about what Facetia had said in the car. Hungry like the wolf, indeed. She took a pork chop in hand, and I watched aghast as she devoured the meat and gristle with equal enthusiasm. When I tried distracting myself with my soup, I almost drowned myself—the liquid going down the wrong way—when I thought I heard bones cracking. I composed myself, wiped my mouth, and sat silent and horrified as she started licking out the marrow.

Not wanting to be rude, I finally managed to ask her something. “Are you enjoying your meal?”

“Mmm,” she said, before starting in on the second chop.

Egg yolk had spread over her chin and little yellow rivulets were dropping off in places. I considered tactfully dabbing at my own chin with a napkin in hopes that she would get the message, but in truth, I found the sight repulsive.

“Excuse me,” I said, and pushed back from the table. I walked briskly toward the restroom as the soup, though delicious, began to bubble inside me.

The lone stall was occupied. I could see a pair of wooden shoes—clogs, really—of the sort they might wear in the Netherlands. Other than the gray wool socks that rose up from them, I could tell nothing about their owner.

I steadied myself. Merely being away from the table was restoring my sensibilities. There was a urinal, so I urinated. Over my stream, I thought I could hear the person in the stall mumbling. I flushed and heard it again: “Hot soup, motherfucker.”

Not sure how I should respond to this, and unaccustomed to speaking with strangers in restrooms, I pretended not to have heard anything, though I must have hesitated on my way to the wash basin when he said it again.

I felt relieved to see that my reflection looked more or less as I had remembered it, though more fatigued, more haggard.

I turned on the sink and a casual glance at the wall to my right revealed a bit of graffiti—the only graffiti in the restroom that I noticed. Printed in black marker were the same words that the man in the stall kept saying.

Without bothering to dry my hands, I left the restroom hoping not to hear him repeat it anymore, because the more he said it, the more I felt like I was in the soup and not the other way around.

It did not altogether surprise me to find Facetia gone from the table. The curious thing, though, was that while my unfinished bowl of soup remained untouched, her own plate of broken bones was missing.

I hurriedly removed two bills from my wallet, judging these to be enough to cover the cost of the meal and an appropriate tip, and I walked outside just in time to see Facetia’s backpack disappearing into the cab of a white pickup truck.

I did not get a look at the driver since the windows were darkly tinted, but the truck looped around in front of the restaurant where I was standing, and as it passed, it slowed down enough for the passenger’s window to lower, and Facetia leaned out and blew me a kiss.

I followed a fresh trail of settling feathers and found the Town Car’s own passenger-side window smashed, with blocks of glass glowing light blue across the seat and floorboard like tiny cubes of ice. I would have been more than happy to have unlocked the door for her.

Behind me I heard a clip-clop like horse’s hooves approaching. The sound stopped, then speeded up, then started getting louder. I rushed around to the driver’s side without looking and purposely maneuvered the car so as to avoid a chance glimpse in the direction of the sound. I was also careful to avoid the mirrors. And so as to keep the potholes from delaying my progress, I found another way out of that parking lot, this time exiting onto a service road.

The wind picked up through the broken window as I was gaining speed, and I imagined I felt flecks of glass abrading my skin. But that would have been impossible, because safety glass doesn’t shatter that way.

For a moment, I was unsure which direction I was headed. But then I saw a road sign that said New Orleans, and again I was on the Westbank Expressway. In the distance I thought I could see the double expanse of the Crescent City Connection rising majestically toward the buildings of the city, and I knew I would have to keep driving just a little further if I was ever going to remember what was waiting on the other side of that river.


Daniel Webre‘s short fiction has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Stoneboat Literary Journal, Permafrost Online, Emerald City, muse, Pinyon, and other places. He is the recipient of the 2023 Willow Review Award for Fiction and is a Pushcart nominee.