Art for True Story.
Andrew Durbin,  December 11, 2020

True Story

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A few months after Deepwater Horizon erupted in the Gulf of Mexico, I got rich in New Orleans by working the day shift at a high-class restaurant near the French Quarter. Tips were always generous, even in the dead heat of the off-season, when everyone fled for cooler climates. Most of my cash, a few hundred dollars a week, went toward college, the rest to food, coffee, books; I lived for free with my uncle. At night, I read novels in a café on Magazine Street, near the Irish Channel, and searched eBay for novelty items to give to friends once I returned to school in New York. Occasionally, I spent wildly on Hollywood props.

Most of it had been rescued from far-off cinemas, vintage posters and signed lobby cards, and wasn’t of much value. Sometimes FX artifacts surfaced: a plexiglass-framed mask of Nicholas Cage’s face from Face/Off (too expensive to bid on), a shell-casing from Terminator 2 (won, for $123.45 + international shipping), a signed tube of lipstick used by Robin Williams’s make-up artists in Mrs. Doubtfire (won, for $76.94 + free domestic shipping). I wasn’t personally attached to the objects I could afford, which were invariably mundane, easy to fake, just the cinematic landscapes from which they had sifted down into real life. I loved the idea that the smallest parts of these movies, many of which had fascinated me as a child, still survived in someone’s home.

What do you do when you dial the past?

The sight of Arnold Schwarzenegger blasting away a man from the future made of liquid metal had astonished me at the age of eight, and now I owned one of the rubber bullets used on set. I had to share the excitement. For Hannah, my best friend, I bought a yellow raincoat purportedly used in the background of one scene in Bladerunner—her favorite movie. (I can’t bring myself to admit what I paid for it.) For Tyler, my roommate, a plush toy from the closet scene in which E.T. surprises Drew Barrymore, a one-eyed bunny ($56.31 + domestic shipping) that, it turned out, does not appear in the scene when I re-watched it on YouTube. The internet houses an enormous cache of memorabilia and props, organized by resellers, collectors, and mostly anonymous users. I often wondered how these things from Los Angeles backlots found their way to individuals like tinymonkeys1967 in Red Rock, Montana, but their pages provided few specifics. I Am a Fan of Zombie Movies, Horror & Musical Theatre. I Collect Replicas & REAL Props from “GIALLO,” Hollywood & New York Broadway Icons. Available items: Elaine Stritch’s beret, Dario Argento’s monographed cigarette case. (I lost my bid on the latter.)

One evening in the café, near midnight, I read about a mystery involving Garfield, the orange cat who loves lasagna. The warm wet air was dense with mosquitoes and gnats, and the night sky above the Parish threatened immense rain from a tropical storm that would soon make landfall. The café was nearly empty, and the servers had stacked the outdoor chairs indoors, though on Fridays it stayed open until 2 a.m.

For years, on the west coast of France, in Brittany, thousands of Tyco phones shaped like the famous cartoon cat, its giant lazy eyes partly barnacled shut, have cropped up ashore. A British writer visiting France on holiday pondered, in his newspaper column, where they might have come from, and at last tracked down their source: a shipping container that had fallen from a barge in the mid-1980s, now lying deep in an undersea rocky alcove. Fishermen sold the phones at markets. Curious as to whether I might find one, I tooled about eBay without luck, then redirected my browser to other resellers, and eventually, just before closing time at the café on Magazine Street, as the protean hurricane churning above began to unleash its torrent, I found a Brittany Garfield phone on 1st Dibs ($35.53 + international shipping), from a seller in Rochefort, France.

A repurposed Amazon box, wrapped in layer after layer of packing tape, arrived a month later, in early September. The return address was not listed as Rochefort; instead, whoever sent the phone had posted it from Zagreb. Opening the box, I half expected to smell Atlantic brine mixed with rotting seaweed, but no, the phone was odorless. You wouldn’t believe it had spent so much time at sea. It retained its Garfield shape, a brilliant orange body covered in black stripes, with only the numbers and symbols on the dial pad replaced by new parts, as the seller noted in the original posting. One cheek was scratched; his eyes were rolled back in his smiling head and had crusted shut, giving him an especially pleased look, just as if he had smelled a fresh helping of lasagna. The thing, the Garfield, had been in the ocean nearly as long as I had been alive, and yet it was in “very good condition,” just as the seller promised. Except for the eyes, which were supposed to move when the receiver is lifted from the cat’s back.

My uncle had a landline in his office. He was in Baton Rouge on business and had left the house to me for the weekend. I unplugged his phone and replaced it with the Garfield, listened for the thrum of connection on the receiver, dialed one of the few numbers I knew by heart, my parent’s landline at their home in South Carolina, which over the decades they had ceased to use except to decline pollsters and argue with social security scammers.

“Hello?” my mother answered, almost immediately.

“Hey!”

“May I ask who’s calling?”

“It’s Andrew.”

“Oh, Andrew, honey,” she said. I heard the shuffle of papers on the kitchen table. I guessed her attention was divided between my voice and summer school biology papers to grade. “What’s up? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing’s wrong. I’m just at Tony’s. I got this hilarious new phone and I thought—”

“Tony’s?” A slight note of concern entered her voice. “Who’s Tony? What time is it?”

My uncle’s computer flashed the hour. “It’s about 2:30 here, 3:30 your time. And Tony, Tony your brother. What are you talking about?”

A long pause as she waited for me to say more.

“Andrew, this isn’t funny. Shouldn’t you be in school?”

She knew I was at her brother’s house for the summer. My father had watched me board the Amtrak train from the station near their home a month and a half ago, in June. Maybe she meant the Italian lessons I had been taking with an elderly neighbor, in exchange for me helping her with groceries and repainting her living room.

“No, I’m just at his house. The Italian thing isn’t really ‘school,’ by the way. I’m just working with that woman for—”

She cut me off: “You’re worrying me. What are you talking about? Are you high? Should I come pick you up? Where are you?”

“I told you: I’m at Tony’s.”

“Andrew, you’re really freaking me out. You’re high, aren’t you? I’m hanging up and coming over to Mauldin right now, OK?”

“Mauldin, why Mauldin?”

“That’s where you should be! Where are you!?”

“Are you high? I said I’m at Tony’s!”

Her anger crackled across the line. “What are you talking about? I’m coming to get you now. You better be in the front office in twenty minutes. I’m leaving now.”

The line went dead. I looked at the receiver, just like a character in a movie might, the warbling, anxious strings of a violin playing in the background, and set it down. I had not been at Mauldin, my first high school, since 2004, six years ago. Was she pranking me?

I called back, no answer, she must have left the house already. I unplugged the Garfield, found my phone charging in the backroom, rang her again, this time her cell:

“Hey, honey, what’s up?”

“I just called you on the landline.”

“Oh, you did? Dad might have unplugged it. You know we’re getting like fifteen, twenty calls a day.”

“Weird, weird. So, we didn’t just talk?”

“Are you all right? Did you need something? How’s Tony?”

“So, we didn’t speak, just now.”

“No, why? Did someone answer? Maybe your sister?”

“It wasn’t Abbey. I thought it was you.”

“Are you sure you didn’t call the wrong number? I’m in the kitchen now, actually. Let me . . . hang on.” I imagined her walking to the phone hanging near the kitchen table to check if it was still working. “Yep, not plugged in. Dad’s thinking of uninstalling it. I’ve been here for the past fifteen, too, making a late lunch, so I would have heard if you had called.”

“OK,” I said. My stomach dropped. “I have to run. I’ll talk to you later.”

I can’t remember when I became aware of Garfield exactly, though when I concentrate on his orange smirk, I first see him as a nylon cut-out, spread-eagled and suckered to the backs of minivans and trucks on highways in the early 1990s. Bright American sunshine out of which the face of Garfield shone as glimmering ubiquitous symbol of what? I remembered sometimes staring blankly at him at traffic stops, when another car sidled ahead of ours, a Garfield attached to the rear window, not knowing whether he was meant to be funny. His grin withheld secret knowledge concerning boredom and hunger, mixed up with how adults puzzled about their lives in offices and at water coolers and in sunrooms on Sunday. Later, I knew he could be found in comic strips in newspapers, where he complained about Mondays and exercise and played sly tricks on his owner, Jon. Now I felt like I was in one of his games.

What do you do when you dial the past?

First, I didn’t believe it. Though a heat warning was in effect from the Mayor’s office, and the city had warned everyone to stay indoors until 4 p.m., I changed into my running clothes and headed for Tchoupitoulas, which rings the river’s U-shaped bend. My heart was thumping in my chest before I even stepped into the humid air, which smelled faintly of petroleum. (Deepwater Horizon was still ruptured off the coast, but the source of the smell was the small city of refineries south of the river.) I laced my running shoes, rolled up my sleeves to expose my shoulders, lathered my arms, face, back of neck, and calves with thick, zinc-heavy sunscreen. Barack Obama was touring the Gulf to promote local business, even though the beaches and swamps were covered in unrefined oil, a de-oxygenated cloud moving through the sea killing off fish and shrimp. The five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a few weeks away, with only somber events planned in commemoration. A Second Line funeral parade for a bassist struck by a drunk driver had just ended in the Quarter. My Garfield phone from France, or Croatia, had possibly, just possibly, called my mother in 2004, when I was fifteen, a freshman in high school.

She texted me as I took off: call worried me. u ok? xo mom

it was strange because the woman i spoke to talked about Mauldin. she sounded like you.

weird. did u get her name?

no.

must be wrong #.

I headed uptown on Tchoupitoulas, past warehouses and shuttered buildings, along the floodwall. The street, in 2010, had yet to gentrify as extremely as the rest of the lower basin of uptown, though it was beginning to, with some cafes and restaurants creeping closer and closer. Had it really happened? Of course not, there must be a logical explanation, I had called the wrong number, reached someone with a son or nephew named Andrew, too. You will not appear on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, or require psychiatric evaluation, I told myself as I rounded Jefferson Avenue and headed north to St. Charles, my shirt soaked with sweat. I must have called the wrong number. There must be hundreds of people in my parents’ area code with relatives named Andrew, and anyway the universe favors coincidence, it was full of such stories of unthinkable occurrences, chance encounters, random convergences. The opposite of the usual Garfield comic, really, where Garfield and Jon replay the same few scenarios again and again, griping about food, contemplating their lives within the square, making snarky jokes. But then, I was no expert in his antics.

One about time travel that I later read online: Jim sits with a book and asks, “I wonder if time travel will ever be possible?” Garfield thinks, I hope so. And then, in the third panel, Then I’ll be able to come back and avoid this conversation.

His grin withheld secret knowledge concerning boredom and hunger.

Millions of stray Mardi Gras beads dangled from the heavy, mossy branches that canopy St. Charles, a vast avenue lined with ancient mansions, many of which have been converted to hotels. After weathering the hurricane season’s early storms, most of the beads had already lost their luster, though some, with chunky fleur-de-lis pendants and tiny theater masks and sports team logos, still glimmered in the sunlight, netted among the more mundane necklaces of traditional stripe—purple, yellow, and green. Some had fallen to the pavement from last night’s rain—another squall that billowed through the city, one of many since June—and they lay in clumps before my feet, knotted with sticks, leaves, and moss. I stopped and stood on the grass of one hotel’s lawn to stretch and catch my breath. 

By entering the past, you fundamentally change the present and so the future, I’ve always been told. An encounter with yourself or the people who know you might produce a temporal cataclysm so great it could destroy the universe, or at least you. I have no memory of my mother arriving at school, at the start of my freshman year, to chew me out for calling her to tell her I was in New Orleans with her brother. Perhaps she had never gone to my high school to check whether I was stoned, chalking up the phone call to an innocent prank from her idiot son. Nor did I remember ever coming home to her wondering what I had been thinking in ringing her that afternoon.

If I altered the past, then by now I would have fully absorbed those changes, even the subtlest ones, and wouldn’t be the same person who made the call in the first place. That Andrew, Andrew-1, was possibly deceased, or best-case-scenario for him, split from my timeline, timeline-2, and on his own path. Perhaps we differed so little. Perhaps all theories of time travel were wrong, the universe hadn’t split, nothing terrible had occurred in space-time, I was singular, myself, the only me in all realities. I sped home.

The front door was locked, and my key didn’t work. When I peered through the office window, I could see the Garfield in its box, just where I had left him. My uncle kept a key in the back, under a loose pavement stone. Inside, the house looked the same, everything in the guest bedroom was recognizable as mine, as things I had brought with me to New Orleans or purchased while here: the movie-magic bullet hole from Terminator 2, Robin Williams’s chunky costume jewelry from The Birdcage. John Travolta’s Face/Off mask, with its plexiglass case, was still in its plastic bag in the closet. 

I plugged Garfield into the landline again. I dialed my own number, which I had changed only this spring, long after 2004. Connection. It rang, rang, rang, no voicemail yet. I returned the receiver to its cradle on Garfield’s back. My heart raced. I was having a panic attack or a psychotic break with reality or something else, something that had never happened to me before.

The Garfield rang.

I stared at the plastic cat. Its body vibrated as its mechanics worked to emit the screech of an old telephone ring. I had half expected it to meow.

“Where are you?” my voice asked on the other line.

“My aunt’s house. In New Orleans.”

“And what year is it?”

“2007,” I said, not so confidently. 

“Tell me the day.”

I didn’t know my heart could beat any faster than it was. “It’s June 4th. Where are you?”

“My brother’s house.”

“In New Orleans?”

“In New Orleans.”

“What’s the date?”

“2010. May 19th.”

“When did you move in with your brother?”

“Not my brother. My sister.”

“You just said your brother. In New Orleans?”

“Yes, I moved here in 2011. You?”

“2014, at the end of high school.”

“Do you go to school in Louisiana?”

“California. Are you in school?”

“Mississippi State.”

“When do you graduate?”

“I already did. How about you?”

“Next year.”

“I’m hanging up.”

“OK.”

“Don’t call back. Throw the phone in the river. You know that one spot, near Audubon?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll do the same.”

I stuffed the Garfield in my backpack and unlocked my stepfather’s bike from under our wraparound porch. The city’s heat advisory was nearing its end, and our neighbors were beginning to drift outdoors, into the pinkish haze of the summer evening. A mild breeze lifted the smell of smoldering plastic from the streets. A few days ago, someone’s house had caught fire and burned to the ground. I swore the ash still found its way into the air. I peddled as fast I could on Camp in the direction of Audubon Park, part of which abutted the river.

Andrew meant the concrete area where men liked to fish. The dark brown river thundered heavy and full, sloshing against its concrete pen, fueled by floods in the upper Midwest. It would be the start of the long dinner hour in New Orleans soon, and the bank was clear of fishermen and the teenagers who liked to drink at what passed here for shoreline. I reached into my bag and, against my better judgment to never pollute the American waterways, threatened as they are, tossed the Garfield into the Mississippi, where it bobbed, then finally sank under the waves.

Andrew Durbin is the author of Skyland (2020) and MacArthur Park (2017), both from Nightboat Books. He edits frieze magazine and lives in London, UK.

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