Living in the alleys in the Quarter, near the French Market, there is a cat named Benjamin Suitcase, who is said to grant wishes. Mr. Suitcase also has a penchant for pranks, and, to say the least, to trust him is a bit of a risk.
I am not certain I would have sought him out, but on the day I encountered him, I had little left to lose. It was a Tuesday. I had a champagne headache, a broken heart, and half a flask of bourbon in my pocket. The sun was unapologetic, and the sticky aroma of beignets wrestled the cigarette smoke and hot pavement smell. The result was a strange, dirty gourmand. I was not drunk. I was heartsick. Often, it is the same thing.
Benjamin Suitcase was perched on an overturned cardboard box in an alley, smoking a pungent cigar. I heard him speak before I saw him. “Your slip is showing,” said a gravelly voice in that native New Orleans accent, not quite French, not quite Spanish, a little African, certainly not Southern. I looked down. My slip was showing.
But then, my dress was torn, my shoes were dirty, and last night’s eyeliner had presumably migrated to my cheeks, so what did I care? I pulled my arms into the straps of my dress and then pushed them out again in that way every woman is adept at. It’s never taught to us, but we all learn it: the shedding of unwanted undergarments while remaining otherwise clothed. I reached under the torn pale blue skirts of my once-lovely dress, tugged, and unceremoniously stepped out of a plain, white slip. I laid it down on the dirty pavement and sat on it, facing the cat, my back against a wall.
“That wall is disgusting,” said the cat.
“Everything is a little disgusting,” I responded, and then, “Where is your other eye?”
The cat was sitting upright, wearing a filthy, tattered waistcoat. He was a muddy grey color, with longish fur that, despite the state of his dress, looked well-groomed. He was not handsome. One of his front canine teeth had been broken off, giving the effect of a peg-legged pirate attempting a waltz, every time the cat spoke. He watched me back with a single, glowing, unnaturally clever yellow eye.
“My other eye was stolen by a dragon. If you bring it to me, I will grant you a wish.”
“I have heard of you, Mister Suitcase,” I said, “and I am sure it is not so simple as that. Likely, the dragon has eaten your eye, and I’d have to climb into its belly to retrieve it. Likely, you’ve struck a deal with this dragon, agreeing to feed to it the good citizens of New Orleans in exchange for unlimited drinks at Lafitte’s, or something like that. For all I know, you’ve got your eye safely tucked into your pocket.”
The cat laughed, low and gritty. “Well, what’s in your pocket, Cher?”
I produced my flask and handed it to him. This is how I know the cat was magic: It did not matter that he could speak or smoke or wear clothes. But to watch him, without any thumbs to speak of, unscrew the cap of my flask and take a swig was pure sorcery; it had to be.
“What is it you wish, Cher?”
I thought for a moment. He handed the flask back to me, and I drank. I set it on the ground between us; an invitation, an offering. I looked down at my dirty hands. I wiped my mouth, the last of my lipstick smeared across the back of my wrist. I hugged my scraped, bloody knees to my chest. Then I released them. I had spent the night climbing walls again, scaling as high as I could get, and then hopping rooftops and balconies.
“I don’t know where to go, Mister Suitcase,” I said. “There is nowhere left to live.”
“Ah yes, Cher, we suffer from the same affliction.” The cat’s single yellow eye took a sympathetic gleam. “This is what you must do: In order to live in the world, you must fall in love with it. Not just once, but over and over again.”
“And if I can’t?”
“Then you will die. And creatures like you and me, we die terrible deaths, Cher. Nasty business. Best not to do it at all, if you can help it.”
I scraped some of the dirt away from the skin of my knee with my fingernail. Did the cat know? Did he know what I had been hunting, all these nights?
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a glass marble, and offered it to me. I held it up to the light, rolling it between my thumb and forefinger. It was a small, cat-sized glass eye, yellow.
“Take this,” said Benjamin Suitcase. “When you need, place it on the ground, go in the direction it rolls. It’ll tell you where’s next.”
I stood up and brushed off my dress, the eye firmly tucked into my fist. I left the flask and the slip. It was blocks before I realized I was no longer wearing any shoes.