I knew Ashley by reputation in the months after the storm. The first words I ever saw by him were:
You do not want to fuck with pissed off New Orleanians. We’re the murder capital, bitches. We will rain that shit down on you.
and I thought this might be a man I need to get to know better. And we got acquainted at Geek Dinner I the first night I moved back to New Orleans after 25 years in exile.
But I think the day Ashley Morris and I became friends was during the first Rising Tide planning party at Dangerblond’s house. The group hadn’t yet thought up the “all agenda items must be addressed before the wine is opened” rule at that meeting, and conversation had degraded into a confused meandering mess, so I got up to go to the kitchen for a break from the madness and Ashley followed me. He dug in the fridge and pulled out an Abita Restoration Ale for himself, and dug out one of my giant bottles of sparkling water and held it out to me by the neck of the bottle, as if to say, “here, you look like you need this”. There was something in his manner, like an understanding. There was none of that awkwardness of the drinker around the teetotaler that those of us in recovery are used to dealing with. He just treated me like a normal guy and hefted the bottle towards me knowing it was my drink of choice. He treated me just like a drinking buddy, with no acknowledgement or sense of the difference between what he drank and what I had to drink, not knowing how much I had yearned for the past three years to have somebody treat me unselfconciously like just another drinking buddy.
And so we sat in the kitchen, he with his beer and I with my fizzy water, and we shared our very first of many “JEEZUS, what a clusterfuck this is” rants with each other. We like to rant. We like to curse. We got along great.
I knew I had found a true friend.
We did a lot of stuff together. Not nearly as much as I would have liked. We both had kids to raise, we both worked long hours and had to leave town regularly to work. We both jokingly called ourselves “roller derby widowers” when our wives were at practice leaving us home to watch the kids.
But the memories we do have feel legendary to me. We ate Dooky Chase’s takeout on the steps of the Lafitte Projects, in the rain, and no Michelin 4-star white tablecloth crap from out in the world could ever top that experience.
He took me to my first ever Thursday night Kermit show at Vaughan’s.
We spent a Mardi Gras day hefting kids up and down ladders, sharing food with total strangers, swapping my gumbo for some pork ribs on the neutral ground on Napoleon, and crashing out on my couch listening to the Treme brass band, feeling fat and happy with the world and with the feeling that many happy Mardi Gras lay ahead of us. The corner of Napoleon and Prytania is our standard spot; it’s going to feel empty next year.
I helped him get his first tattoo. I didn’t think it would be his last.
We fried turkeys together. We joked about the gay porn that was a running gag in the blog circles, and half-joked about our moral unsuitability to teach at a Catholic girls school.
When I lost my friend Evan to suicide, and I needed to get out of the house and scream and cry and rant at somebody, there was only one person I could call, and it was Ashley, and he dragged himself to Carrollton Station after midnight on a weeknight and stood me rounds of O’Doul’s while I stood him rounds of Abita and Jameson, and he patiently let me tell stories and laugh and cry and yell about a guy he’d never even met before. Because he was that kind of friend.
The last time I saw him, two Sundays ago, we spent a chilly afternoon at the Maple Leaf, planning a crawfish boil for the high school volunteers coming down from Maine in a few weeks, and drinking and kvetching and flirting with the bartender, as if two 40-something overweight happily-married geezers from the neighborhood had anything but harmless flirting to offer to a hottie with a pierced navel who liked to flirt back at middle-aged men. When I got home I stunk like cigar smoke. I hate cigars. But with Ashley, I didn’t care.
When I broke the bad news about Ashley to my kids, they were both upset, but Liam is taking it kind of hard. He idolized Ashley (“Big Ashley”, we called him, to distinguish him from all the girl Ashleys we know). Both he and Ashley were drummers and hockey goalies. Liam bought himself a bad-ass skateboard for his birthday last week:
decorated with a picture of a Mardi Gras Indian Spy Boy, and I said, “Man, you gotta show that to Big Ashley, he’d love it.” But he never got the chance. He’s still got the hockey stick Ash gave us, an adult size one so that I could do slapshot practice with the kid in the driveway. And he had his NOCCA jazz auditions today, electing to play “St. James Infirmary” as his prepared piece. Last night he couldn’t play it, said the song reminded him of the words and the words reminded him of Ashley and he got sad. I told him, “Just remember, buddy, that song is the blues. It’s supposed to be a sad song. It’s a song they play at jazz funerals, and Big Ashley is gonna have a jazz funeral, so if you feel sad when you play it, then play it sad and that will make it sound even better.” Reports are that he blew the judges away at his audition today. That was Ashley pulling strings to keep that reed from squeaking, I bet.
Last night I remembered something from Wednesday. Somewhere in the middle of the day Wednesday, the day Ashley died, before I knew he was gone, I got a weird tight pain in my chest. It started on the left, and slowly spread across my breastbone. I spent a tense 15 minutes trying to decide if it was just something I did to myself at the gym, or if it was something more serious.
Now I know. It was Ashley. He was on his way Home, and he stopped by where I was working and punched me real hard in the chest, just to be funny, just to let me know that I can’t go around thinking that he’s not going to be making things happen down here on Earth just because he’s up there with Zevon and Shavers and Satchmo. He’s gonna show up here and pull some strings here and there when he feels like it. Like my grandmother does with cardinals. Like she did with the 2004 Red Sox the year she died and they swept the Cardinals in the World Series in four games.
Watch them Saints this year. You’ll see.
His earthly self is going to St. Louis #3 some time next week, the cemetery right behind the Fairgrounds. His soul is going to a righteous place somewhere else. But I have no doubt that every year when Jazz Fest rolls around, if you hang close to that end of the neighborhood, you’ll hear an extra drumline coming from somewhere and maybe the whiff of Jameson and a Cubano. You won’t be able to see him, but you’ll know he’s there, drumming like mad and laughing his ass off.