She started at the departure gate—blacked out, the blank space amplified by the endless line of mirrored hallways, the aluminum-edged escalator, its teeth the oily mouth of the silent room. Her body a ridged skeleton in a coffin too big, she tried to find comfort in the touch of stuffing herself to sleep between the arm rails of a vinyl bench, but it was submerged in the giant bank of windows, each pane curled like fingers into the rafters, the coldness of the city at her back. She wanted to be a shadow, an animal playing dead, until the sun broke open the breathing world.
“You been mistaking the forest for the trees since the day you struck your momma down,” her grandmother rasped into the phone, when Emily said she was returning to Montgomery, returning to the drag of her grandmother’s slack-knee house, its tabby cats and French hens.
She remembered being eight years old, one of many Campfire Girls, walking to the bathroom two-by-two, like animals headed for the ark, both born of the night, only the light of the moon to move them. Emily sighed. There were still thirteen hours to the end, and she couldn’t while them away pretending to be a stone in a cave. So she walked the escalator downstairs, her boots and suitcase barreling the teeth blunt, and found a bench at the arrival gate, racked by fluorescent lights, posters of Mardi Gras masks, of people in the narrow streets, outlined in beads, the churning metal of the baggage belt, strangers dressed mostly in flannel and jeans, waiting for taxis within the airport’s warm belly.
“Wait, come on. Wait up, asshole.” A barrel-chested man in a lamb’s wool coat, his face bloated and pink, fumbled with some coins in his hand. “I gotta call Sharon, gotta tell her where you dragged me.”
A man with a caterpillar mustache laughed, slapping the man who wanted to call Sharon on the back. “Ain’t no phones here, man. You gotta focus—get ready for the real thing before you give it all up for a real cock tease.”
The man who wanted to call Sharon searched the walls, but finally conceding defeat, he let go of the coins, dropping them to the airport’s terrazzo floor, each tin sound snuffed out by the movement of everything and everyone leaving.
The mustached man grinned. “We’re gonna find out how many ways a girl in New Orleans knows how to use one a these things,” he said, pulling two cigars from his coat pocket as they walked to the taxi cue.
There were so few people still in the airport—mostly employees and security—that Emily decided to stow her luggage at the bench and follow the two men. Outside, she kicked her boots against the windows, the painted snow and Santa Claus, Christmas trees and holly, flaking off the panes. She lit a Pall Mall with the matches she got from the bar and kept her eyes on the taxi stand, where a small boy was setting up a Casio keyboard. Next to him, in matching coveralls, a tall man with a white beard slowly shifted tobacco around his jaw. He spit into a can of Coke, and set the can on the ground next to a red painter’s bucket. The tall man cleared his throat as the small boy struck the first key of “Hotel California.” He played it in a creeping melody, and the tall man sang slowly, he sang it as an elegy, his low voice silencing every other sound in the city.
Emily held her smoke in, its escape a signpost of the end, a passing of time, which the tall man had halted with his song. He sang from the perspective of the ghost, of everything left alone and haunted in this world, and everyone on the platform stopped to listen, even the two loud men who didn’t call Sharon. Looking at the ground, the slate tiles like vertebrae along the veins and arteries of the tall man’s song, she imagined the swollen streets of New Orleans, the air conditioners slumped in the windows despite the winter, the slinking homes, bloated and bright, stretching along the spine of the city. The tall man’s voice and the small boy’s melody hurt; Emily felt the gravity of their song and all the nostalgia it brought forth, all the sadness of the collapsing world rushing toward her. She snuffed out her cigarette, half smoked, and went back inside.
Curling herself between the bench rails, Emily pulled the hood of her jacket over her eyes and leaned into the space between her arms. The song still played inside her skull, each note a heavy marble falling from a cliff she couldn’t see. Eventually, the death march ended and gave way to the dream of Emily, alone, in a large white room. The walls and carpet like bone, and the porous feeling was repeated by the endless rows of windows shaded in lace—every piece patterned the effect of breathing. There was a cream-colored sofa, shaped like a hipbone, its body stuffed with feathers in some parts, starving in others. And on this sofa was Emily. Her long hair frayed at the ends, each strand a hook seeking an eye on her pointelle dress, its hem reaching the floor. The room a fragile skeleton, everything a space of sound, until the door knob began to frantically turn. Emily saw a shadow shift beyond the windows, beyond the hazy world of the lace curtains, and then disappear. She walked to the door, the calm pace of a dirge, her pale boots sinking into the carpet. On the porch, there was a box. She pulled the bow, she pulled the tongues open, but the box was empty.
Emily shook herself awake, away from her reverie and back to the arrival gate, awake to the tallest boy she’d ever seen standing over her, his legs longer than his pants, his red socks and Nikes like music notes on the bars of his legs.
“Evening,” the tall boy said. Emily looked from his sneakers to his face, the fluorescent lights a blinding halo behind his wide grin and valet cap. “Everyone else gone, girl, so we’re speculating that you’re here waiting on me.” The tall boy turned to the taxi stand, where two men, both fat and gray-faced, watched their exchange.
“On my way out.” Emily pulled herself up, still groggy. The boy’s face, the origin of his words, was so far away, in all that bright light, Emily felt like she was talking to the sun from the bottom of a well.
“Well come on, the last two cabbies are about to go home.” The boy grabbed Emily’s suitcase, leaning towards the door.
“Not going that way.”
“But there ain’t no planes coming until morning.”
The boy grinned and shook his head. “Girl, you too small to sleep here. There ain’t nothing good coming round tonight.”
“No use worrying when nothing’s happening.”
The boy laughed, high and sweet, his face still so far away, a balloon on a string. “Girl, if I leave you here, and you go missing, that’s on me.”
“There are worse places to be than missing.” Emily pulled the hood of her jacket away from her face and squinted at the tall boy.
“You a stubborn little thing.” The boy took his hand from the suitcase handle and leaned towards the vinyl bench, lowering his long body into the seat next to Emily. “Where’d you get that coat?”
“You got some style—make men’s too?”
Emily looked at the small pins decorating the tall boy’s uniform—a fried egg, a satellite, a teddy bear. She looked at the red bandana tied to his neck, beneath the shirt collar. “Never tried.”
“I gotta go back to work for a little while, but then I’m going out, and you’re going with me.”
“And you just warned me about the no-good coming.”
The boy grinned again. “I’m not bad as all that. Name’s Lovie— I’ll be back round.” The boy stood up from the bench, his long legs finding their place beneath his body before the whole of him moved away and back to the taxi stand, his step low and jaunty, a dance that stayed in his hips and feet, the rest of him ironed out plain, hands and knees asleep.
For only a little while, Emily considered leaving. She hauled her suitcase back to the departure gate, smoked a cigarette on the unlit dock. But it was too windy outside, too cold, the thin air hibernating within her body, staying dormant in her bones.
She wandered the far corners of the airport, settled into a hallway where the benches were pulled from the windows and tucked between two x-ray booths. There, a mother was asleep, her round body stretched beneath pink polar fleece, two small children sheltered under her strong arms, only their shiny brown hair outside the safety of her breast. Emily imagined being protected by the mother’s proximity. But as soon as she eased into a chair next to the family, she saw Lovie shuffling towards her, a mirage, his legs and body engaged in its two separate dances.
“You’re stubborn as a mule,” he said, shaking his head.
“You hunted around for the only good people you could find.” Lovie tilted his valet cap at the mother and children.
Though Emily hadn’t much imagined the kind of car Lovie would drive, she definitely hadn’t thought it’d be a shiny, new thing, its face a shark bearing teeth. From the bucket seats, the windows were so high, Emily couldn’t see the street, so she watched Lovie in his valet cap, his long arms, his hands steering. She watched the sky, the holes for stars, all those old souls hanging from the hoops of eternity, eyes on the world, waiting for the resurrection her grandmother said was coming. The world was a strange place to be, made all the worse on the road to Montgomery.
“Can I smoke one of these?” Emily tapped her nail on the box of Pall Malls.
Lovie lowered the music, the blue-lit dial eclipsed by his long fingers. “What do you think?”
Emily sighed. “Well, are you holding anything?”
Lovie laughed. “What you mean—anything?”
She turned her eyes from the sky to the dashboard, the lights and buttons there own strange landscape. “You’re fancy for a valet.”
Lovie laughed again and pulled his valet cap further down his forehead. At a stop light, he leaned over Emily and turned a small key in the glovebox lock. Inside, like a jewelry case of the most beautiful ornaments she’d ever seen were small sacks, green vials, and clear bottles with cork stoppers, all full of bright-colored shapes.
“Not that fancy.” Emily laughed and carefully chose a bag, one that looked fuller than the rest, and a small mirror, before Lovie returned the lock to the box.
Lovie whistled a low melody. “Girl, you’ve been around some circles in New Orleans.”
“Got by for a while.” Emily tapped the bag against the mirror, her face close to the reflection.
“Not long enough.”
“So why’re you leaving?”
“Not getting by anymore.” Emily pulled a postcard from her jacket pocket and tapped it against the mirror, separating the powder into strict paths.
Lovie shook his head. “No one watching out for you?”
“No one fancy as you.” Emily laughed and breathed in the four lines evenly.
“You’re living loose, little thing.”
The road changed, and Lovie pulled the car to the curb when everything started to become too shaky. From the window, the sky transformed into lean wooden buildings, the wiry porches hung with great green ferns and ivy. Emily could hear a brass band down the street, banging through midnight, the horns high and light and sweet.
“And your the magic man.” She passed him the mirror.
“Nah, I still got things to do.” Lovie grinned and put the baggie in Emily’s coat pocket.
“You’re making my last night in New Orleans.”
“Come on little thing, we’ve got to beat.” Lovie pulled Emily from the bucket seat and into the pitch and slink of Frenchman Street, into a low-hung building, its two windows blacked out and filthy.
There was a line around the building, a mismatched crowd, all anxiety and bad clothes, the unusual faces watching as Lovie lead Emily through the labyrinth of bodies to a door, and another blacked out window, nailed with metal grating.
“Lovie man, long time coming.” The doorman hugged Lovie, the fillings in his mouth catching the light of the street lamps and a giant toilet seat hanging from chains at the entryway. “Another Susan?”
Lovie and the doorman looked at Emily, their large faces, two broad moons, amplified by the expanding blackness of Emily’s eyes.
“Looks about good.” The doorman laughed as Lovie passed him a bag.
“What’s that for?” Emily pressed her fingers to her lips and pointed at the toilet seat suspended above her head.
“Baby, you’re at The John.” Lovie kissed his palm and slapped the golden toilet seat before walking through the door.
On the dancefloor, Emily felt nothing beyond the heavy beat of a song she’d never heard, her leather boots pounding steady on the concrete, matching the pace and decadence of the progressions around her. A sea of faces, bright-lipped and glittered, all hands and eyes, the momentum of the room shifting against the pitch and pull of the front door, of another body on the dancefloor, bones stacked against each other, into each other, each groping against another. Emily wanted nothing more than to break apart completely, into a million specks that could bind to every single body. Submerged in the ache of limbs, wanting farther into the crowd, wanting the tongues and hips to detach from the forms they came into creation with, seeking some new subterfuge, some operation where the whole of the world, the whole of the room, could be consumed, leaving everything to fall mute.
But before all that could begin, the song was over, pulling the momentum of the dance to its end, leaving the dancefloor to rebuild again to a new beat, a new construction of timing. Emily watched Lovie watch Emily watch Lovie shake his legs compulsively against the climbing rhythm; she watched him bind his fingers around his mouth and breathe air into his palms, bringing lightness back to the room.
“You dance like you grin.” Emily smiled, toothy and raw, her eyes gaping black holes in her skull.
Lovie danced like a wild man—his wildness the mood of the dancefloor, the break between the absolutes: the vinyl skirts, the mouths and hands that wandered without accident. Lovie bit his lip, dropped to his knees, his face expressionless, painted on, wooden and strong. He pulled a pill from his pocket, this one red, then blue, then green, beneath the breaking lights. He put his fingers to Emily’s mouth, a hold of silence while she swallowed, and the room began to spin again. Emily became the still point of the shifting room, watching herself, watching herself dance next to Lovie, watching herself, watching herself suspended from the ceiling.
When Emily was as high in her dream as she thought she could be, Lovie grabbed her hand, pulling her quickly from the dancefloor and into the early morning, the rush of air on her face, the creeping silence of everything closed up on Frenchman Street except for the sun at its beginning. On the slate sidewalk, forgetting her coat, forgetting Lovie, Emily felt the full force of the waking world devour her, the vertigo, a seasick feeling, dizzy from the cocaine and LSD, and the haunting memory of her return to Montgomery. Emily laughed at nothing, the sound hollow, a strange echo she didn’t know, that wandered down the block, hiding behind doors she’d never seen before.
“No one’s gonna let you on a plane looking so crazy.”
“Woke up this morning feeling fine, woke up with heaven on my mind,” she said in a sing-song voice. She swayed from leg to leg, imagining the wind tumbling though her, pulling her into the storefront windows, into her reflection.
“You singing like a ghost, girl. You alright?” Lovie slowed his pace, his long legs keeping time next to her.
“Just need a cigarette.” She reached for Lovie’s arm, for the black fabric of her jacket hanging from his hand.
“Got some inside.” Lovie nodded to a red door, the bright tongue stretching towards the street, lapping at Emily’s boots, her black leggings.
Emily leaned back on her heels, away from the door, the strange face of the house. Lovie grinned. “It’s alright— but my are parents asleep. Be quiet and I’ll fix you something to eat.”
Lovie pulled Emily’s arm, he pulled her through the door, through the mouth, and into a landscape of peeling paint, broad rooms with bare walls and boarded windows.
“No one lives here,” Emily murmured, her throat pulled in, suffocating all the sound within.
“We stay in the basement.”
Lovie dragged her through the hall, its walls like bone, slowly disintegrating against Emily’s boots beating the floorboards. He pulled open another door, one marked with an X, and Emily heard the birds first; she heard the birds before she saw anything. The basement black, a cave of shrieking. She thought she was hallucinating the parrots, all high-pitched wailing, but she felt their screaming. She knew what they were repeating.