Day of the Dead
After thirty hours on a Greyhound bus, I caught my first glimpse of New Orleans: a dim orange glow emerging from the dark bayou. For all the legend I’d heard, there was no gateway or trumpeter at our arrival, just that bayou, a vast swamp spreading in every direction that eventually broke into stretches of automalls and billboards along the cracked highway.
This was when I started to stop being heartbroken and started getting nervous. What next? Where would I go? How would I find her? And what if I didn’t?
All I had to go on was a black and white postcard, worn tissue-thin by my constant touch. Her message was cryptic, but enough to fill with me with hope, and dread: "Loving New Orleans, miss you. You should see it for Halloween! – E"
I quieted my nerves by strumming my thin-necked guitar, a gift she’d given to me on our first anniversary. This was the first time I’d dared play it, preferring my hardy Gibson, but I brought it for this trip because I felt it was infused with some fragment of her spirit. Even when playing scales, each note rekindled a memory of her.
She loved my music. She made me write songs about her with mythological themes, as if we were both characters in an epic tragedy and not just ordinary people. She even had ‘Orpheus’ engraved in black on the rosewood body. It seemed silly, now, some nonsense lover’s game, but here I was, still believing in those
idiotic promises of love.
It wasn’t like her not to write. And that’s why I was on this bus.
We were coming into the city when a stranger with a cocked hat staggered back towards the bathroom. I had my guitar propped up on my knee in the couch seat in the back; he stopped when he heard my tune.
"Lordddiee — now that is one hell of a tune!"
I didn’t really know what to say, except "Thanks."
"Whatcha playing there, kid? Sounds like some sort of blues."
"I’m not really sure," I said, "It’s from a dream."
"A dream, eh?" he yawned as he leaned over my seat, "So you’re just another dreamer then, on your way to New Orleans?"
"Town’s full of ’em. Specially here on Halloween. You looking to go on a vampire tour or something?"
"Maybe just tour around the quarters then? Get your kicks on Bourbon Street and puke in an alley?"
"Aww, well you got to be doing something kid. Hell, I can show you around!"
"It’s not like that. I’m looking for someone."
"Even better! I can help you find her!"
A Cheshire cat grin grew on his face like a sunrise. "What else would get a kid your age down here?"
With that, he dropped into the chair opposite mine with a flourish. I was pretty sure he was half in the bag; he gestured wildly, spoke fast, and I only caught half of the words out of his mouth.
"My Cajun name is Victor Aurelius Marceleau, but you can call me the Messenger."
He stuck his hand out, which may as well have been a threatening snake. I took it trepidly.
"You can call me Orpheus," I said.
He laughed at that. "Orpheus, huh? What kind of name is that?"
"A traveler’s name."
"Okay, bien, mister Orfeeus. How can I help you find your lady?"
My heart stopped dead. I had no reason to trust and plenty of reasons to distrust this guy. But we were already driving into some sort of downtown area and my time was short. I had a map, sure, but I knew you didn’t want to go bumbling around a city with a tourist map in front of your face. And, what was the risk? I reluctantly pulled out the postcard and offered it to the Messenger.
"She sent this, so I figure she must be staying there."
He grabbed it with an abruptness that made me squirm. He read both sides, sniffed it, then handed it back to me.
"Sure, that’s Hotel Bohême, on the low end of Decatur. I can take you there."
"One thing though," he said and grinned again, "I have something you may like."
He rummaged around in — appropriately enough — a black canvas messenger bag, which had seen its fair share of travel. Well, by the looks of it, all of him had. He was mismatched from head to toe, with big black military boots, torn jeans, a patched up jacket that might have once been a trenchcoat, and a sloppy leather hat with a feather cocked out of its brim.
He caught my eye on the feather.
"Real eagle, kid. Shot it down in Bayou Laroux."
He paused, caught my glance, then exploded in a hearty laugh, "It’s a turkey, shit, but here’s some real bayou gris-gris for you."
He shoved a mask into my face, some wild, rootlike mask made of woven branches and adorned with thick, bushy plants.
"That’s Cypress Moss and kudzu, Choctaw medicine man made it for me. But I don’t need it anymore. In fact, for you, it’s only fifty bucks."
I raised an eyebrow.
"You’ll need a mask, kid, it’s Halloween!"
"I don’t know ."
I tried to hand the mask back but he batted it back to me.
"Tell you what. You get me guiding you through the quarters, show you where you need to be, the mask’s yours for free."
"And what do you get out of it?"
"Fifty bucks! So the guide’s free, or the mask’s free, you pick."
I weighed the offer as we careened down a city street. We were close, now. I could see vacant office buildings and parking lots fringed with razorwire out of the window past his quizzical stare. My heart picked up tempo as the bus pulled into the terminal.
"Okay," I said, "You got a deal."
The first thing that struck me was the heat. Sure, it’d been getting warmer every mile since we’d left Boston but I’d never stepped out for more than a piss-break on the ride so far. Even though it was a little past dark, it was steamy as the dog days of August. The first thing I did was peel off my stinking hooded sweatshirt as the rest of the bus passengers flicked out cigarrette packs and lit up.
The Messenger was among them, slipping a slim white number from a silver case. I stared at him in slack-jawed surprise.
"Shit, you can’t do that!"
"Eh?" he spat as he lit up. A plume of smoke rose in the air. "This ain’t Mary Jane here, kid, if that’s what you’re asking. Though I can get you some if you want."
Sure enough, it was a cigarette, and he puffed it effortlessly as we walked from the bus terminal past its chain-link perimeter fence and onto a wide and vacant boulevard.
Cars zoomed by, muddy bass echoing out of them. The Messenger dashed across the street during a slow moment. I followed him with barely enough time to look both ways, an Escalade honking at me just as I stumbled onto the far pavement.
"This ain’t the best place to be after dark, kid, so let’s hop-to, okay?"
And that we did, the Messenger puffing down cigarette after joint-like cigarette and on occasion bursting into song in a language I did not understand.
At length, we reached a boulevard where the streets were suddenly crowded and surreal. Music echoed down the street, and not just rap music, but a chaotic blend of screaming trumpets, raging guitars and chest-thumping drums. Every face was behind a mask, and the masks ranged from entities familiar to far-flung: ghosts, goblins, demons, devils, saints and politicians. The few who weren’t in costume stared in wide-eyed wonder, like myself, snapping photos or just oggling the street show.
"What, you never seen a few folks dressed up before? Jeeezus you better stick around for Mardi Gras."
At this he was already off, pushing through the crowd and half-a-block on me until I had to run, elbowing people aside to keep up.
"Down here," he said, walking straight into traffic, sticking a hand out to stop an oncoming car and moving into a slight jog to cross the rail-lines that ran along the median.
Now we were moving onto streets where the character changed completely, and only now did the Messenger relax his anxious pace.
"Le Vieux Carre, as they say in the tourist books," he said with a grin, "The French Quarter."
Here was where the river of people streamed to their source. Life busted from every seam. There were bars, cafes, late night restaurants, barber shops, peep shows, comic book stores and trinket shops. We stopped three blocks up outside a store where a drum, guitar and washboard trio jammed out front. The door dinged as three glimmering Elvises stepped out with pints of Jim Beam.
"In here, kid, first one’s on me."
I hardly had time to spin before the Messenger vanished inside. I hesitated on the doorway. The jam trio wailed some ecstatic, roving melody that’s vaguely bluegrass, but with a sharp twist. It takes me better than a minute to realize it’s a White Stripes tune, Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.
The door dinged again and the Messenger burst out, a Colt 45 in each hand.
"Hey, what happened to you?" he said as we sauntered up the street. He popped the top off his and swigged it before swinging the bottle like a dagger to clank against mine, which I held like a dead snake.
"Twist off, kid. Drink of champions."
"I, uh." Christ I feel lame. "I’m not twenty-one."
He peals into laughter. "Ain’t never stopped anyone in this town."
"But we’re… We’re on the street."
"You got in a paper bag, right? Legal as pissing in a post office."
He was walking ahead of me but seemed to sense my quizzical look.
"Joke, kiddo," he said, before yelling out to the world, "Ci c’est les bon temps, laissez les bon temps roulez!"
The Messenger dumped his empty Colt 45 ten minutes later after we’ve zig-zagged right and left several times and cut across some side streets. While the never-ending sprawl of shops continued to amaze me, the streets all looked hauntingly familiar – hooked wrought-iron streetlights bent in as if with aching backs, narrow sidewalks buckling against each other, cobblestone mixed with asphalt, random shattered bottles, neon-green cups, piles of vomit and strange pamphlets tacked to walls. Horse-drawn carriages clogged down the street driven by shouting men dressed in tophats and flowing capes, an odd car here and there where foot traffic was slow. And everywhere people worked for a buck – a guy stood on a ladder dressed like Abe Lincoln, two clarinets wailed up How High the Moon, three black teens tap danced in rapid fire, laughing the whole time.
There were a hundred bars we’d passed already but the Messenger clenched and unclenched his hands outside of one as if waiting for Christmas morning. He whistled as I nearly kept walking by.
"Inside, kid, and let me show you a good time."
I hesitated but a moment and he’d already vanished through a door of vinyl slats. Inside was all darkness and the roar of a crowd and music. I’d never been inside a bar before.
"Here goes," I said.
I’d never seen a place so chaotic in my life. Costumed and uncostumed faces mixed, all gravitating along a long bar as if lined up for sacrament. The sound of chatter and laughter is louder than a passing jet, but roaring over it all is the gun-like guitar of John Lee Hooker pumping out of a jukebox in the corner.
The dispensor of the joint’s eau de vie was a haggard man with two days’ growth of beard, a moplike mass of brown hair and a white shirt and blue jeans ensemble that would have been well-suited on a construction site.
The Messenger muscled through them all and I reluctantly followed. He whistled and waved his finger in the air and the bartender eyeballed him, nodded and slammed several more drinks down on the bar before slinking down our way. We pushed in between a guy who looked like he could rip my arms off and a woman who could’ve been pretty ten years ago.
The Messenger thrust a hand through the crowd and made some sort of handsign with the bartender before shouting his order: "Two screwdrivers and a double of Beam!"
The bartender was only gone for a breath before three drinks slammed on the table. The Messenger pushed a screwdriver into my hand and clanked his against it.
"To New Orleans on Halloween, laissez les bon temps roulez baby!"
I hesitantly swigged it down, and it wass all I could do to keep it down as my stomach lurched. It was a gulp of semi-sweet battery acid.
But the Messenger already had his down and was working on the Jim Beam.
"Ten even," he said, "This one’s on you."
"Call it a tip. You ain’t gonna get no tour like this anywhere."
I continued to fight tears and the feeling of boiling tar going down my throat when a bass voice behind us thumped, "Is that the old coon-ass himself?"
The Messenger pirouetted, said: "You know it! The only coon-ass on this block and they don’t even know it! How you chillin’, Paps?"
"Ahh you know, I be right," burst a massive black man, shuffling to his feet and engulfing the Messenger with his oar-like arms. The Messenger bounced back from the embrace and they exchanged a set of gestures with the hands and arms, a secret greeting encoded in the rhythm of their bones.
Paps continued to chuckle, a rumbling, thunder-like boom that reverberated as he sank down into his chair again. Despite the crowd in the bar, a wide berth surrounded him, and he lumbered into his rickety stool as if to a throne. He flexed his fingers slowly, then snatched a shot glass with surprising speed and swallowed the drink down in a gulp.
"So what brings you out this side of the river?" Paps rumbled.
"I just rolled back into town, had a pal over in Biloxi pass on and had to see him off. Managed to pick up this straggler ‘long the way," the Messenger said and motioned to me. I stepped forward from the bar for the first time, staggering as if uncertain where my feet still were.
"What’s that?" Paps said, staring in my vague direction uncertainly. As I stepped closer, in the dim orange light I could see he wore glasses the color of onyx, with one cracked lens. So I spoke up.
"Uh, the name’s Orpheus," I said, jutting a hand out into space. Realizing he didn’t know to grab it, I struggled forward and gently touched his massive palm, rough as alligator hide and coal black. He grabbed my hand and pumped it, with a grip both powerful and tender.
"Orpheus, huh? That reminds me of an old story…" Paps broke off into silence for a moment, then spoke up again, "So what brings you to New Orleans then? Chasing a ghost?"
"I’m, uh, looking for someone."
Paps laughed. "I knew it! You got the hot young blood. "
"No, she’s a real person, this girl I knew –"
But Paps kept laughing. Eventually, he settled down. "This city invites in a lot of people who are looking for somethin’. Not sure many people find it. Or maybe they find something else."
"Well, I think I know where she’s staying — and this guy’s meant to be taking me there!"
Paps raised an eyebrow. "That true?"
The Messenger chuckled. "Got to show him the sights!"
Paps groaned. "Sometimes you disgust me — get along now! This kid’s obviously got some heartache on his mind, and he needs to face it sooner or later."
"Little bit of liquor help him get over the heartbreak I bet," the Messenger said, slurping at the ice in his screwdriver.
Paps looked me in the eye, as if he could still see through his thick black glasses. "You write a song ’bout her yet?"
In a surreal shift of energy, the throbbing riffs of Hooker faded to a Bob Dylan ballad, the lonesome croon drifting like tufts of mist in and out of the roar of the crowd. Sara, Sara, Wherever we travel we’re never apart.
I stared dumb for a moment, enough for him to prompt me again, before I answered.
Sara, oh Sara, Beautiful lady, so dear to my heart.
"Sure, I –"
But the Messenger was quick on his feet now. "He didn’t just write no song, Paps, he dreamt one."
Paps released a slow groan that sounded like the stretch of old leather. "Yep, you must have the blues."
"I’m still working on it," I said.
"You swing by the river late sometime you want to wrap it up, you hear?" Paps said.
"Pleasure meeting you, then, youngblood, and see you ’round."
I grabbed his thick hand again and shook it, then looked hesitantly at the Messenger.
"You heard the man, grab your drink and let’s roll!"
The Messenger was already bound for the door as I heard the first notes of a live tune by CCR, Run Through the Jungle . The first iron-fisted chord balled up before we stepped into the street and the music washed into the ocean of noise that spread in every direction. The Messenger was already half a block past, whistling a tune of his own, silhouetted by a bleary purple streetlight.
I hurried up.
We next took a sharp left, down a cobblestoned alley, and came out in a courtyard surrounding a gated-in garden. There were benches scattered around, with numerous shapes hunched, slumped or gesticulating from them, and a trombone and guitar combo playing before a handful of frat-boy types with phospherescent beads and boas hanging from their necks. A girl in a halter top with straps that were close to sliding off her arms slumped against the tallest of them, occasionally interrupting the performance with an unconnected fragment of her own song.
"Ha ha," the Messenger said, "Now this is our place of worship."
"Not much to look at," I said, gawking from one side of the cobblestoned plaza to the other. Drunks, a raving madman or two, and musicians. I turned to look at the Messenger but again he was trotting off, his brisk canter turning into a saunter and then to a dance as he approached the trombone-guitar combo.
The guitarist was disheveled, with two pasty knees sticking out of his jeans and a mass of hair that may have once been blonde. Underneath a harmonica rack that looked like an old-fashioned dental apparatus, his face was flush red, wrinkled, and packed with a good week’s worth of beard. He had bleary eyes that stared past me, into space, into somewhere else, as he crooned each verse of a bluegrass song he’d turned into a bastard blues-funk:
If I was on some Foggy Mountain Top, I’d sail away to the west, I’d sail around the whole wide world to the girl I loved the best
At the end of the verse he put his mouth to the harmonica and blew and picked as the trombone bleated the bass line. The Messenger danced past them and whistled at me.
"Hey, give the men some dough!"
I stared at him dumbly for a moment, then fumbled in my pockets for some loose change. I threw a couple of dollars into an open guitar case. The man’s eyes came out of space for a moment and locked on mine, and he gave a gentle nod. I nodded back, then hurried after the Messenger, who was a good ten yards away already.
He hurried along the edge of the gated park, then headed into a busy street, waving a hand at the cars to stop them as he came by. A horse-drawn carraige with tour guide and tourists lumbered past, and he whistled at the far end of the road.
I waited for a red light, then rushed across the road, and found him climbing up stone steps two-by-two. The steps went up an embankment, and as we crested it, a tug boat’s honk rang out across the expansive landscape. We stood staring out across the dark, churning Mississippi River.
"And ain’t she a sight?" the Messenger said after a few moments had passed. It was a tad quieter, here, than in the Quarter, though there were spurts of distant revelers, trombone, and the wail of a lonely saxophone off to our right.
"So over there, eh? That’s Algiers, that’s where I’m from. Mm… You see them boat’s over there? Mine’s three in from the right. You want yourself a good time, you come over my way some time."
Now that we’d stopped moving, all of the momentum and chaos of the last hour or so caught up with me, and I suddenly felt very drunk and tired. And frustrated.
"Where are we going?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "To see your woman, right? Hotel Bohême."
"Then what are we doing here?"
"You still need to learn a thing or two, kid, before you go wandering around on your own. I’m trying to help you."
"I don’t need to learn anything, I need to find her."
"What’s the hurry? Was this woman your first lay?"
My face reddened. "I — I’m not going to answer that."
His eyes twinkled. "I bet you wasn’t her last."
"Take that back!" I said, and lunged at him, more an awkward gesture of frustration than an attack. He easily dodged aside and landed me a solid punch in the chest that knocked me stumbling and heaving.
"Shit, kid, you need to get yourself some guts. Now we’re just a few blocks away, but I want you to learn one good lesson. Nothing’s what it seems like in this city, so don’t trust nobody." He paused a moment. "Least of all, me."
I looked up at him, hurt. He smirked.
"Ahh, com’n now," he said, turning about in a flourish and hurrying down the boardwalk, then bellowing out across the river, "Ci-cez les bon temps! Laissez les bon temps roulez!"
We spoke less as the journey continued, along the river for awhile and then down onto the tight, cobblestone streets again, in a neighborhood quieter than the last. What it lacked in roaring nightlife, it exhibited in funk — even by streetlight, the houses shone blue, yellow, pink. Huge oaks split the sidewalk with their roots, and music and marijuana smoke oozed from the bottom of closed doors. We at last stopped at the junction of three roads, resulting in a pie-wedge corner where a white, multi-storied building with balconies was squeezed in.
"We’re here," he said, though I knew we were before he opened his mouth. Bohême read white on a purple tapestry blowing gently from a flagpole. Light blared out from within and there were plenty of distant voices.
I dug through my pockets for some fifty dollars, spilling out some of the loose bills I’d accumulated along the journey. He snatched the money from my hand with little fanfare and pushed the strange mask into my hands.
"Alright, now, Mister Orfus. You take care of yourself. Don’t go down any alleyways and keep an eye on your drinks."
"Sure," I said.
His grave voice was gone and he grinned again. "Alright! You want another tour, you ask for the Messenger! Someone will know where to find me!"
I nodded, burbled a thanks, and stared at the Bohême for another minute. I turned to ask him another question — how to get back, since I realized I hadn’t even been conscious of our route — but he was already long gone, absorbed by the shadow.
I ascended the stairs, floorboards groaning with each step, and stood looking at a solid oak door with a bat etching. My fingers trembled as I reached for the doorknob, and I hesitated as a distant police siren rang in the night. Then I took a deep breath, turned the knob, and opened the door.
It felt like entering a B-grade haunted house set. In the Halloween spirit, cotton spiderwebs draped across the eaves of beautiful woodwork and architecture. Orange Christmas-lights ran along the arches of a majestic entranceway to the living-room, where an empty fireplace with two rocking chairs sat underneath a chandelier. There was a stairway that ended beside a desk in front of me, where a figure sat huddled behind a computer screen. Above the desk was a large portrait of Louis Armstrong blowing on the trumpet. Next to it, a painted sign reading "Be Nice or Leave." Tinny speakers played Cab Calloway, St James Infirmary Blues.
I approached the desk, stood there for a moment, as the man, practically facing me, continued to work on the computer. I waved at him briefly to no affect, then cleared my throat.
"Oh! Hi! Sorry!" said the man. His face emerged from behind the computer and I shirked back involuntarily; he wore a rubber ghoul mask, painted dark green and blue with a sinister smile and dimples. The face behind it was white, and had frayed, greasy dreads. The man wore no other costume, just a loose white shirt, the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up, revealing a wildly hairy chest. He grinned, amplifying the mask’s forced cheer.
"I’d like a bed," I said.
"Did you call ahead?"
"Ahh," he said, his voice sounding like air let out of a car tire. "Well, it’s a Friday, a holiday and everything, I’m not sure we have a bed left. I take it you don’t mind mixed company?"
"No," I said, "I guess not."
"Of course," he said, "Let me look."
He turned to the computer and I did, too, catching a glimpse of a white girl on her knees with two black men fucking her as he clicked closed a web browser. He opened up another program, clicked through some screens, looked very curiously at it, spoke to himself briefly, looked harder, groaned, typed in some things, scratched something on a notepad, made another comment to himself before looking at me again, apparently happy with the results.
"Yeah, I could make something work."
"Great. How much?"
My stomach turned.
"Seventy? For a bed?"
He looked at me with an unbudging expression. Calloway still crooned in the background Let her go let her go, God bless her, wherever she may be…
"Fine, I’ll take it," I said at last.
"We do take credit cards," he said, but I forked over cash. This pleased him even more. The money vanished quickly and he returned with a set of linens.
"Through here is the living room, past that the shared kitchen, courtyard, and a set of stairs to the third floor. You should be able to find a bed up there, but be careful not to squat in someone else’s bunk, it’s hard to tell, really, everyone out in costume, you might end up with a werewolf in your bunk!" He grinned a toothy smile, ivory teeth showing behind the ghoul mask. "You’re welcome to use the kitchen to prepare yourself anything – label it if you do. I wouldn’t leave booze around if I were you. That being said, there really aren’t any rules. There’s no curfew, but make sure you close the door behind you whenever you get in. There have been some rather — odd — incidents."
"Thanks," I said.
"Tell me if you need anything," he said, and when I didn’t respond immediately he sat back down at the computer and started clicking away. I picked up the linens and walked off.
A drab olive curtain separated the living room from the shared kitchen. Here it was bustling; several people speaking different languages sat at a long wooden dining table to my immediate right. The room extended to an exit in front of me and a compact kitchen to the left. A woman with dark curly hair worked two skillet-pans while two blonde-haired men speaking English with thick accents poured vodka and cranberry juice cocktails for the large party at the table.
I scooted through quickly but someone grabbed my arm; I spun around, anxious at talking in the midst of all this bustle, but a man at the edge of the table, already drunk, talked to me in either slurred or broken English: "Heymanhavveyseenyahere…" and started laughing, turning to his companions at the table. I looked at them briskly. No one meet my gaze, so I headed out the door into the courtyard.
Here the edge of the 1800s façade hit the modern ghetto, maintaining the tacky ghost and goblin flair. A long barbed wire fence ran around the edges of neighboring houses, lit all the while by the orange tree lights. Heavy, sprawling bushes interwove with the fence and yawned into the courtyard. A stone fountain sat in the middle, surrounded by a stone plaza that appeared to have been built by many hands over many years, with varying degrees of skill. A shallow pool ran along the right edge of the fence, and two figures with dark hair sat waist deep in it, smoking cigarettes.
The set of stairs the desk clerk spoke of was off to my left and emerged only slightly from overpowering weeds. I stepped onto the first iron stair and the whole set creaked. I continued slowly, but my confidence didn’t improve. I just took it one stair at a time until I reached the third story.
From here I could see across the dim neighborhood and clear to the fiery lights of what must have been the French Quarter. I could see the river beyond it, twinkling lights on the water and a dark mass swirling underneath. While I’d seen many maps, only now could I see the arc of the river — the crescent of the Crescent City.
The "doorway" to the third story was actually a converted French window, done with similarly questionable workmanship. I climbed through onto a wooden floor that groaned with my weight and almost cracked my head on the shallow ceiling. Keeping myself slightly crouched, I eyed the narrow hallway, which ran into an open door and a stairwell about fifteen feet ahead of me. There were two more doors: one on the left with a slight blue glow coming from it and one on the right with a red glow. The door to the blue room was just cracked, and I could see a mirror. Feeling that one was the bathroom, I pushed open the door to the red room.
"Bugger off!" cried a British voice from within. I stepped back immediately and stared at the door uncomfortably. My heart raced, and it took me a second to realize I hadn’t done anything wrong. I look around the hallway. There really weren’t any other doors. I creaked open the red door again.
I caught a whiff of weed and sweat, heavy and humid. I felt like it would penetrate my clothing if I were in here more than a second. By the sporadic candle lighting, I could see two figures crowded on a small bunk on the far side of the room. I caught an eyeful of ass and breast before averting my eyes. The floor, the present focus of my attention, was a confused jumble of clothing, magazines, and contents of backpacks. I reluctantly raised my eyes to try and find a bunk.
"Fuck, man, didn’t you see the sock?" said the British voice.
"I guess not," I said. "I’m new."
"Well for fuck’s sake," he said, and the girl beneath him giggled. They started making out again.
I stalked across the floor looking for a bunk, and finally found one empty on the far edge of the wall. It was the top one, and there wasn’t a ladder. A bar blocked my ability to hoist myself up into it. I threw my guitar case and pack onto the bed and looked for a way up. The best way was by using the radiator as foothold. I positioned myself with care, hoping not to break the rusty thing off the cracked wall while I did this, and sprung up.
I got up, but not without unleashing an ear-piercing screech.
"Fuckin’ quit it!" cried the Brit. I ignored him and unfolded my linens.
It took a good ten minutes to get the sheets on. Then, looking through my pack for a change of clothes, her letters spilled out. My heart wrenched up again, and I did the same ritual I had been doing for months now — I touched every letter, ran my finger along all the addresses, held the letters in my hands with my eyes closed as tears welled up.
Doubt shot through me as loud as pain, a feeling that rocked me back and forth and chilled my blood. The woman below made a slight moan, the man started to grunt, and here I was, a pathetic mess, holding these little pieces of matter that once passed through her hands as if they were a life raft.
I put the letters away and put the postcard with them. Now I was in New Orleans. And I was going to find her.
I headed to the shower, which gave the couple an excuse to really work their vocal chords. I was right, the blue door led to the bathroom, and I stripped quickly and took a long hot shower in the dark. While this place might be a dump, the water pressure worked, and I rubbed my fatigued skin until it was raw to get the grime off.
I watched the dirt, sweat, and oil mix with water as it swilled down the drain, taking with it some of the stomach wrenching knots of terror. I looked at my weak, white body, my limp penis, the rings of purple welling up from the one quick punch the Messenger gave me. I turned the water off and got dressed.
When I got back to the room, the Brit was gone, but the girl was still in the bed, a good part of her ass visible underneath a soaked and twisted sheet. She rolled over and I felt her eyes burn into me as I walked to my bunk, slipping most of my cash into a clean pair of socks before stuffing it and my old clothes into my duffel bag. I walked back towards the door when the heat of her gaze was too much.
"Hi," I said, my throat clenching in anxiety as soon as I said it.
"Hi," she said. She had an accent, but I couldn’t quite place it. Her voice penetrated me, reverberated through my chest, caused my loins to suddenly wake up.
"I, uh, was just leaving," I said, grabbing the door.
"Bye," I said, stepping out into the hallway and hurrying down the creaking stairway, ignoring the pressure in my pants. Christ, did that really happen? Was she just lying there, hot, waiting for me?
The thought of this, the wonder and filth of it made me blush and I stopped at the bottom of the staircase and caught my breath. I took a momentary glance back up to the third-story window and a shiver of emotion ran through my body. Then I pulled out the strange mask that the Messenger had given me and put it on.
It was uncomfortable, at first, but suddenly I felt much stronger. There was power in hiding my face.
I made it as far as the kitchen before being caught in the fray of the large international party. A brown-haired man with broad cheekbones grabbed me by the shoulder and said, "Hey mate, you the new roomie?"
I stopped dead and looked at him; he laughed.
"Don’t ya worry, Cassie’s a fan of every man who walks through the door. You wouldn’t imagine the things the walls of that room have seen!"
I stared at him skeptically. He chuckled, then stuck his hand towards me in a way that made me jump.
"Victor Chaplain," he said, "Call me Vic."
He shook my hand violently, holding it for longer than I was comfortable.
"And you might be?" he said.
I carefully considered my answer.
"Call me Orpheus," I said.
"Orfus," he laughed, "What sort of name is that!"
"A traveler’s name," I said, blushing, glad no one could see it underneath the mask. Now the whole crowd laughed.
"Ah, cheeky too, well, welcome to Bohême, the place ya can’t check out of, here we have…" he counted around the room and everyone smiled at me and nodded or shook my hand, but I quickly lost track of names, just characters: a vampire and a priest from Brazil, two red succubae from Spain, a nurse from England, and two Canadian guys, who just wore street clothes. I couldn’t tell what the Englishman was meant to be, I guess some sort of buccaneer. He had a shirt with ruffles and ballooned pants on.
"So we’re all going out for drinks in a minute now. You interested?"
"Sure," I said, regretting it the moment it came out of my mouth. I did want to go out, and going out with a group was safer. But maybe not this one. I made up my mind to ditch them early in the evening.
Rather than walk the distance back to the Quarter, we walked a block down to a two-lane street and waited for a green and white bus to pick us up. We all piled onto it and took up most of the back, facing each other on the long bench seats, babbling in at least three languages, passing around a bottle of vodka while the two Spanish girls drank from cups of vodka and cranberry.
The sound of English over the Portugese and Spanish was comforting, even though I wasn’t interested in the Canadians’s conversation…
"So there we were," one was continuing, "We’d never done the Rockies before, and it was our first jump from a helicopter, and I said to him, ‘Well hell!’ and off we went."
The Englishman broke in next, starting with, "The reminds me of the time I was in the Alps. I was still bleary-eyed from the night before when a damn blizzard came down on us in the middle of a double-black diamond…"
The conversation in Portuguese suddenly ended and the dark-haired Brazilian priest joined the English conversation, dazzling me in how quickly the tempo changed, saying "Well you all come to Rio sometime; we don’t need snow to have a good time."
Everyone broke into laughter, and the bus screeched to a halt outside of a Foot Locker.
"Last stop, y’all in the Quarters now," said a black passenger as he stepped off the bus. The Englishman leapt up, took a shot, and sprang out the door, the rest of the party laughing and shuffling off in a slow and stumbling tempo. I was the last one off, and the bus took off as soon as my feet hit the sidewalk.
I started after them across the street, only realizing too late I was springing into moving traffic. A slick black Mercedes screeched to a halt feet from me, wailing on its horn as another car swerved around it. I jumped back on the sidewalk and the Mercedes pulled off, the passengers of the car jeering at me as the driver screamed a litany of curses. I stood in frozen shock beneath the Bourbon St. sign waiting for the light to change. A man nudged me, and I swirled around in shock, ready to punch.
"You got any change?" said a man with a fraying gray beard.
I shook my head, turned around again, and started walking. I crossed the trolley tracks and the other side of the main boulevard before catching up with the group again. They were standing by a group of high-school age black kids in school uniforms who played trombone, tuba, and makeshift drum-bucket.
The Englishman saw me again, laughed, said, "Pretty good, eh?" as I approached.
He waved the group onward down Bourbon St, which was three times as packed as when I’d been here just a few hours before: a sea of intoxicated, transfixed faces of humans and monsters flowing down a street that eddied like a river of madness.
Sheer terror gripped me as I walked through this orgy of sound and light. Blues oozed out of every corner bar, mingled with bass from nightclubs, joined with the screams of women bearing their breasts for men in sweatshirts or suits throwing plastic beads from high balconies. Silhouettes of curvy women shown by pink light in a place called Fantasy Playland, while a well-dressed black man on the doorstep cried "Female impersonators here! Chicks with dicks — no cover charge!"
We walked shoulder-to-shoulder in the thick crowds, and sudden claustrophobia swept over me as I looked through the nameless masses wondering if I might see her. My heart fluttered at the realization that she must have passed through here before, seen these same sights, been as astonished and mortified as I was.
The Englishman pulled the group aside under the balcony of a busy club and screamed at the Spanish girls, trying to communicate something over the din. At length, it seemed decided: they were going into this club. I turned my head, looking down the long river of people and then back up again. It was about time to set off on my own.
They were still checking IDs when I headed down the street and further into the clamor of the busy boulevard. Behind my crude mask I felt I could fully gawk at the scene before me. On one corner there was a vampire, still as a statue, a wide grin cut in his alabaster makeup. Here were three girls wearing jeans and pulling t-shirts from LSU up to their necks as they cheered in drunken delight. There was a fierce warlord with his face hidden within a tiger’s mouth, its pelt turned into a cloak that wrapped around him, a gigantic strap-on phallus yawning like an elephant’s trunk from his loins. Would someone fucking pinch me.
My walk came to a halt in front of a wiry black man wearing a straw banded cap and a tweed jacket who shoved a rose in my face. I shook my head but he insisted on keeping it in my face.
"For your lover!" he yelled.
"I don’t want it!" I yelled back.
"Give it to your lover! She’ll show you a good time!"
"No!" I said, still trying to continue moving, but he hounded me, creeping in close so I could smell the onion and whisky smell of his breath.
"Or maybe you swing the other way?"
"Fuck off!" I yelled now, giving him a solid shove that threw him sprawling back into the crowd. I was as surprised as he was by the act of violence, and he responded by yelling "Help! Help!"
A bouncer of a nearby club had helped back up on his feet quickly, and the man was squawking his story to the bouncer as I rushed off into the crowd, forcing my way through a posse of werewolves.
"You goddamn tourist!" the man yelled at my fleeing back, "Go home!"
Instead of going home, I took the first corner I could find away from Bourbon St. and started heading at random down the other streets of the Quarter. With no destination or purpose I kept walking, following the outposts of purplish-blue lights flanking the tight concrete sidewalks, stumbling on unexpected cracks and listening to beer bottles clatter, sirens, and a distant croon of jazz.
I reached an exit at some point. That is, I left the cramped and similar looking streets and stood on a two-way road with a median in the middle with a line of oak trees. I looked around vainly for a street sign, but only found tiles embedded in the pavement reading "…LANADE." The road stretched to the left for as far as I could see, but to my right it appeared to return to civilization. I headed that way.
At the foot of the road, I saw the real name: Esplanade, and it met another road: Decatur. On the corner was a bar with the doors wide open and a wild sound coming from inside. A black sign hung above the door with the image of a bull: Le Matador.
There was no bouncer, just a yawning doorway into a den of hazy red and purple light. So I headed in.
It wasn’t hard to find the bar: the whole place radiated out from it. Its smooth black surface reflected the weird light, a planetary ring around the stack of bottles mounted on rising steps to the ceiling like an altar, the highest bottles being far out of reach by the short barmaid.
"What do you want?" yelled the barmaid, dressed in a skin-tight, reflective silver jumpsuit ripped straight from a 60s sci-fi show. She had black eye-liner and shiny turquoise lipstick; her hair spiked out in all directions.
I yelled the first drink that came to mind, "Rum and coke! " and she made it for me.
The place was packed with an even more raucous group of costumed freaks, and looking over the dance floor I wondered if this was the closest a sober mind could get to an acid trip. The floor was checkerboard, and a rapidly spiraling disco ball lit the barroom and dance floor in a dizzying spin of light. At the far end of the room was a stage, barely a footstep above the dance floor and decked out like a classical theater, red curtains and all. On it now was a band that played with synthesizers, washboard, banjo and drums:
We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight land where the hot springs blow
I was a little shocked to hear Zeppelin in a place like this, but here it was in front of me. The insane rendition was intoxicating, fast, frenzied electronics mixed with the gritty sound of the washboard. I finished one drink quickly and ordered another before heading for a dark corner in the back of the place. I sat in a stoop that afforded a good view of the dance floor and doorway, and worked on my drink. It felt good to rest my feet.
The drinks went down easy, and chewed through the twenties left in my wallet like a rodent trapped in a crawlspace. It didn’t take long for the feast of light and sound to feel — not normal — but not out of place, either. Fitting within its own world.
Eventually the lights raised a little and house music came on. I leaned over to a couple that was near me, rather toned-down examples of the crowd, the man dressed in a black coat too heavy for this weather, a top-hat, watch-chain, and powdered white face; the girl wore a vinyl black dress with zig-zag straps that hardly concealed her generous breasts.
"Is it closing time?" I asked them. It took twice for them to notice me.
"Excuse me?" the man said.
"Is it closing time?" I repeated.
He sat a moment, contemplating, then broke out in laughter. His girlfriend whispered something in his ear, which he returned in kind. She started laughing too.
"You’re new, huh ?" he asked.
"Bars don’t close."
I rocked my head back.
The man cackled.
"Say, you look cute kid, you want a drink?"
"Do you drink?"
"Let me get you something," he said, then sprang out of the seat and towards the bar. I looked at him as he zipped across the crowded bar, then let my eyes drift to the woman. She leaned into me like a viper ready to shed its skin.
She smiled and patted the vinyl seat next to her.
I gestured to her boyfriend; she shook her head.
"Come on, cutie," she said.
I reluctantly sat down next to her. Her scent struck me next, and it took me a few minutes to figure out what it was about her that made my throat dry out and my tongue stick in my mouth. She smelled like sex. Rawdy, sweaty and screaming. It wafted off her like a thick perfume.
"So what brings you to New Orleans?" she asked.
My heart choked up. This was a moment of truth or betrayal. I tried to avoid the question.
"It’s a long story," I said, stumbling over my words, "You wouldn’t be interested."
"Wouldn’t I now?" she said, setting her hand on my thigh. I flinched on reflex and she took it away, cooling off dramatically.
I paused, trying to think of a way to recover, when the man came back with the drinks. He sat next to me, uncomfortably close, and passed me a drink in a short rocks glass. He raised his glass as did his girlfriend.
"A la Nouvelle Orleans," he said, and we all drank well. The taste of the beverage was unlike any other liquor I’d ever tried. I couldn’t tell what the flavor was, it was strong alcohol, definitely, with a taste of licorice to it. I’d had so many rum cokes I just couldn’t identify the liquor. So I asked.
"Absinthe," the man said.
I guessed my look was stunned.
"You can get it in the right places," he said.
I was more uncomfortable than ever before. But something, probably stupidity, kept me glued in the seat.
"So," the man said, "You have not told us your name."
"It’s, uh, Orpheus," I said.
"Orpheus?" they both hummed. The man smiled. "Well, then I think I know why you came here."
"Don’t be coy," he said. "You’re looking for someone, aren’t you?"
I nodded, more on edge than ever.
"Well how does the search go? This city swallows people and rarely spits them up again."
I stared at him vacantly. I felt the woman’s eyes on me and turned to meet her dark, hungry eyes. A predator ready to strike.
"I, I don’t know," I said.
"I admire your efforts, really," he said, "It must have taken a lot just to get the nerve to come here, and already you’re out in this strange dark city, prowling around, unaware of the danger you’re getting yourself into, but getting yourself into it all the same."
She had snaked an arm around my torso and was massaging my thigh with the other. If I would have fought back before, something in the alcohol made me completely sedate now, allowed me to watch events happen to me as if they unfolded on a television screen.
"But all the same," the man continued, "You shouldn’t believe what those stories have to say. No one just comes here and walks away with someone who went missing. Are you even as good as they say you are?"
"Hm?" I mumbled.
"Tell me, can you make the beasts sleep and the hearts of men soften? Will the trees bough at the sounds of your fingers on the strings, will the rocks refuse to strike you?"
I opened my mouth to respond, but my tongue wouldn’t move. A rhyme of sitars rose from the stage as the house lights subdued to a moody blue, a gasp of smoke tendrils pouring from the stage. The smoke spread, snaked, and danced, coalescing into the form of a serpent, its long tongue flickering towards me as the tail wrapped around the other edge of my vision, a terrible tightness sucking at my chest.
Seconds late, I noticed a strong heat against my lips, and I came out of my trance to feel a joint pressed against lips. I sucked at it hungrily, but the smoke that entered my lungs was coal black and strong, not the familiar odor of Mary Jane.
"Opium," the man whispered, practically licking my ear.
"Yes…" I responded, at length, hardly more than a whisper. I sank against the back of the chair as soon as the answer left my mouth, and the trail of heat across my body continued, picked up in intensity. Her fingertips seared my skin, arousing me even as I sank into a stupor.
Then I realized that both sets of hands were on me. I’d never been touched by a man before. But I couldn’t open my mouth in protest. My eyes were transfixed by the dancing of the flames at the edge of vision, snaking in, twisting out, unraveling, and I stared at them, sinking deeper somewhere, as if by that looking I could dissolve some kind of secret.
The story continues… Read on