Chapter no 8

North American Lake Monsters

Beltrane awakens to the smell of baking bread. It smells like that huge bakery on MLK that he liked to walk past on mornings before the sun came up, when daylight was just a paleness behind buildings, and the smell of fresh bread leaked from the grim industrial slab like the promise of absolute love.

He stirs in his cot. The cot and the smell disorient him; his body is accustomed to the worn cab seat, with its tears in the upholstery and its permanent odor of contained humanity, as though the car, over the many years of carrying people about, had finally leached some fundamental ingredient from them. But the coarse, grainy blanket reminds him that he is in St. Petersburg, Florida, now. Far from home. Looking for Lila. Someone sitting on a nearby cot, back turned to him, is speaking urgently under his breath, rocking on the thin mattress and making it sing. Around them more cots are lined in rank and file, with scores of people sleeping or trying to sleep.

There are no windows, but the night is a presence in here, filling even the bright places.

“You smell that, man?” he says, sitting up.

His neighbor goes still and silent, and turns to face him. He’s younger than Beltrane, with a huge salt-and-pepper beard and grime deeply engrained into the lines of his face. “What?”


The guy shakes his head and gives him his back again. “Maaaaaaan,” he says. “Sick of these crazy motherfuckers.”

“Did they pass some out? I’m just sayin, man. I’m hungry, you know?” “We all hungry, bitch! Whyn’t you take your ass to sleep!”

Beltrane falls back onto the bed, defeated. After a moment the other man resumes his barely audible incantations, his obsessive rocking. Meanwhile the smell has grown even stronger, overpowering the musk of sweat and urine that saturates the homeless shelter. Sighing, he folds his hands over his chest, and discovers that the blanket is wet and cold.

“What . . . ?”

He pulls it down to find a large, damp patch on his shirt. He hikes the shirt up to his shoulders and discovers a large square hole in the center of his chest. The smell of bread blows from it like a wind. The edges are sharp and clean, not like a wound at all. Tentatively, he probes it with his fingers: they come away damp, and when he brings them to his nose they have the ripe, deliquescent odor of river water. He places his hand over the opening and feels water splash against his palm. Poking inside, he encounters sharp metal angles and slippery stone.

Beltrane lurches from his bed and stumbles quickly for the door to the bathroom, leaving a wake of jarred cots and angry protest. He pushes through the door and heads straight for the mirrors over a row of dirty sinks. He lifts his shirt.

The hole in his chest reaches right through him. Gas lamps shine blearily through rain. Deep water runs down the street and spills out onto his skin. New Orleans has put a finger through his heart.

“Oh, no,” he says softly, and raises his eyes to his own face. His face is a wide street, garbage-blown, with a dead streetlight and rats scrabbling along the walls. A spray of rain mists the air in front of him, pebbling the mirror.

He knows this street. He’s walked it many times in his life, and as he leans closer to the mirror he finds that he is walking it now, home again in his old city, the bathroom and the strange shelter behind him and gone. He takes a right into an alley. Somewhere to his left is a walled cemetery, with its above-ground tombs giving it the look of a city for the dead; and next to it will be the projects, where some folks string Christmas lights along their balconies even in the summertime. He follows his accustomed path and

turns right onto Claiborne Avenue. And there’s his old buddy Craig, waiting for him still.

Craig was leaning against the plate-glass window of his convenience store, two hours closed, clutching a greasy brown paper bag in his left hand, with his gray head hanging and a cigarette stuck to his lips. A few butts were scattered by his feet. The neighborhood was asleep under the arch of the I-1O overpass: a row of darkened shop-fronts receded down Claiborne Avenue, the line broken by the colorful lights of the Good Friends Bar spilling onto the sidewalk. The highway above them was mostly quiet now, save the occasional hiss of late-night travelers hurtling through the darkness toward mysterious ends. Beltrane, sixty-four and homeless, moseyed up to him. He stared at Craig’s shirt pocket, trying to see if the cigarette pack was full enough to risk asking for one.

Craig watched him as he approached. “I almost went home,” he said curtly.

“You wouldn’t leave old ’Trane!”

“The hell I wouldn’t. See if I’m here next time.”

Beltrane sidled up next to him, putting his hands in the pockets of his thin coat, which he always wore, in defiance of the Louisiana heat. “I got held up,” he said.

“You what? You got held up? What do you got to do that you got held up?”

Beltrane shrugged. He could smell the contents of the bag Craig held, and his stomach started to move around inside him a little.

“What, you got a date? Some little lady gonna take you out tonight?” “Come on, man. Don’t make fun of me.”

“Then don’t be late!” Craig pressed the bag against his chest. Beltrane took it, keeping his gaze on the ground. “I do this as a favor. You make me wait outside my own goddamn shop I just won’t do it no more. You gonna get my ass shot.”

Beltrane stood there and tried to look ashamed. But the truth was, he wasn’t much later than usual. Craig came down on him like this every couple of months or so, and if he was going to keep getting food from him he was just going to have to take it. A couple years ago Beltrane had

worked for him, pushing the broom around the store and shucking oysters when they were in season, and for some reason Craig had taken a liking to him. Maybe it was the veteran thing; maybe it was something more personal. When Beltrane started having his troubles again, Craig finally had to fire him, but made some efforts to see that he didn’t starve. Beltrane didn’t know why the man cared, but he wasn’t moved to examine the question too closely. He figured Craig had his reasons and they were his own. Sometimes those reasons caused him to speak harshly. That was all right.

He opened the bag and dug out some fried shrimp. They’d gone cold and soggy, but the smell of them just about buckled his knees, and he closed his eyes as he chewed his first mouthful.

“Where you been sleepin at night, ’Trane? My boy Ray tells me he ain’t seen you down by Decatur in a while.”

Beltrane gestured uptown, in the opposite direction of Decatur Street and the French Quarter. “They gave me a broke-down cab.”

“Who? Them boys at United? That’s better than the Quarter?”

Beltrane nodded. “They’s just a bunch a damn fucked-up white kids in the Quarter. Got all kinds a metal shit in their face. They smell bad, man.”

Craig shook his head, leaning against the store window and lighting himself another cigarette. “Oh, they smell bad, huh. I guess I heard it all now.”

Beltrane gestured at the cigarette. “Can I have one?”

Hell no. So you sleeping in some junk heap now. You gone down a long way since you worked for me here, you know that? You got to pull your shit together, man.”

“I know, I know.”

“Listen to me, ’Trane. Are you listening to me?” “I know what you gonna say.”

“Well listen to me anyway. I know you’re fucked in the head. I got that. I know you don’t remember shit half the time, and you got your imaginary friends you like to talk to. But you got to get a handle on things, man.”

Beltrane nodded, half smiling. This speech again. “Yeah, I know.”

“No you don’t know. ’Cause if you did, you would go down to the VA hospital and get yourself some damn pills for whatever’s wrong with you

and get off the goddamn street. You will fucking die out here, ’Trane, you keep fucking around like this.”

Beltrane nodded again, and turned to leave. “You better get on home, Craig. Might get shot out here.”

Now who’s making fun,” Craig said. He tried to push himself off his window, but the glass had grown into his head. His shoulders were stuck, too. “It’s too late,” he said. “I can’t go home. I’m stuck here forever now. God damn it!”

“I’m goin up to the white neighborhood,” Beltrane said. He avoided looking at Craig, turned his back to him and started to walk uptown.

“Yeah, you go on and get drunk! See what that’ll fix!”

“I’m goin to find that little Ivy, man. She always hang out up there.

This time I’m gonna get that girl.”

“I can’t understand you anymore. My ears are gone.” And it was true: Craig had been almost wholly absorbed by his window now, or maybe he had merged with it. In any case, his body was mostly gone. Only the contours of his face and his small rounded shoulders stood out from the glass; his lower legs and feet still stuck out near the ground. But he was mostly just an image in the glass now.

Beltrane hurried down the street, feeling the beginnings of a cool wind start to kick up. He glanced behind him once, looking for Craig’s shape, but he didn’t see anything.

Just the empty storefront staring back at him.

Beltrane stands in front of the mirror and watches his face for movement. He exerts great concentration to hold himself still: the slopes and angles of his face, the wiry gray coils of beard growing up over his cheeks, the wide round nostrils—even his eyelids—are as unmoving as hard earth. The skin beneath his eyes is heavy and layered, and the fissures in his face are deep

—but nothing seems out of place. Nothing is doing anything it isn’t supposed to be doing.

He’s standing over one of the sinks in the shelter’s bathroom. It has five partitioned stalls, most of which have lost their doors, and a bank of dingy gray urinals on the opposite wall. After a moment the door opens and one of the volunteers pokes his head in. When he sees Beltrane in there

alone, he comes in all the way and lets the door swing closed behind him. He’s a heavy man with high yellow skin, a few dark skin tags standing out on his neck like tiny beetles. Beltrane has seen him around a little bit, over the couple of days he’s been here, kneeling down sometimes to pray with folks that were willing.

“You all right?” the volunteer asks.

Beltrane just looks at him. He can’t think of anything to say, so after a moment he just turns his gaze back to the mirror.

“The way you charged in here, I thought you might be in trouble.” The volunteer stays in his place by the door.

Beltrane looks back at him. “You see anything wrong with my face?” The man squints, but comes no closer. “No. Looks okay to me.” When

Beltrane doesn’t add anything else, he says, “You know, we have strict policies on drug use in here.”

“I ain’t on drugs. I got this thing here . . . I don’t know, I don’t know.” He lifts his shirt and turns to the volunteer, who displays no reaction. “Can you see this?” he asks.

“That street there? Yes, I can see it.” Beltrane says, “I think I’m haunted.”

The man says nothing for a moment. Then, “Is that New Orleans?” Beltrane nods.

“I guess you’re here from Katrina?”

“Yeah, that’s right. It fucked my world up, man. Everybody gone.”

The man nods. “Most people from New Orleans are going up to Baton Rouge, or to Houston. What brings you all the way out here?”

“My girl. My girl lives here. I’m gonna move in with her.” “Your girlfriend?”

“No, my girl! My daughter!”

“You’ve been here two days already, haven’t you? Where is she?”

“She don’t know I’m coming. I got to find her.” Beltrane stares at himself. His face is dry. His hair is dry. He lifts his shirt to stare at the hole there one more time, but it’s gone now; he runs his hand over the old brown flesh, the curly gray hairs.

The volunteer says nothing for a moment. Then, “How long has it been since you’ve seen her?”

Beltrane looks down into the sink. The porcelain around the drain is chipped and rusty. A distant gurgling sound rises from the pipes, as though something is alive down there, in the bowels of the city. He has to think for a minute. “Twenty-three years,” he says finally.

The volunteer’s face is still. “That’s a long time.” “She got married.”

“Is that when she moved here?”

“I got to find her. I got to find my little girl.”

The volunteer seems to consider this; then he opens the door to the common area. “My name’s Ron Davis. I’m the pastor at the Trinity Baptist, just down the street a few blocks. If you’re all done in here, why don’t you come down there with me. I think I might be able to help you.”

Beltrane looks at him. “A pastor? Come on, man. I don’t want to hear about God tonight.”

“That’s fine. We don’t have to talk about God.”

“If I leave they won’t let me back in. They just give up my cot to someone else.”

Davis shakes his head. “You won’t have to come back tonight. You can sleep at the church. If we’re lucky, you won’t ever have to come back here. If we’re not, I’ll make sure you have a bed tomorrow night.” He smiles. “It’ll be okay. I do have some influence here, you know.”

They leave the shelter together, stepping into the close heat of the Florida night. The air out here smells strongly of the sea, so much that Beltrane experiences a brief thrill in his heart, a sense of being in a place both strange and new. To their left, several blocks down Central Avenue, he can see the tall masts of sail boats in the harbor gathered like a copse of birch trees, pale and ethereal in the darkness. To their right the city extends in a plain of concrete and light, softly glowing overpasses arcing over the street in grace notes of steel. People hunch along the sidewalks, they sleep in the small alcoves of shop doors. Some of them lift their heads as the two men emerge. One of them tugs at Beltrane’s pant leg as he walks by. “Hey. Are you leaving? Is they a bed in there?”

Davis says something to the man, but Beltrane ignores them both. He hopes the walk to the church is not long. The pleasant sense of disorientation he felt just a moment ago is giving way to anxiety. The

buildings seem too impersonal; the faces are all strange. He looks up at the sky—and there, in the thunderheads, he finds something familiar.

Piling rainclouds and the cool winds which precede a storm made the walk uptown more pleasant. Rain was not a deterrent, especially in the summer months when the storms in New Orleans were sudden, violent, and quickly over. Low gray clouds obscured the night sky, their great bellies illuminated from time to time by huge, silent explosions of lightning. Beltrane’s bones hummed in this weather, as though with a live current. He made his way out of the darkened neighborhood of the Tremé and into the jeweled glow of New Orleans’ Central Business District, where lights glittered even when the buildings were empty. The streetcar chimed from some unseen distance, roaring along the unobstructed tracks like a charging animal. He walked along them, past the banks and the hotels until at last he hit the wide boulevard of St. Charles Avenue and entered the Lower Garden District. The neutral ground—the grassy swath dividing the avenue into uptown and downtown traffic—was wide enough here to accommodate two streetcar tracks running side by side. Palm trees had been planted here long ago by some starry-eyed city planner. A half mile ahead they gave way to the huge, indigenous oaks, which had seen the palm trees planted and would eventually watch them die. They stood like ancient gods, protecting New Orleans from the wild skies above her.

“Here we are,” Ron says, and Beltrane drifts to a stop beside him. There are no trees here. There are no streetcars.

The Trinity Baptist Church is just one door in a strip mall, sandwiched between a Christian bookstore and a temp agency. The glass of its single window is smudged and dirty; deep red curtains are closed on the inside, and the corpses of moths and flies are piled on the windowsill. Ron takes a moment to unlock the door. Then he reaches inside and flips on the light.

“My office is in the back,” he says. “Come on in.”

They walk through a large, open area, with rows of folding chairs arranged neatly before a lectern. The linoleum floor is dirty and scuffed with years’ worth of rubber soles. Ron opens a plywood door in the rear of

the room and ushers Beltrane into his cramped office. He seats himself behind a desk which takes up most of the space in here and directs Beltrane to sit down in one of the two chairs on the other side. Then he switches on a computer.

While it boots up, he says, “We’ll look online and see if we can find her. What’s your name?”

“Henry Beltrane.”

“You said she was married. Will she still have your name?” “Um . . . Delacroix. That’s her husband’s name.”

Davis’s fingers tap the keys, and he hunches closer to the screen. He pauses, and begins to type some more. “Twenty-three years is a long time,” he says. “How old would she be about now? Forty?”

“Forty-five,” Beltrane says. “Forty-five years old.” It’s the first time he’s said it aloud. It works like a spell, calling up the gulf of years between now and the time he last saw her, when he was drunk in a bar and she was trying one more time to save his life.

Dad? she’d said. We’re leaving. Four more days. We’re doing it.

He’d turned his back to her then. There’d been a television behind the bar, and he fixed his eyes to it. Have a good trip, he said.

It’s not a trip. Do you understand? We’re moving there. I’m moving away, Dad.

Yeah, I know.

She grabbed his shoulders and turned him on his stool so that he had to look at her. Daddy, please.

He watched her for a moment, shaping her face out of the unraveling world. He was so drunk. The sun was still up, filtering through the dusty windows of the bar. Her eyes were tearing up. What, he said. What. What you want from me?

Davis releases a long sigh, and leans back in his chair. “I got a Sam and Lila Delacroix. That sound right?”

Beltrane’s heart turns over. “That’s her. Lila. That’s her.”

Davis jots the address and phone number down on a sticky note, and passes it across to Beltrane. “Guess it’s your lucky night,” he says, though his voice is flat.

Beltrane stares at the number in his hand, a faint, disbelieving smile on his lips. “You call her for me?”

Davis leans back in his chair and smiles. “What, right now? It’s almost midnight, Mr. Beltrane. You can’t call her now. She’ll be in bed.”

Beltrane nods, absorbing this.

“Look, I keep a mattress in the closet for when I don’t make it home. I can pull it out for you. You can crash right here tonight.”

Beltrane nods again. The thought of a mattress overwhelms him, and he feels his eyes tearing up. His mind skips ahead to tomorrow, to wondering about how soft the beds might be in Lila’s home, if she’ll let him stay. He wonders what it will feel like to wake up in the morning and smell coffee and breakfast. To have someone say kind things to him, and be happy to see him. He knew all those things once. They were a long time ago.

“You have a problem,” Davis says.

The words push through the dream, and it’s gone. He waits for his throat to open up again, so he can speak. He says, “I think I’m haunted.”

Davis keeps his eyes locked on him. “I think so too,” he says.

Beltrane can’t think of what else to say. His hand rubs absentmindedly over his chest. He knows he can’t see his daughter while this is happening to him.

“I was haunted once, too,” Davis says quietly. He opens a drawer in his desk and withdraws a pack of cigarettes. He extends one to Beltrane and keeps one for himself. “Then the ghost went away.”

Beltrane stares at him with an awed hope as Davis slowly fishes through his pockets for a lighter. “How you get rid of it?”

Davis lights both cigarettes. Beltrane wants to grab the man, but instead he takes a draw, and the nicotine hits his bloodstream. A spike of euphoria rolls through him with a magnificent energy.

“I don’t want to tell you that,” Davis says. “I want to tell you why you should keep it. And why you shouldn’t go see your daughter tomorrow.”

Beltrane’s mouth opens. He’s half smiling. “You crazy,” he says softly. “What do you think of, when you think of New Orleans?”

He feels a cramp in his stomach. His joints begin sending telegraphs of distress. He can’t let this happen. “Fuck you. I’m leaving.” Davis is still as Beltrane hoists himself out of his chair. “The shelter won’t let you back in. You said it yourself, you gave up the bed when you left. Where are you going to go?”

“I’ll go to Lila’s. It don’t matter if it’s late. She’ll take me in.”

“Will she? With streets winding through your body? With lamps in your eyes? With rain blowing out of your heart? No. She will slam that door in your face and lock it tight. She will think she is visited by something from hell. She will not take you in.”

Beltrane stands immobile, one hand still clutching the chair, his eyes fixed not on anything in this room but instead on that awful scene. He hasn’t seen Lila’s face in twenty years, but he can see it now, contorted in fear and disgust at the sight of him. He feels something shift in his body, something harden in his limbs. He squeezes his eyes shut and wills his body to keep its shape.

“Please,” says Davis. “Sit back down.” Beltrane sits.

“You’re in between places right now. People think it’s the ghost that lives between places, but it’s not. It’s us. Tell me what you think of when you think of New Orleans.”

Moving up St. Charles Avenue, Beltrane arrived at the Avenue Pub, which shed light onto the sidewalk through its open French doors and cast music and voices into the night. He peered through the windows before entering, to see who was working. The good ones would let him come in, have a few drinks. The others would turn him away at the door, forcing him to decide between walking all the way back down to the French Quarter for his booze, or just calling it a night and going back to his wrecked car at the cab station.

He was in luck; it was John.

He stepped inside and was greeted by people calling his name. He held up a hand in greeting, getting into character. This was a white bar. There were certain expectations he’d have to fulfill if he was going to get his drinks. Some college kid—he had short hair and always smelled of perfume; he could never remember his name—grabbed his hand in a powerful squeeze. “’Trane! My dog! What up, dude?”

“Awright, awright,” Beltrane said, letting the kid crush his hand. It was going to hurt all night.

The kid yelled over the crowd. “Yo John, set me up one of them shots for ’Trane here!”

John smiled. “You’re evil, dude.”

“Oh, whatever, man! Pour me one too! I can’t let him go down that road all by hisself!”

Beltrane maneuvered to an open spot at the bar beside a pretty white girl he’d never seen before and an older guy wearing an electrician’s jumpsuit. The girl made a disgusted noise and inched away from him. The electrician nodded at him and said his name. The college kid joined him in a moment with two milky gray shots in his hand. He pushed the larger one at Beltrane.

“Dude! I’m worried, bro. I don’t know if you’re man enough for a shot like this.”

“Shiiiit. I a man!”

“This is a man’s drink, dog!” “Dat’s what I am! I a man!” “Then do the shot!”

He did the shot. It tasted vile, of course: like paint thinner and yogurt. They always gave him some horrible shit to drink. But it was real booze, and it slammed into his brain like a wrecking ball. He coughed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

The college kid slapped his back. “Shit, ’Trane! You okay? I thought you said you was a man!”

He tried to talk, but he couldn’t get his throat to unclench. He ended up just waving his hand dismissively.

Beltrane screwed a bleary eye in the bartender’s direction, who moved in a series of ripples and left a ghostly trail in his wake. A beer seemed to sprout from the bartop like a weed. He held out the bag of shrimp he’d gotten earlier. “Heat this up for me, John.”

When John came back a few minutes later with the bag, Beltrane said, “You seen Ivy tonight?”

“She was here earlier. You still trying to hit that, you pervert?”

Beltrane just laughed. He clutched his beer and settled into his customary reverie as bar life broke and flowed around him, wrapping him in warmth, like a slow-moving river. He downed the shots as they appeared before him and concentrated on keeping them down. Somewhere in the drift

of the night a girl materialized beside him, her back half turned to him as she spoke with somebody on her other side. She had a tattoo of a Japanese print on her shoulder, which dipped below the line of her sleeveless white shirt. She was delicate and beautiful. He brushed her arm with the back of his hand, trying to make it seem accidental, and she turned to face him.

“Hey, ’Trane,” she said. Her eyes shed a warm yellow light. He wanted to touch her, but there was a divide he couldn’t cross.

“We all God’s children,” he said.

“Yeah, I know.” She looked at the boy she was talking to and rolled her eyes. When she looked at him again she had raised windows for eyes, with curtains blowing out of them, framing a yellow-lit room. Below them, her face declined in wet shingles, flowing with little rivulets of rainwater. It took him a moment to realize the water was flowing from inside her. Behind her, her friend rose to his feet; wood and plaster cracked and split as he stood. His eyes were windows, too, but the lights there had been blown out. Water gushed from them. The bar had gone silent; in his peripheral vision he saw that he was ringed with wet, shining faces.

A figure moved to the window in the girl’s face. It was backlit; he couldn’t make out who it was. Water was rising around his feet, soaking through his shoes, making him cold.

Davis says, “There’s some people I want you to meet.” His voice is so soft Beltrane can barely hear it. Davis is sitting on the edge of his desk, looming over him. His eyes are moist.

Beltrane blinks. “I got to get out of here.” “Just wait. Please?”

“You can’t keep me here. I ain’t a prisoner.”

“No, I know. Your . . . your ghost is very strong. I’ve never seen one that was a—a city, before.”

Beltrane is suddenly uncomfortable with Davis’s proximity to him. “What you doing this close? Back off a me, man.”

Davis takes a deep breath and slides off his desk, moving back to his side of it. He collapses into his chair. “There’s some people I want you to meet,” he says. “Will you stay just a little bit longer?”

The thought of going outside into this strange city does not appeal to Beltrane. He doesn’t know the neighborhood, doesn’t know which places are safe for homeless people to go and which places are off-limits—whether due to police, or thugs, or just because it’s someone else’s turf. He was always safe in New Orleans, which he knew as well as he knew his own face. But new places are dangerous.

“You got another cigarette?” he says. Davis seems to relax a little, and passes one to him. After it’s lit, he says, “How come I can’t get rid of it?”

“You can,” says Davis. “It’s just that you shouldn’t. Do you—do you really know what a ghost is, Mr. Beltrane?”

“This must be where you start preaching.”

“A ghost is something that fills a hole inside you, where you lost something. It’s a memory. Sometimes it can be painful, and sometimes it can be scary. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the ghost ends and real life begins. I know you know what I mean.”

Beltrane just looks away, affecting boredom. But he can feel his heart turning in his chest, and sweat bristling along his scalp.

“But if you get rid of it, Mr. Beltrane, if you get rid of it, you have

nothing left.” He pauses. “You just have a hole.”

Beltrane darts a glance at him. Davis is leaning over his desk, urgency scrawled across his face. He’s sweating, too, and his eyes look sunken, as though someone has jerked them back into his head from behind. His appearance unnerves Beltrane, and he turns away.

“Emptiness. Silence. Is that really better? You need to think carefully about what you decide you can live without, Mr. Beltrane.” He pauses for a moment. When Beltrane stays silent, he leans even closer and asks, “What do you really think is going to happen when you make that call tomorrow?” A cold pulse of fear flows through Beltrane’s body. But before he can think of a response, a sound reaches them through the closed door. People

are entering the church from the street.

Davis smiles suddenly. It’s an artificial smile, manic, out of all proportion to any possible stimulus. “They’re here! Come on!”

He leads him into the large room with the lectern and the rows of chairs. Two people—a young, slender Latina woman and an older, obese white man—have just entered and are standing uncertainly by the door. Although they’re dressed in simple, cheap clothing, it’s immediately

obvious that they’re not homeless. They both stare at Beltrane as he approaches behind the pastor.

“Come on, everybody,” Davis says, gesturing to the front row of chairs. “Let’s sit down.”

Davis arranges a chair to face them, and soon they are all sitting in a clumsy circle. “These are the people I wanted you to meet,” he says. “This is Maria and Evan. They’re haunted, too.”

Maria tries to form a smile beneath eyes that are sunken and dark, like moon craters or like cigarette burns. She seems long out of practice. Evan is staring intently at the floor. He’s breathing heavily through his nose with a reedy, pistoning regularity. His forehead is glistening with sweat.

“I’m trying to start a little group here, you know? People with your sort of problem.”

“This is how we gonna get rid of it?” Beltrane asks. Davis and Maria exchange glances.

“They don’t want to get rid of them,” Davis says. “That’s why they’re here.” He turns to the others. “Mr. Beltrane came here from New Orleans. He’s looking for his daughter.”

Maria gives him a crushed look. “Oh, pobrecito,” she says. The news seems to affect her deeply: her face clouds over, and her eyes well up. Beltrane looks away, embarrassed for her, and ashamed at his own optimism.

“His ghost is a city.”

This seems to catch even Evan’s attention, who looks at him for the first time. “I’m the Ghost of Christmas Past,” Evan says, and barks a laugh. “My family died in a fire two days after Christmas. The fucking tree! It’s like a joke, right?”

Davis pats Evan on the knee. “We’ll get to it, my friend. We will. But first we have to help him understand.”

“Right, right. But it wants to come out. It wants to come out right now.”

“Mr. Beltrane thinks he lost his city in the flood,” Davis continues.

“I did lose it!” Beltrane shouts, feeling both scared and angry to be among these people. “After Katrina came, I lost everything! Craig moved away after his place flooded! Places I go to are all shut down. The people

all gone. Ivy . . . Ivy, she . . . she was in this empty old house she used to crash in. ” His throat closes, and he stops there.

Davis waits a moment, then puts his hand on his shoulder. “But it’s not really gone, though, is it?” He touches Beltrane on the forehead, and then on his chest. “Is it?”

Beltrane shakes his head.

“And if it ever does go away, well, God help you then. Because you will be all by yourself. You will be all alone.” He pauses. “You don’t want that. Nobody wants that.”

Evan makes a noise and puts a hand over his mouth.

“I had enough of this crazy shit,” Beltrane says, and stands. Davis opens his mouth, but before he can speak the room is filled with the scent of cloves and cinnamon. The effect is so jarring that Beltrane nearly loses his balance.

Evan doubles over in his seat, hands over his face, his big body shuddering with sobs. The smell pours from him. Smoke leaks from between his fingers, spreading in cobwebby wreaths over his head. Beltrane wants to run, but he’s never seen this kind of thing in anyone but himself before, and he’s transfixed.

“Oh, here it comes,” Davis says, not to the others but to himself, his eyes glassy and fixed, staring at Evan. “That’s all right, just let it out. You have to let it come out. You have to hold on to what’s left. Never let it go.” He looks at Maria. “Can you feel him, Maria? Can you?”

Maria nods. Her eyes are filled with tears. Her hands are clutching her stomach, and Beltrane watches as it grows beneath them, accompanied by a powerful, sickly odor that he does not recognize right away. When he does he feels a buckling inside, the turning over of some essential organ or element, and he is overwhelmed by a powerful need to flee.

“Will you get rid of this?” Davis is saying, his face so close to Maria’s they might be lovers. “Will you get rid of your child, Maria? Who could ask that of you? Who would dare?”

Beltrane backs up a step and falls over a chair, sprawling to the floor in a clatter of noise and his own flailing arms. There’s a sudden, spiking pain as his elbow takes the brunt of his weight. The air grows steadily colder; the appalling mix of cinnamon and desiccated flesh roots into his nose. Davis kneels between the others, one hand touching each body, and once again his

features seem to be tugging inward, even his round stomach is drawing in, as though something empty, some starving need, is glutting itself on this weird energy; as though there’s a black hole inside him, filling its belly with light.

“Please God, just let it come,” Davis says.

Beltrane tries to scramble to his feet and slips. A large, growing puddle of Mississippi River water surrounds him. It soaks his clothes. He tries again, making it to his feet this time, and staggers to the door. He pushes his way outside, into the warm, humid night, and without waiting to see if they’re following he lurches further down the street, away from the church, away from the shelter, until an alleyway opens like a throat and he turns gratefully into it. He manages to make it a few more feet before he collapses to his knees. He doesn’t know anymore if the pain he feels is coming from arthritis or from the ghost which has wrapped itself like a vine around his bones.

Across the alley, in the alcove of a delivery door, he sees a mound of clothing and a duffel bag: this is somebody’s roost. A shadow falls over him as a figure stops in the mouth of the alley. The city light makes a dark shape of it, a negative space. “What you doin here?” it says.

Beltrane closes his eyes: an act of surrender. “I just restin, man,” he says, almost pleads. “I ain’t stayin.”

“You don’t belong here.”

“Come on, man. Just let me rest a minute. I ain’t gonna stay. Can’t you see what’s happening to me?”

When he opens his eyes, he is alone. He exhales, and it almost sounds like a sob. “I wanna go home,” he whispers. “I wanna go home.” He runs his hands through his hair, dislodging drowned corpses, which tumble into his lap.

Beltrane left the Avenue Pub behind, well and truly drunk, walking slowly and carefully as the ground lurched and spun beneath him. He summoned the presence of mind to listen for the streetcar, which came like a bullet at night; just last year it ran down a drunk coming from some bar further up the road. “That’s some messy shit,” he announced, and laughed to himself.

The United Cab offices were just a few blocks away. If he hurried he could beat the rain.

Halfway there he found Ivy, rooting lazily through a trash can.

She was a cute little thing who’d shown up in town last year after fleeing some private doom in Georgia; she was forty years younger than Beltrane, but hoped lived large in him. They got along pretty well—she got along well with most men, really—and it was always nice to spend time with a pretty girl. He waved at her. “Ivy! Hey, girl!”

She looked up at him, her face empty. “’S’up, ’Trane. What you doin?” She straightened and tossed a crumpled wrapper back into the can.

“I’m goin to bed, girl. It’s late!”

She appraised him for a moment, then smiled. “You fucked up!” He laughed, like a little boy caught in some foolishness.

She saw the bag he still clutched in his hand. “I ain’t had nothing to eat, ’Trane. I’m starving.”

He held the bag aloft, like the head of a slain enemy. “I got some food for ya right here.”

She held out a hand and offered him her best smile. It lit up all that alcohol in him. It set him on fire. “Well give it over then,” she said.

“You must think I’m crazy. Come on back with me, to my place.” “Shit. That old cab?”

Beltrane turned and walked in that direction, listening to her footsteps as she trotted to catch up. The booze in him caused the earth to move in slow, steady waves, and the lights to bleed into the cloudy night. A cold wind had kicked up, and the buildings swooned on their foundations. Together they trekked the short distance to United Cab.

He found himself, as always, stealing glances at her: though she was gaunt from deprivation, she seemed to have an aura of carved nobility about her, a hard beauty distinct from circumstance or prospect. She was young enough, too, that she still harbored some resilient optimism about the world, as though it might yield some good for her yet. And who knows, he thought. Maybe it would.

The first hard drops of rain fell as they reached the cab. It had died where it was last parked, two years ago. It sagged earthward, its tires long deflated and its shocks long spent, so that the chassis nearly scraped the ground as Beltrane opened the door and climbed in. It smelled like fried

food and sweat, and he rubbed the old air freshener hanging from the rearview in some wild hope he could coax a little life from it yet. The front seats had been taken out, giving them room to stretch their legs. The car was packed with blankets, old newspapers, and skin magazines. Ivy stared in after him, wrinkling her nose.

“This is it, baby,” he said. “It stinks in here!”

“It ain’t that bad. You get used to it.” He leaned against the seatback, stretching his legs to the front. He hooked one arm up over the backseat and invited her to lean into him. She paused, still halfway through the door, on her hands and knees.

“I ain’t fuckin you, ’Trane. You too damn old.”

“Shit, girl.” He tried to pretend he wasn’t disappointed. “Get your silly ass in here and have some food.”

She climbed in, and he opened the bag for her. The shrimp retained a lingering heat from the microwave at the Pub, and they dug in. Afterwards, with warm food alight in their bellies and the rain hammering on the roof, she eased back against the seat and settled into the crook of his arm at last, resting her head on his shoulder. Beltrane gave her a light squeeze, realizing with a kind of dismay that any sexual urge had left him, that the feeling he harbored for her now was something altogether different, altogether better.

“I don’t know nothing about you, ’Trane,” she said quietly. “You don’t talk very much.”

“What you mean? I’m always talking!”

“Yeah, but you don’t really talk, you know? Like, you got any family around?”

“Well,” he said, his voice trailing. “Somewhere. I got a little girl somewhere.”

She lifted her head and looked at him. “For real?”

He just nodded. Something about this conversation felt wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. The rain was coming down so hard it was difficult to focus. “I ain’t seen her in a long time. She got married and went away.”

“She just abandon you? That’s fucked up, ’Trane.”

“I wasn’t like this then. Things was different.” Sorrow crested and broke in his chest. “She got to live her life. She had to go.”

“You ever think about leaving too? Maybe you could go to where she live.”

“Hell no, girl. This is my home. This is everything I know.” “It’s just a place, ’Trane. You can change a place easy.”

He didn’t want to think about that. “Anyway,” he said, “she forgot me by now.”

Ivy was quiet for a time, and Beltrane let himself be lulled by the drumbeat over their heads. Then she said, “I bet she ain’t forgot you.” She adjusted her position to get comfortable, putting her head back on his shoulder. “I bet she still love her daddy.”

They stopped talking, and eventually she drifted off to sleep. He kissed her gently on her forehead, listening to the storm surrounding the car. The air was chilly, but their bodies were warm against each other. Outside was thrashing darkness, and rain.

Beltrane awoke with a fearful convulsion. The car was filling with water. It was pouring from Ivy, from her eyes and her mouth, from the pores of her skin, in a black torrent, lifting the stored papers and the garbage around them in swirling eddies, rising rapidly over their legs and on up to their waists. The water was appallingly cold; he lost all feeling where it covered him. He put his hands over Ivy’s face to staunch the flow, without effect. Her head lolled beside him, her face discolored and grotesquely swollen.

He was going to drown. The idea came to him with a kind of alien majesty; he was overcome with awe and horror.

He pushed against the car door, but it wouldn’t open. Beyond the window, the night moved with a murderous will. It lifted the city by its roots and shook it in its teeth. The water had nearly reached the ceiling, and he had to arch his back painfully to keep his face above it. Ivy had already slipped beneath the surface, her lamplit eyes shining like cave fish.

All thought left him: his whole energy was channeled into a scrabbling need to escape. He slammed his body repeatedly into the car door. He pounded the glass with his fists.

Beltrane awakens to pain. His limbs are wracked with it, his elbow especially. He opens his eyes and sees the pavement of the alley. Climbing to his feet takes several minutes. Morning is near: through the mouth of the alley the streetlights glow dimly against a sky breaking slowly into light. There is no traffic, and the salty smell of the bay is strong. The earth has cooled in the night, and the heat’s return is still a few hours away.

He takes a step toward the street, then stops, sensing something behind him. He turns around.

A small city has sprouted from the ground in the night, where he’d been sleeping, surrounded by blowing detritus and stagnant filth. It spreads across the puddle-strewn pavement and grows up the side of the wall, twinkling in the deep blue hours of the morning, like some gorgeous fungus, awash in a blustery evening rain. It exudes a sweet, necrotic stink. He’s transfixed by it, and the distant wails he hears rising from it are a brutal, beautiful lullaby.

He walks away from it.

When he gets to the street, he turns left, heading down to the small harbor. The door to the church is closed when he passes it, and the lights are off inside. There’s no indication of any life there. Soon he passes the shelter, and there are people he recognizes socializing by its front door; but he doesn’t know their names, and they don’t know his. They don’t acknowledge him as he walks by. He passes a little restaurant, the smell of coffee and griddle-cooked sausage hanging in front of it like a cloud. The long white masts of the sailboats are peering over the tops of buildings. He rounds a corner and he is there.

The water of the bay glimmers with bright shards of light as the sun climbs. The boats jostle gently in their berths. A pelican perches on a short pier, wings spread like hanging laundry. He follows a sidewalk along the waterfront until he finds a payphone with a dial tone. He presses zero, and waits.

“I wanna make a collect call,” he says, fishing the slip of paper Davis gave him out of his pocket and reciting the number.

He waits for the automated tone, and announces himself. “It’s Henry.

It’s your dad.”

A machine says, “Please hold while we connect your call.”

Leaning over the small concrete barrier, he can see the shape of himself in the water. His reflection is broken up by the water’s movement. Small pieces of himself clash and separate. He thinks that if he waits here long enough the water will calm, and his face will resolve into something familiar.

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