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Ben Neihart


Joe's footsteps went wunk wunk as he turned off Royal onto a quieter street that was crazy-full of water -- water dripping off roofs, off balconies, puddling in the center of the street as if, just before his approach, the block had been singled out by half a typhoon. Lamplight spilled apple green across the sidewalk; the color mutated into oily rainbows where it bled down the curb and into the rushing gutters. Level with Joe's shoulders, loose wires that were interwoven with sugary-smelling vines drooped along the facades of one building after the next, like spiderwebs spouting from the mortar between crumbling bricks. The trail of wire and weed disappeared finally into the dark portal of a store that sold antique bottles; blue ones and green ones and sparkly red ones that sat on shelves in the front windows, glowing with the weak light of a few fluorescent bulbs deep within the store. The store's entryway was shrouded in steam.

Weirded out by the uninhabitedness, Joe came to a stop, scratching his sole across the gritty sidewalk in imitation of a soldier's lockstep. This was prime pavement for some kind of ambush, he thought; gunplay; no witnesses around, just laughter floating across the rooftops from Bourbon Street in one direction and steam whistles and tug horns from the Mississippi River in the other. Every single day, without exception, a couple of people got their faces shot off around town. Graffiti writers kept a log of the victims' names on the support pillars of the highway overpasses. Actual murder was rare in the Quarter, but still you had to keep your watch.

He hooked his arm around a droplet-covered street lamp and leaned into the street. At the far end of the block there was an old oak tree with a huge trunk, just behind the fence of a shuttered hotel. Its quivering branches dipped to the sidewalk. The leaves skittered with soothing rhythm across the cement. As Joe watched, mesmerized by the folding and unfolding of the tree, a figure in dark clothing emerged from within the branches and leaves. It moved lightly and quickly and implacably toward him as if it were an animated figure projected from a hidden machine onto the street. It carried an umbrella with a high, elegant arch. Its footsteps rang like horseshoes. It seemed to drag the fog and oak leaves with it as it walked. Its head was up and its shoulders were squared formally and it took sharp, loud intakes of breath.

Man or Woman? Joe wondered. The face wasn't covered or veiled; just dark. He couldn't make out the curves of its torso, if there were any.

"Hey," he said in what he hoped was an offhand, unworried voice as he loosened his grip on the lamppost and began walking toward the stranger. He was within a dozen steps of it when it turned suddenly and slipped into the alley that was in the middle of the block, just across the street from Nola, the restaurant where he was meeting White Donna.

The street roared with silence as Joe stood in place for a moment, looking at the pillows of fog that tumbled along the gutters. Tucking his forearms against his ribs, he threw himself into a run. The hardness of the street surged gratifyingly through the muscles and bones of his legs. As he rounded into the mouth of the cobblestone alley where the figure had gone, his heart skipped a beat and the pit of his stomach reddened. He slowed to a walk, pressing his hand to the center of his chest. Making his way to the dead end of the alley, he surveyed the landscape, looking up and down the walls of shuttered doors and windows; his eye lingered at each of the shadowy, hooded doorways. After a moment, he moved toward a dark vestibule at the top of a half flight of stairs. Dim light glowed from within the building; it spilled through busted wooden shutter slats onto the cement landing at the top of the steps.

He thought at first that the familiar tapping noise that he heard as he climbed was the sound of his own footsteps, but when he came to a stop on the landing the click clang continued, and he twisted his head to see the dark figure, its umbrella resting tight to its head and its legs hidden by the steam that burbled from the grated water-runoff duct, running up the alley away from him. In the time it took Joe to lunge down the stairs, the figure had made its escape around the corner.

He paid a moment of empty attention to the cobblestones at his feet, blank headed as if the shrouded figure had run off with his thoughts. After a few minutes had passed, he stomped up the alley, thumping his flat palm on the puffy seats of a dozen motorcycles that were chained along the wall.

As he came out of the alley, hunching his face down and lifting his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his forehead and nose, he noticed that the street was different than it had been a few minutes earlier. There were couples and groups humming along the sidewalks, and a tall man in black tie was blowing discordant notes out of his tiny saxophone. Stepping into the street, Joe let his shirt fall back over his belly, and then he took an abrupt hop backwards to avoid a delivery girl -- flash of legs and elbows and insulated red pizza carrier -- who whistled almost silently past him on her bike.

"Iquoi!" he called after her with admiration in his voice. "Girl, what's up!"

The bike stopped on a dime. The girl's tentative voice floated back to him: "Joe Keith?"

"Yeah!" He sprinted over to her, splashing through a milky green puddle in the center of the street. He leaned up against her bike, a black Schwinn Cruiser with whitewalls and, beneath the torn banana seat, hefty shock absorbers. "Baby," he said, "I haven't seen you since like forever."

"How hard've you been sweatin' me?" she said, breaking into her usual exuberant smile. "I've totally been around."

Iquoi was part Indian and part Irish, with shoulder-length black hair; tonight she wore it in beaded pigtails. Her thick lips always gleamed with purple or black lipstick, and she had creamy cheeks and a long, muscley neck. She wore a black sports bra under baggy green cutoff overalls, and blue suede Pumas with no socks.

"Just 'cause you've been around doesn't mean that I have."

"Hard-ass. You wanna tell me where you been keepin' your tired self?"

"At school! It started again."

"How'm I to know? Pretty bitches there?"

"They work some serious runway on the greens of Country Day, I dare say. Bitches in platform sandals and beaded tops."

"Mall clothes? Melrose Place clothes?"

"No indeed. These are rich girls. I go to school with rich girls who buy their clothes at pissy little stores in Houston over their summer vacation."

"You dating any of them?" She leaned into him so the thick denim bib of her overalls chafed against his thin T-shirt.

"Not that I know of."

"Have you ever made out with any of those girls?"


"Do they kiss as good as me?" she asked, leaning just a fifteenth of an inch closer and opening her mouth on Joe's.

As the tip of her tongue tickled along the inside of his cheek, Joe shut his eyes and saw a vista of glittering silver stars against the blue inside of his lids. He got a hard-on that jutted sideways; the head of his dick, thinly cloaked by his baggy, handkerchief-weight shorts, lodged on the sloping handlebar that was jammed sideways between his and Iquoi's waists. He slid his hand up his thigh and cupped the wayward dick in his palm.

"I'm disarmed," Iquoi whispered, and kissed his neck, and cupped her palm over the back of his hand; her thumb nudged the inside of his thigh.

From somewhere on an adjacent block, a girl's sweet voice sang five pure notes, "I wish you heaven," and then dissolved into the night.

"How's that?" He kissed her neck and lifted their hands away from his subsiding erection. He put his other hand, flat, inside the front of her coveralls, on her bare stomach. As her breath came, he stepped his fingers along her ribs.

"It smells like it rained," she said as his hand came to rest on the underside of her breast. "How come I'm not wet? God, it smells so sweet."

"It smells nice," he said, "but I think it's maybe like you. You smell nice." Out of the corner of his eye, Joe saw a solitary red cloud tumble across the black sky. "I feel like this is my like lucky night."

"Could be. You look good tonight. You don't have a very wholesome look. I think you've lost all your baby fat."

"Shit, yeah." He hitched up the side of his t-shirt to show off his ribs, which were plainly visible.

"Keep your clothes on, baby. I gotta haul. I got food to deliver; that's the essence of my nighttime."

"I wish we could hang out sometime soon."

"Make an effort, Joe. That's all you gotta do." She adjusted her hands on the rubber grips at the ends of the handlebars.

"I totally will. I'm making changes in my life. I'm breaking into some new shit with the way I handle myself."

"I can tell."

Joe took his hand away from the nape of her neck. "Give me a thrill, Iquoi. Spin me a pop fly."

"Climb aboard."

"Cool." Joe hopped up onto the handlebars, propping his feet on the front wheel guard. He crossed his arms over his chest, leaned back so the top of his head rested on Iquoi's arm, and looked up at the blurry sky.

"You settled?" she asked.

"Hit it."

She sighed, and stood up to get more peddling momentum. The bike quickly accelerated, whizzing through the murky green night. Just before they reached the intersection with Decatur, Iquoi whistled a sweet, round O sound, and the front tire lifted off the ground.

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