Perry took the last tablet from the cylinder clipped to his keys, placed it under his tongue, and waited for things to sort themselves out. Someone was on the phone, and then the airline people, a buzzing cloud of reprimands and false courtesy, hustled him on board and into his seat. He bit the pill in two, then worked at chewing it down to a fine powder. His mouth filled with a sour taste and he closed his eyes, waiting for his body and the earth below him to drop away.
He didn’t remember landing or stepping off the plane, but his legs, it seemed, were carrying him through the terminal. A pair of automatic doors closed behind him and he entered a concrete tunnel filled with a rumbling heat. He was aware of waiting in a line with others, but mostly he focused on the pleasure of scratching his bare forearms. A man, his skin the pale russet of river clay, took hold of Perry’s bag and motioned for him to get in a cab.
As they merged onto the highway, a slow smile spread over Perry’s face. It was like being a boy again. The sweet security of a family trip—curled in the backseat, feigning sleep and listening to his parents murmur in the dark.
“All right, all right,” the driver said into his cellphone, “thirty minutes.” He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat, then slung one arm over the headrest and turned in Perry’s direction. “Strippers,” he said, as if that explained everything. “Now, where am I taking you?”
“The Criminal Court,” Perry said, “in Orleans Parish.”
The driver nodded and turned back to the road. Perry rested his head against the window. Without prompting, the driver started talking about his job, nights running meals to working girls on Bourbon Street and then retrieving them from wherever they ended up in the morning. There was a mild music to his speech, and it was pleasant just to listen to him talk. Like a lullaby, Perry thought, and closed his eyes.
“So, where are you coming from?”
“Des Moines,” Perry said, blinking awake. A low iron fence ran parallel with the highway and beyond that a lawn that he thought must be a golf course. But back from the road there were statues and white granite crosses. There were stone tombs with slanted roofs, like little cottages for the dead.
“The court, huh?” the driver said, grinning into the rearview. “Let me guess, a little too much fun on your last visit?” Perry didn’t answer. “Well, that’s all right.” They turned off the highway and onto a busy avenue.
“Not me,” Perry said a while later. “It was my son. He was hit by a car.” The driver looked puzzled, so he added, “I’m here for the body.” It seemed strange to say “the body” instead of “his body,” as if it were a thing that didn’t belong to Morgan. A stupid thought—the problem wasn’t one of belonging. There wasn’t a Morgan for things to belong to anymore.
“Lord, that’s hard.” The man shook his head back and forth. “You have any people here?”
“People? No.” The car stopped, and the driver reached back and handed him a card. “I’m Louis. While you’re here, you call me, wherever you are, and I can be there in a half hour, forty-five minutes.” Perry paid the fare and waited for his chance to cross the street.
In the courthouse lobby, two officers stood guard. The man was broad chested with a straight back. He had the practiced, almost apologetic, friendliness of a man who could break things. The woman sat on a narrow stool in front of an X-ray machine, smacking her gum. They pointed him towards a long hallway, and at the bottom of the stairs, in the basement, he found a wooden door. orleans parish coroner’s office was painted in block letters across the glass panel, and a no-smoking sign hung over the letterslot, fixed there with a strip of masking tape.
There were more papers to fill out. He’d already arranged things with the funeral home in Des Moines, all the raw details. He’d been embarrassed when they’d asked about clothing from home. Morgan had left when he was sixteen, and whatever hadn’t gone to Goodwill wasn’t likely to fit him now.
He scanned the accident report, afraid to read it too carefully: “Saint Claude Avenue Bridge … nineteen-year-old man … struck from the back by a Dodge Caravan … ejected from the bike to the eastbound left travel lane … struck by a Chevy Avalanche … ” He brought the papers to the woman behind the counter. Her nails, brightly painted and fixed with plastic stones, made a ticking sound against the clipboard. She went to the back and then returned with a padded envelope. Perry put it in his luggage with the rest of his things.
“Do I … is now when I identify him?”
“No, baby,” she said. Perry couldn’t remember the last time a stranger had called him “baby.” A throb of childish need moved through him. He wanted this woman to put her arms around him and pull him close, to coo and console him. He reached for his pill holder, forgetting for a moment that it was empty. Before he’d left, Perry had locked his prescriptions in the shop safe, rationing only enough Oxy to get him through the flight. He didn’t want to be medicated on this trip. He owed it to Morgan to feel something.
“Someone acquainted with the deceased,” the woman said. “They already identified the body.”
“Do you know who it was?”
The woman looked up, her face already set. Maybe it was the need in Perry’s eyes, he wasn’t sure, but her expression softened. She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone was watching, then wrote something on a slip of paper. She folded the note in half and handed it to him across the counter.
Outside, the sun shone fiercely. Perry’s mouth was dry and his scalp prickled with sweat. He followed the sidewalk past a flop house and a used-car lot, then turned onto Canal Street and walked in the direction of the river. He’d expected palm trees, but the street was lined with live oaks. Their roots broke through the cement and spilled onto the sidewalk in tangled heaps. The shade was welcome, but for several blocks he had to give up on rolling his suitcase and carry it.
On the far side of the overpass, a roil of locals and tourists tumbled into each other: they shouted and slapped backs, waited for the bus with plastic bags from the pharmacy, spat on the sidewalk, scuffled, doubled over with laughter. On the boulevard, a police cruiser made a U-turn and bullied its way through the crush of traffic. Perry stopped in the midst of it all and stood there, astonished. All these people, what were they doing? Didn’t they know his son had just died? It took an elbow jabbing him to bring him back to the world again.
When he got to the hotel, he checked in at the desk and took the elevator to the sixth floor. In his room, he sat on the edge of the bed and took out his phone. There were five messages—all from Karen, of course. There was no point in listening. He could imagine them easily enough: Why had he insisted on going alone? Did he remember to claim his bags at the airport? He wasn’t eating spicy food, was he? Was he eating at all? What kind of a man was he, abandoning his wife at a time like this? Did he think that because she hadn’t given birth to Morgan that she didn’t have a right to be there?
Perry stood up and retrieved the envelope from the coroner’s office. There were a couple of cassette tapes inside, receipts from a local grocery, and some kind of homemade publication, photocopied and stapled, with type-written rants about capitalism and gentrification. At the bottom, he found a ring of keys and a wallet with a few dollars in it. Handling Morgan’s things, his chemical buffer against the world already spent, Perry braced for the force of his grief to crash over and crumple him. But he didn’t feel anything, really—except that there had been, maybe, some slight adjustment to the laws of gravity. He sensed that if he took a step forward, he might rise off the floor and drift out the window. He lowered himself onto the bed again, laid back, and gently gripped the side of the mattress.
He thought about the last time he’d seen Morgan. Perry had sent the other guys home early that night and closed up the shop. A mountain bike on the rack, he’d chewed a pill and taken his time repairing a bent derailleur. That was something he’d always liked about the pills; he could take them and still work—for hours, in fact—concentrated and content. Well after the job was done, he stayed crouched next to the ten-speed, savoring the whisper of the spinning wheels, the finger-snap of the chain as it vaulted over the sprockets.
When he got home, he could hear Morgan and Karen arguing in the kitchen. Framed by the empty doorway, the scene looked like some old painting. There was a boy, his skinny arms stretched out and his face twisted in anguish. The big woman, fleshy and pink beneath her nightgown, leaned towards him. Comforter or tormenter, Perry thought, she could’ve fit either role in the picture.
“Everything is not fine,” Morgan said. “It’s totally screwed up.” His voice splintered. “But you act like nothing’s wrong. It’s like you’re a zombie—you’re both zombies, and you’re trying to make me one too—like you want to eat my brains—” Karen let out a noise like a startled bird.
“Don’t laugh at me,” Morgan said, pleading. “Why are you laughing?”
“I’m sorry,” Karen said. She covered her mouth with her hand. “Of course, it’s not funny. It’s just the way you’re talking.”
Perry stepped into the light and reached between the two of them. He took his dinner plate out of the refrigerator and carried it over to the counter.
“There you are,” Karen said. “I must have called you six times.”
“I was working.”
“I don’t know if you’re interested,” she said, “but your son was arrested tonight. The police brought him home in a squad car. The whole neighborhood must have seen it.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
Perry put his plate in the microwave and started it up.
“They found him in some boarded-up house in Drake. A party, with beer, if that was even the worst of it.” Perry sighed and rubbed his eyes. Hunched in front of the microwave, he watched the slow turning of the plate. “How were you even going to get home?”
“I was going to crash there. Lots of people do.” Perry turned to see Morgan sweep his backpack off the table and onto his shoulder. “It’s not like I’m wanted around here.”
“You are not spending the night in a crack house.”
“It’s not a crack house.”
“Let’s everybody take it down a notch,” Perry said.
Morgan stood there, shifting his weight from side to side, staring down at the floor. This had always been the sign, when Morgan was little, that he was about to throw himself on the ground and scream. “Besides,” he said, looking up, “I’m not the one that does drugs.”
“Morgan, go to your room.” Perry felt Karen’s hand on his shoulder. “It’s late and your father’s tired.”
“He’s always tired. I wonder why that is.”
“Don’t be cute,” Karen said.
“You know, I’ve heard it’s better if you crush them up and snort them, they say it beats the time-release—you should try that some time.”
“Morgan, that’s enough. It’s medicine. You know your father’s sick.”
“I’m not hungry,” Perry announced. There was a shrill beeping from the microwave, but he didn’t do anything about it. “Maybe you can get through to him. I can’t talk to him when he’s like this.”
Perry went to the bedroom to lie down. There were raised voices in the kitchen, then yelling, then the slamming of the screen door. Perry turned over and switched off the lamp. “He says he’s not coming back,” Karen said when she came to bed. She sat upright in the dark, her hands folded in her lap.
“We’ve heard that before,” Perry said. “Besides, he’s got it too good here, and he knows he can’t go back to Donna’s.” Morgan had lived with his mother since the divorce. But then Donna had gotten married again, to a buzz-cut engineer, a church-going man with a daughter in college and his own ideas about parenting. Things had gotten bad over there. Morgan had broken the rules, stolen money, snuck out of the house. He would hide out for two, sometimes three days in a row before coming back. Eventually, Donna had given up. “We can’t do this anymore,” she’d said, “we won’t. You have to take him.” It had been a year living in Perry’s house, but he couldn’t say things had gotten any better.
“He’ll come back,” he said. He reached out, grasped her fingers, and squeezed them gently. Three months later, Morgan called to ask Karen for money. Then, for two years, they heard nothing.
Perry felt in his pocket for the note from the coroner’s office. He took it out and unfolded it. There was a street address, but no city or state, no name or commentary. He called Louis and went downstairs to wait.
Perry had no real sense of the city’s geography, but the address, Louis told him, was uptown. They drove up Magazine Street, a long corridor flanked by antique shops and antebellum houses. Fences of cast iron enclosed gardens filled with broad-leaved banana trees, shrubs of blooming sweet olive, and stately magnolias, bare of flowers. The air, damp and sluggish, smelled like ripe peaches.
Perry got out at a pocket park across the street from a liquor store, then weaved through two lanes of traffic and stepped into a doorway. The door had been painted over several times, but now wood grain showed through chips of blue, green, and purple. He pressed the button next to the mailbox, but no one answered. Then he remembered Morgan’s keys and tried one of them in the lock. The latch turned, and the last key on the ring let him into the apartment at the top of the stairs. He called inside, then slipped into the front room and closed the door behind him.
Two large windows faced the park, the view obscured by gauzy curtains and half-open shutters. The front room was filled with rippling shadows, as if the building, maybe the whole world, were underwater. Perry flipped the switch at the wall, brightening the strings of Christmas lights tacked along the moldings. There was a shabby opulence to the place. The leopard-print couch, missing a foot, had been propped up on a stack of library books. A black rotary phone was on display, and next to that a turntable and a stack of old records. There was no television.
The photos on the walls were dark and glossy. In one, a naked man with a hairless chest perched on a carpet of up-turned nails. In another, a snarling woman held a cigar stub in one opera-gloved hand and a mug of beer in the other. He stopped at the third and stared. Beneath the dunce cap, the tramp’s five o’clock shadow, and the grease-paint smile, Perry still recognized the boy. It was Morgan.
Behind him, the door opened with the sound of a jingling collar. A muscular dog trotted into the room and squinted at him. It lifted its tail, lowered its flat head, and barked. At the other end of the leash was a tall woman in a tank top, her head crowned with a tight nest of dreadlocks. She was small-breasted and braless, with blond tufts thrusting out from the hollows below her arms.
“These pictures,” Perry blurted, “this one, I mean—” He felt in his pocket for the note but couldn’t find it. “Sorry, I was looking for Morgan.”
“Get out.” The dog let out a trio of barks, then stood there panting. The woman loosened her grip on the leash. “Right the fuck now.” Perry sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. He hadn’t noticed it dripping before.
“No, I’m not a—I’m Perry, Morgan’s dad. Wait, I have id.” He began to reach for his wallet, but the dogs eyes were on him. The animal stiffened, and Perry froze where he was.
“How did you get in here?”
“The coroner. There were keys to this place, when they gave me his things. You must have—does he live here?” The dog strained against the leash. “Irma,” the woman said sternly, “sit.” She crouched to the animal’s level and soothed it. “Look, she’s very protective. Wait outside, all right, I’ll be down in a minute.” She moved away from the doorway, leading the dog along the edge of the room. Perry did as he was told.
He got as far as the curb before he had to stop and retch. The back of his throat convulsed three times, the last so hard it bent him over. He spat froth onto the sidewalk. He hadn’t thought this through. He knew that now. It must have been ten years—no, more than that—since he’d gone a day without pills, not since his back surgery.
The front door swung open and the woman stepped outside. Her dreads were covered by a crocheted hat and she was snapping together the last buttons of a cowboy shirt.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, just getting over a cold.”
“Well, keys or not, you shouldn’t go into somebody’s house like that. You could get hurt.” She rummaged in her purse and retrieved a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “You’re as bad as Morgan, you know that?” Perry wiped his face with his shirtfront. “He was like a—what do you call it?—a babe in the woods.” She lit one, tossed the lighter back in her purse, and held out her hand. “I’m Geneva.”
“Perry.” She had a firm grip and the skin of her hands was rough and dry.
“You’re from Chicago, too?”
“Chicago? No, Des Moines.”
“I knew it, that little liar.” She smiled for the first time, and tiny lines appeared at the corners of her mouth. She’d seemed younger at first, but now he placed her age somewhere between thirty and thirty-five.
“You have my keys.” Perry handed them over and watched as Geneva locked the door. What business did she have with a nineteen-year-old boy? He knew it was crude, but he felt a little proud. He liked the idea that his son had been laying a real woman. Not some girl bewildered by her own desires, but a woman who could choose for herself. The cars started moving again, and a breeze, hot and gentle, skimmed the length of the street. Over the tang of exhaust, he caught her scent—a perfume of aniseed and day-old sweat.
“You know he didn’t live here, right,” she said, turning back. “Not really.”
“No, I guess I didn’t know that.”
“Mostly he stayed at the Twat Mahal.” She pulled a cell phone out of the front pocket of her jeans. “Shit, I’m late. Walk with me, okay?” Perry followed, taking long strides to keep up. “So about a year ago, the Nobodies found this big empty warehouse in the 9th Ward. They’ve been squatting there since then. It’s fucking foul. Honestly, it smells like a sewer.”
“I don’t understand. The who?”
“The Nobodies Zirkus. They’re these kids that put on shows around here—some classic circus stuff but mostly, I don’t know what you’d call it, just gross-out nastiness. They were on tour for a while, but the van broke down, so now they’re back again.” A tremor passed over Perry’s face. He wasn’t crying—hadn’t been able to cry—but his eyes began to water.
“And Morgan, he was one of them?”
“Not exactly. He was part of that scene, yeah. But sometimes, you know, he would just get sick of all of them or they would get sick of him and he’d need somewhere to crash.”
“And you would let him stay with you. The two of you were close.” She shrugged.
“I don’t know about that.”
It came on suddenly—surges of sweat soaked his clothes and his skull filled with a damp thumping. He was dying, he was sure of it, his whole body putrefying and pooling into his shoes. He put one hand on a parked car and vomited into the gutter.
“Come on,” Geneva said, taking his arm.
She pulled him through a door and into a blast of air conditioning. A murk of cold smoke swirled over the concrete floor. There were voices and laughter, the crack of billiard balls and the senseless chiming of gambling machines. She helped him onto a stool, and then there was ice water in front of him and an old-fashioned glass filled with whiskey and cola. He gulped down the water and shivered.
“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t think I’m used to the heat.”
“Like I said, I’m late for my shift.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “Look, I’m sorry about what happened to Morgan, really. A lot of people are. I mean, he was a sweet kid.” She produced a pen and flattened a napkin on the bar. “Some of us are having a thing for him tonight at this place on Saint Claude. I think maybe you should come. You know, if you feel up to it.” He put one hand on the bar to steady himself.
“Wait,” he said, turning to catch her arm. But she was already gone.
Back in the hotel, he texted Karen. “Everything is fine,” he told her. “Morgan is coming home,” he said. “I will be back tomorrow.” And finally, “Sorry.” He knew he should have said something before he left, tried to explain that this trip was something he had to do without her help. But that conversation, they’d have to talk about so many other things, and he wasn’t ready for that.
He turned the ac as high as it would go, shut down the phone, and tried to sleep. The muscles in his legs tingled and twitched, as if an electric current were running through them. He kicked off the comforter first, then the bedsheets, then lay on his back, squirming. He thought about ordering room service, but the idea of food made him want to throw up again. He sat up in the bed and tried to clear his head, to push away the noise and numbness long enough for something to move inside him. He knew he owed Morgan a father’s grief—and hadn’t that been the point of doing without the pills, of coming here in the first place? But it was like trying to tune in a broadcast on an old television: faint images and the sharp edges of voices muffled by a shroud of white noise.
He rummaged through his store of memories, grasping for one with the power to stir up the right kind of feelings: holding Morgan in the hospital, birthday parties, camping trips, working together in the shop. None of it worked. Everything turned so quickly into a version of pity for himself. The poor, sick man who’d lost his son. It was still light outside his window. He closed the shades, then took the comforter off the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders. Seated on the thin carpet, he turned on the television and waited.
It was nine thirty when Louis picked him up at the hotel. They turned off Canal and onto Rampart Street, keeping the French Quarter at their right. Three forms, like clouds of chalk dust, burst in front of the headlights—children in white T-shirts darting through a darkened crosswalk. Louis stopped the car, but he didn’t reach for the horn.
The bar, it turned out, was little more than a brick shack with an iron gate for a door. Neon signs for Pabst and Abita glowed behind its black-barred windows. Perry stepped onto the corner and handed Louis the fare. On the sidewalk, rows of blue and white tiles spelled out marigny and st. claude ave.
“I’m not trying to scare you or anything, but you know this isn’t Bourbon Street, right?” Perry nodded. “Looking for a midnight stroll, I’d pick another block, y’hear me?” He reached out the window and patted Perry’s arm.
It was dark under the low ceiling, and on his way to the bar Perry tripped over a footrest from a broken recliner. A fan in the corner pushed the air around, but it didn’t help the smell. A film of stale beer and locker-room funk stuck to the surface of everything. A sign, handwritten on a scrap of cardboard, leaned against the shelf of liquor bottles: this is the 8th ward. no frou frou drinks.
Perry ordered a beer and waited for Geneva. Balanced on a stool, he swung his feet above the floor, trying to shake the sting out of his legs. His eyes had stopped watering, thank God, but yawning, that was his latest affliction. The woman behind the bar set a bottle in front of him.
“Don’t go to sleep on us, now.” She smiled sweetly, revealing a row of rotten teeth.
The man who occupied the stool next to him looked barely out of his teens. He was husky, with a wisp of beard that ran from jowls to chin. He wore a thin button-up, translucent with sweat, and a cheap sport coat, the near shoulder torn and showing stuffing. The brim of his bowler hat was low over his eyes, and he hunched over a notebook, scribbling.
“Sorry,” Perry said, “but is there some kind of event here tonight, for Morgan Eastwood? He was hit by a car the night before last.”
When the man looked up, Perry saw the tattoos—a pantomime pattern, black blocks above his eyebrows and red daggers stabbing down his cheeks.
“Numbskull Moron. The kid that got hit on the bridge. Skinny, right, big eyes, curly hair?”
“His name was Morgan. Did you know him?”
“I saw him around. Hold on, you’re not like a cop or a social worker, right?”
“No, nothing like that. I’m his dad.”
“Oh, sure. Right on.” The man scratched under his hat with his pen. “I wasn’t trying to be an asshole or anything. That was just his name. His clown name.” He pointed to the corners of his mouth and grimaced. “Get it? Like Buster or Pipsqueak. He was Numbskull.” A woman in thick-soled boots and a dress of soiled taffeta approached the bar. She wiggled her hips, tugged up the drooping bodice, then threw her arms around the back of the clown’s neck. Forgotten, Perry went back to his beer.
It was at least an hour waiting, so he switched to whiskey. It wasn’t what he really wanted, so he figured it shouldn’t count against him. The place had been empty when he arrived, but now the booths and the thrift store furniture, along with most of the floor space, were occupied by sweating bodies. The burning in his legs worsened, and then suddenly he had to scramble to the toilet. When he stepped out, it was darker than before and a bare light shone down on the back of the room.
“We were on Chartres by the old packing plant,” a voice said over the pa. “And there were these two dogs that always hung around there, a black one and a little white one. They were both wild and mean as hell. So I saw them on the corner there, and I said to Numbskull, ‘Let’s see if we can get them to chase us.’” Perry stopped pushing his way to the bar and turned around. There was no stage, and the crowd kept him from getting a good look. “So Numbskull takes off, pedaling like crazy—he charges them, laughing his head off.”
Others came to the front to offer stories and tributes: Morgan had been a freeloader and a liar, but he’d also built bikes and given them away, shared his tools, and taught anyone who wanted to learn how to make repairs. He would take falls, even hurt himself, if he thought it would make someone laugh. Once, on a ferryboat, he’d saved a friend from drowning, kept the boy from slipping over a guardrail and into the Mississippi.
When Perry got back to the bar, he found that a girl had taken his place. Hands at her elbows, her bare freckled arms were folded across her belly. She seemed to have been crying, and when she turned to look at him, he saw something innocent in her rough-hewn face, its wet eyes and wide mouth.
“Are you really his dad?” she asked. He nodded, and the girl got up from her stool. She hugged him hard and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. “I’m sorry,” she said.
Perry took his seat, humbled. These strangers, they had probably seen Morgan more clearly, maybe even loved him better than his own parents. The truth was, Perry had left the family long before Morgan ran away. He’d had so little left to offer at the end, hardly more than room and board and knowledge of a trade. Morgan had needed something else, and maybe he’d been right, no matter how it all turned out, to go off on his own.
When Perry finally saw Geneva, she was in the middle of things with an expensive-looking camera, snapping pictures of a girl in a fur hat.
“You look like shit,” she said when she found him at the bar.
“Must be the flu.”
Her forehead tightened. “You don’t have to lie.”
“One of those twenty-four hour things,” Perry continued. He looked down at his drink and pushed the ice around with a little straw. “Must have been the plane. All those people.”
“Have it your way.” When the bartender brought her drink, Perry insisted on paying.
“I meant to ask—Geneva, what kind of name is that?”
“It’s Gen,” she said. “Genevieve, actually. Geneva’s a kind of nickname. With these kids, there’s all this drama. But I’m neutral. I’m Switzerland.”
“So they’re your friends, then.”
“Some of them. They’re my subjects, really. It’s not the same thing.” She fixed a new lens to her camera and stepped away from the bar. “We’ll be ready to go soon, but I need to take a few more.” Perry yawned again and, not worrying what anyone thought anymore, laid his head in the crook of his arm and closed his eyes.
“Come on,” Geneva said, setting a wad of bills on the bar. “The ghost bike’s here.” Outside, a caravan was gathering, kids like the ones inside, drinking beer and smoking weed on the corner, mounting their salvaged bikes or guiding them in aimless circles in front of the bar. Their machines were simple and worn out, layered with rust and cracked paint. Some had wire baskets in front where bottles of beer, full ones and empties, rolled around and chinked together. The owners had improvised repairs: a seat stay lashed to the cross bar with bungee cords; a butter knife jammed between handlebars and basket to stop it rattling; a saddle like a gutted mattress, the exposed springs and torn vinyl bandaged with duct tape. One rider sat astride two bicycles fused together. The handlebars and seat of the bottom frame had been amputated, and another frame, stripped of its wheels, grafted onto the stumps. The rider, a shirtless man draped with a black boa, was perched at the top, a crow on a clockwork roost.
Geneva pointed to a bike that was lashed to the rack with a length of chain. It was a sturdy, unlovely thing, a one-speed with back-brakes and thick balloon tires. Perry took it for a child’s bike at first, except that it was saddled so high and white all over, slathered with house paint so that even the spokes and the gears were the same shade of raw cotton.
“It’s maybe two miles from here,” Geneva said. “The bridge where it happened.” She fit a key into the padlock. “Amanda was going to ride it, but now that you’re here, she wants you to do it. Can you ride?”
Sick as he was, he’d have to try. His own bike back home, a composite fork locked to an aluminum frame, Tiagra shifters and a Shimano wheel set, had been sitting unused in the basement for years now. He used to take it out on country roads on the weekends. He’d grip the drop bars, curl his body into a taut “S,” and work through the gears. It had curved beautifully, responding to his weight, yielding just the right amount without tipping over, like a woman when she’s being dipped. It wasn’t that he’d forgotten, but those memories were from a different life, the one before. Before the back spasms, before the surgery and the scripts for Percocet and Oxycontin, the need to keep them coming.
Perry shuffled forward, swung one stiff leg over the frame, and settled onto the saddle. He’d failed Morgan in so many ways, but he could at least do this. He had to. A few off-color notes from a trumpet and the beating of a bucket drum announced the start of the procession. He got the ghost bike up to speed. Wherever it had come from, the thing had been left outside a long time. Water had gotten inside and rusted out the bearings, causing it to pull from one side to the other. Turning was clumsy, and he almost tumbled into the street as they rounded the corner from Marigny onto Rampart. He knew he should be thinking about Morgan, but with the fire searing his legs, he could hardly think at all.
There were few streetlights and what moonlight there was seemed to get tangled up in the mess of wires that sagged from the utility poles. Narrow, single-story cottages lined the street, a patina of dust muting the bright colors of their clapboards.
Shivering in the dank heat, he struggled to keep up with the pack. Geneva had an ornament, like an onion cast in silver, hooked to the underside of her seat. Perry tried to keep it in sight, assuring himself that she wouldn’t leave him behind. One hand pushing on the top of a thigh to keep it moving, he limped through an intersection. Four cats, collarless and lean, lay panting in the middle of the cross-street. He leaned over the handlebars and pushed into an open space.
Crossing over rows of train tracks, the ghost bike moved beneath him like a living creature. It bucked and kicked, pitching him onto the grit of the railyard. His hands and arms stung where little rocks had cut them, but it didn’t feel like a serious fall. Still, he didn’t want to stand up again. He began to cry a little, then stopped. It was only for himself, of course. He couldn’t cry for Morgan, probably didn’t deserve to. Nearby, an iron rail reflected the dim orange of sodium light. He wondered how long it would take for a train to come along and finish what he’d started.
“Perry, are you all right?”
He felt Geneva’s hands on his arms, her shoulder under his, lifting him to his feet. His eyes stinging, he swayed on legs gone nearly numb. He groped for her, placed his hand at her hip and stumbled forward. His face pressed against her hair, and he drew in the sweet stink of her.
“Knock it off,” she said, pushing him away. “Jesus. It’s like you’re a baby. You just grab at whatever’s around.” Geneva brought the ghost bike to where he was standing. Gently, she steadied him and helped him to climb onto the seat. When was the last time someone had helped him onto a bicycle? It must have been when he was little, his father.
“You can do it,” she said. “It’s not far now.”
His awareness contracted, transforming the street into a narrow tunnel. There was only the pedaling and the pain in his legs now, the heat and the stinging blur of sweat dripping into his eyes. When they turned back onto a major street, he looked up. There was a rusted bridge ahead, spanning the width of a shipping canal. By the time he reached it, he’d given up any hope for grace. It was too late, even for that. He got off the bike and someone handed him the chain. He leaned the bike against the guardrail, looped the chain around it three or four times, then hooked the lock through one of the links. He snapped it shut.
The girl from the bar, the one who’d been crying, took the key from his hand and threw it in the direction of the river. A cheer went up and one of the circus people held up a torch. This is what being haunted is, he thought. It’s owing a debt to the dead and not being able to pay it. There was the smell of butane and then the roar of flame unfurling itself. Perry stood very still and looked into the eye of a camera, watching as it snapped open and shut, fixing the harsh truth of him.