He lay awake in his old Chicago bedroom as he often had in the weeks he’d been back. There was nothing on the walls here. He and Robbie had painted them together when he was young, first just in splatters, throwing on the paint, attacking the walls with hands and feet. Some years later, they began attempting real drawings of things—Robbie wasn’t bad actually, he drew a phenomenal giraffe that reminded Lev of the Toys "R" Us ads. In high school, they got high and would “impressionist the shit out of it.” Now the walls were an amalgamation of the years, layer upon layer of paint and age.
From the next room he could hear Robbie now as he played with his newfound kitten. His father cooed and the cat whined, the relationship between the two something Lev could only call love. Robbie had even taken to wearing an eye patch to match the tabby cat’s one eye; the man and cat were on completely equal terms with one another. At some point Lev wondered whether the cat was playing with Robbie and not the other way around, but he stopped himself from giving the cat too much credit.
On the way back to his dorm freshman year they all had to pass the new business school building, where, on a concrete ledge at its base, sat a man they called Lou. He sat there every day, had sat there for years, they’d heard, smoking his pipe and calling out “Hallo!” in a British/Scottish accent. A drawn face, Lev remembered, with long swooping wrinkles down each side as if his eyes and nose were embedded in dermal parentheses. Some thought he was creepy and must be a pedophile, but no one ever heard of him acting untoward to any of the students. He sat pretzel-style, always, and only ever said one word as they passed, sometimes nothing at all, just a nod of recognition.
He had told Meg of Lou, he was sure of it. He’d taken her there to see if he was sitting but he was gone by then. Maybe it was too hot. Maybe he hadn’t even talked to her about him at all, maybe he’d just gone there himself before leaving for Vegas with Robbie. For what was love after all but the feeling that your inner dialogue wasn’t with yourself but with your lover, even if she wasn’t there at all, even if it were an imagined conversation. Lev tried to think of how to spin this thought as a joke but could only come up with love as a fiction, but one that eradicates what came before it, or tries to—outside Lev heard a car horn and perceived it as the foghorn of the steamboats he would hear at 1 AM each night in New Orleans. A far off sound, a low horn, something Lester Young might play at the end of a solo, one of his long low notes, warm and hollow and wooded. How a burp might be beautiful if it never seemed to stop but only faded into the distance like a song playing on a passing car radio.
At his job earlier that day at Cal’s dad’s law firm, he filed papers into a blue pad of sorts bound with two holes on top. He separated each Motion, Subpoena, Order, and Judgment, and placed them with their corresponding Notice. Then he put number tabs between each one, and recorded the numbers onto the screen. The blue pads would go in a larger accordion file folder, which would then go in larger boxes. When the case was over, they would move the box downstairs into one of the storage facilities. When there wasn’t any room in the storage facility, they would move the box to an offsite storage facility called "Iron Mountain." “Do they ever destroy anything?” Meg had asked him. “What’s the point?” he’d replied. “There seems to be an endless amount of copies.”
At lunch the secretaries read gossip magazines and heated up microwavable meals and asked Lev about his sex life. Lev was constantly hungry at work. He and Cal took up cigarettes, and smoked them away from where the secretaries smoked because, for some reason, they were ashamed.
Lev tried to draw up the sheet he’d pushed down to the foot of his bed, but his nail got caught again and it was painful.
Meg, Meg, Meg. He let his pants down and thought of her. Nighttime, along St. Charles. Maybe they were waiting for a streetcar, which would be fitting considering they’d discussed it when they first met. Or had they first met at the concert? Or was it when he first stepped foot in New Orleans? He couldn’t say. It was as if she had been there Lev’s entire life and he’d only now realized it, the way a cheap pen might be full of ink but only write in blue after seconds or minutes or days of scribbling spirals in the back of your notebook.
Tonight he remembered a balmy New Orleans night in late April, a thick hot humid breeze: a breath not a blow. Classes done, everything done really, just the going home and the rest of your life to worry about now. Off in the night the drooping trees bordering the park hung a darker shade of dark over a playground. A swing creaked in the wind. In his memory of it, the sight of the white of the graph on his flannel flapping in the breeze was accompanied by this lugubrious sound, and he remembered her turn with the breeze like a young ballerina, the liquid in her cup curtsying around its rim, spilling a bit onto her hand.
“That’s my flannel,” he said.
“Oops,” she uttered, a loud whisper, biting not her fingernail but her whole finger. Drunk, they both were. Waiting there—for what? The next thing he knew they were on the back of a pickup truck. Someone wearing overalls and someone else playing a classical guitar the right amount of out of tune, the same chord over and over, humming, clapping at the hollow wood of the instrument as if it were a drum, others around him slapping at the side of the pickup truck, the sound of hands on steel abrupt. A joint going around, the smell of skunk and pine.
In his bed now he could feel that cool nighttime breeze as they passed the playground and drove down St. Charles past the library and the columned mansions and the churches and the Sushi restaurants and construction and the overpass and maybe an Emeril Restaurant and maybe a phone card store and places to get cash for gold. Then they went over the bridge towards the West Bank, Algiers, he not even asking her where they were going. He couldn’t even see her well, but he remembered her fingernails being bitten down as she put her hand on his shorts after spilling a bit of beer on him. He remembered the little “aww” she let out, at once sincere and the “aww” of a girl who doesn’t let go all too much.
What were they talking about then? “I first made out with a girl in a movie theater.”
“Yes. I was so nervous—so nervous! My hands were sweating—remember that? When your hands used to sweat?”
“Yes, yes. My hands never sweat now.”
“I know! When did our hands stop sweating.”
“Animals shed and clothes leave lint but our hands just wrinkle and whither then die.”
“Are you a poet?”
He might have told her about the party he’d attended that night. Yet lying in bed he wondered if he’d even been to that party at all, or just imagined he had. Reverie or Restrepo or Restoration or Repudiation or Rectify or Revival or Refresh or Resurrection or Representative or Repardo or Reaper—what was that party even called? Maybe it was Rectify. The Pike kids—who told their pledges they had to pick three fights and win (and this was just one task)—had one big party each spring. Each room of the house was elaborately decorated according to a theme. The pledges spent weeks on it, all their money, to set up this party. And then the point of the party was that everyone got drunk and just completely destroyed the house with hammers and bricks and axes and whatever else they could find. The one Jewish kid in Pike had once mentioned to Lev, “I said to them--couldn’t we just, you know, not destroy the house, just this once, so we could have Rectify 2?”
He would have told Meg that story to make her laugh. At some point they drove over another bridge and followed a road that bordered along the river. A Buddhist Temple with chain link fences around it. A pickup truck, abandoned on the side of the road and missing a tire. Farms and a baseball diamond and big houses in log cabin style; and on the other side of the road, after you ascend a hill, the river, winding back around. On the river were steamboats with large steel arms protruding from them. The boats were hard to see over the hill, but the steel arms poked out like horns over the grassy humps with blinking lights of yellow, red, white, and blue. You could drive thirty seconds and not pass one steamboat. Their lights seemed to Lev to comprise entire cities. And in the pickup truck the same chord strummed amidst the crackling of gravel underneath the tires.
“I love Richard Linklater. I love all the Before movies—Before Sunset and Before Sunrise.”
“I love how they meet on a train in Prague. I love how it’s so real. So verisimilar.”
“Verisimilar. As in verisimilitude.”
She had trouble pronouncing and he had trouble understanding.
A bump, they go flying.
“Is it all about sex or is it all about love? Aren’t we waiting for them to just have sex already? Couldn't the movie just be called, Before Sex ?”
“Well that’s because we know they love each other right when they meet.”
“So it’s not real then. The movie tells us that. The marketing tells us that just by having the two of them on the cover of the poster.”
“Don’t go ruining it for me. I’m sweet.”
“I’m sweet too. But it’s not real.”
“Well then what is?”
The sky and the moon and the stars and the breeze, he could remember the breeze so well he could feel it, he remembered it on warm Chicago nights when he opened his window at just the right time.
At someone’s farm or someone’s land or maybe just a field, they started a fire and sat around it, the smell of smoke seeping into their clothes so when he woke up he would remember the fire, always associating her with that smell. The ground was hardened mud and weeds and stalks of grass and lespedeza. He held hands with Meg. Someone with them, a boy in overalls with long ears, pimples on his chin and a Black & Mild in his mouth, said “If you look up it’s like we’re an audience to the world.” The blinking arms of the steamboats were like dozens of shooting stars that never fully faded into the night. They laughed and the guy with the guitar said, “Have you ever seen the movie Killer Klowns From Outer Space? Killer movie.”
He held her in the flannel and they looked calmly at the fire. He remembered her pushing her hair out of her face, then taking a bit and biting it, smelling it, asking him to smell it for some reason. Or maybe she had done that the first time they met. When she pushed her long thick black hair back, Lev could gaze at her angular profile and the bit of scar tissue on her shallow chin.
“How do you do it? How do you clean the dead?”
But she couldn’t stop laughing long enough to answer. In his memory, there was no clear answer to his question; soon he was laughing with her, she so happy and amused that he was amused at what she might tell him about embalming dead bodies.
Someone threw cans into the fire. Someone threw grass into the fire. He couldn’t make out their whole faces. Meg didn’t seem to want to talk to any of them and he felt so gracious, overjoyed that she was his for the night, that they didn’t have to text or call or setup a time but that they were just here together. She shared a flask with him she kept in her back pocket, a Green Bay Packers flask.
She said, “This kid in my high school has a brain tumor. I came back the other night drunk and wrote him a message on Facebook. I wanted to send him cookies. I didn’t know his real address though. So I asked him what movies he’d seen lately.”
He took a long sip of some of her cherry-ish whiskey. It was warm. He replied, “I hit on a Japanese girl once and I asked her where she was from and when she said Hiroshima I wanted to apologize, but couldn’t, so I just asked her what her favorite Sushi roll was….and then I apologized.”
“I like Lean Cuisines. Noodles with peanut sauce.”
“I like eating TV dinners alone because it makes me feel like I’m in a movie.”
“I don’t own a TV.”
“You don’t need to these days.”
“Just your computer and smartphone.”
“So glad my phone is smart.”
“So I don’t have to be.”
She put her fingers in the shape of a phone and placed them by her ear. “Can you hear me now?”
He did the same. “Are you there God? It’s me, the only guy who read Judy Blume.”
A couple of the others had begun running, just running into the darkness. “Killer Clowns!” one yelled, over and over in the bucolic New Orleans field.
“Are there really any other kind?” Lev wondered aloud. “Talk about a dying business.”
“No pun intended.”
“No. Pun intended.”
She let out one solitary “Ha.” He later learned that this was just how she laughed sometimes, when she was tired and drunk and couldn’t muster up the energy or felt like she might puke. She also sniffed him from time to time, not because she thought he smelled but because she wanted to smell him. She said, “I heard there was this app that calculates the average age you’re going to die and then there’s just a timer each time you open it, just a countdown.”
She nestled into him. Up were the stars but also at the periphery of their vision the ticking lights of the steamboats. The last one would travel down the Mississippi soon, he’d heard, the final Nantchez. And the river didn’t even touch New Orleans now, just went around it—they’d walled it off years ago to preserve it for the heartland. So at the edges of the city, blinking away, was land eroding without the sediment needed from the river, perhaps over a football field a day lost to the gulf.
He rubbed his thumbnail over the graph on the shirt where he thought there was mud. Another joint was passed around.
“How do they make chain link fences? How do they make anything, really, toilets, anything?”
They didn’t even really know each other yet, simply shared at that time and place the willingness to be weird and honest with one another—which wasn’t a small thing, now that he thought about it. They became a vessel for one another, not necessarily talking to one another but somehow into one another. The talk was sustenance. He put his arm around her at some point. Under the collar of his flannel was her collarbone, and he put his fingers in and dug into her fossa, and she held it there. The bone connected to her chest bone and her shoulder. Somehow your brain could tell your shoulders to move up and you would be shrugging, somehow you knew just where to itch.
“Do you wanna just say it was love at first sight and call it a day?”
Joe Eichner is a writer from Chicago living in New Orleans. He graduates from Tulane University in May.