Are you gonna be okay? I asked Carly.
She sat cowering in the corner of her bed, recoiled into the wall. I could tell she had been crying. She wore a man’s T-shirt with the neckline pulled too much. Her knees were tucked tight into her chest. She nodded at a 9-millimeter on the nightstand. It was dark and heavy looking. The gun wasn’t hers; somebody had been here. Her eyes grew distant and rheumy. I stared at her and not the gun. She hadn’t looked at me once and I could tell she knew whose it was.
The entire room was humid with girl-clutter, smelling like juniper and socks, filled with the same stagnant air that encased the city. The walls were all thumbtacked boy posters and cork board with random notes pinned diagonally. She had an aging white dresser and matching armoire with worn brass handles that looked like hand-me-downs. There was something I liked about walking through her room when she wasn’t home and something that made me uneasy when she was.
I was just walking through her room now like always. I had to walk through hers to get to mine. It was a shotgun house—four rooms one after another after another, separated only by cracking plaster and a thin door—the kind they made in the 19th century so everyone could get a parcel of land near a busy road; only now the roads were tar-rivered and ashen. I always had to walk through her room to get to mine and I mostly offered her the courtesy of ignoring her. Until now.
I waited for her to answer but she never did.
The shotgun was cheap and conveniently located near campus. Carly mostly left me alone, which was most of what you could ask for. I found it after my previous landlord kicked me out when his elderly mother came to stay with him. But walking home from campus to the antebellum street felt like walking through a time warp. The tiny square-front exteriors that lined the street were all faded and overgrown, hidden from the world like an old man wearing a hat and a beard. Paint-cracked porches peeked through kudzu and azaleas with tattered screens and unattended steps warped with age.
Something about being in my bedroom at night changed me. The oaken floorboards and wheezing space heater, the old-timey molded quarter-round, the barren walls towering up to 12-foot ceilings, leaving a trapezoid of moonlight floating slowly down the far wall. I had nothing but a mattress and some plastic shelving where I kept my clothes. No furniture, no box spring, a half-eaten bowl of mac n’ cheese on the floor, powdery without the milk. I was depressed and alone, away at school but absent from class, a thousand miles and a few years from anything I could call home.
At night every sound ricocheted—from houses next door, from cracking maple branches overhead, from who knew what. I listened to headphones but only one worked and eventually the non-working one fell off so that the metal tong dug into the skin behind my ear. This is how I slept every night.
I would occasionally hear Carly’s laughter. Sometimes she would goose step through my room in the middle of the night to get to the bathroom. I would rise to my haunches on the floor as the silhouette of her T-shirt tickled her walking thighs. The noises from her room were the only noise I would hear with a knowable origin, a bouquet of laughter or the tapping of her keyboard or the sound of the radio.
I didn’t see her again that night or the next day, when I found a scribbled note on my mattress saying her boyfriend was back from Georgia and he was moving in. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. It was his 9-millimeter the other day. She had known before but didn’t tell me.
The next night I walked through the front door and found a guy sitting in the living room, playing video games on a console and TV that weren’t there when I left that morning. Carly was nowhere to be found. I froze in the doorway. He wore a black denim jacket and a shiny stud in his ear. He had a blond soul patch and blond bangs that stood erect above his forehead, a cockatoo of a man. I dropped my backpack on the floor.
Sup, he said without moving his eyes from the TV. He worked a cinnamon stick in his mouth and leaned back with both hands on a controller. He tensed his body and thumb-tapped the controller furiously before relenting and sinking back into the couch. I looked at the TV screen, two martial artists bobbing and kicking in front of a waterfall.
I stood a moment longer and dragged my backpack in front of him to get to Carly’s room. I stiffened and knocked, but there was no answer. I looked back at him but he was watching the screen, so I opened her door and walked through her room to get to mine.
That night I lay on my mattress, listening to the one headphone and staring into the ceiling until I fell asleep. I didn’t hear the door open sometime that night or see her until she thudded onto the mattress next to me, curling into me and crying. I awoke with a spasm and lifted myself up to see over her shoulder. I heard nothing but her gasps for air. It was clear her boyfriend wasn’t home.
She mumbled a few things I couldn’t understand and curled closer into me. Her shoulders were damp and warm. I pulled the blanket over her and held her. She mumbled again through tears and I heard the word gun, something about the gun being gone now. I saw the scratches on her neck and she looked up at me, my eyes adjusting to the moonlight. She pulled back her hair and stared into my eyes, and I saw the tiny purple mark above her cheek. I asked her why she didn’t just leave and she shook her head. She couldn’t. He’d find her. She whimpered and exhaled.
Her breathing steadied and she fell into a peaceful sleep. I glanced over her shoulder periodically, eyes wide open. I waited for a sound that never came. She was gone in the morning but her warmth and smell were still there.
Are you gonna be okay? Thomas asked.
He sat next to me on the top step of the porch in front of the shotgun. Two men sat in a black SUV across the street, glancing toward us occasionally like they were waiting for Carly’s boyfriend to return. Thomas looked at them and turned to me. Then he looked back at them.
I mean, you okay here, Dylan?
Yeah, I’m fine.
Thomas wore a Yankees hat over glasses and talked with a Bronx accent, spitting out words in tiny daggers. He posed against the iron railing, sitting with one elbow on his knee and scratching his chin.
Look, Dylan. I’m trying to ask you if you’re okay here.
Yeah, I’m fine.
Then why’d you call me, huh? What’s the problem?
There’s no problem. I just need money and a place to go.
You take Adderall? All you college kids take Adderall.
You gay? You having problems with your bitch?
What’s your fucking problem then?
I stared at the black SUV across the street and thought about how you could just find a name in the JobTrader and a guy would ask you a few questions and give you a number to someone else, and this guy Thomas would show up at your door later that day ready to offer you a way out. There was no telling him about being alone and sleeping at the Y for five days till I found this room with Carly. No way to tell him about transferring to an Ivy League of the South school only to find out I’d never make it, or about how no one was hiring a nineteen-year-old kid who looked like he was twelve in this city.
You sweet, ain’t you? Look, if you’re sweet, it’s no big deal. You’re not alone, man, believe me. It’s not your fault. Just remember that. Not for nothing, but you’re going to be okay.
I’m not gay, alright?
Then why’d you call me? You like selling yourself for money? I mean, sure, the money’s great. We clear thousand-dollar nights all the time. Our top sellers clear two grand a week on the regular. But it ain’t just about the money, bro. It’s never just about the money for us. This here’s a lifestyle choice. It’s a major commitment.
That’s it. I just don’t have any money.
Then this ain’t gonna work, bro. Everybody working for me need something else. Maybe it’s the drugs, maybe it’s the attention. Maybe someone’s after them at home and they need to lay low for a while, get out the house. Look, you a smart kid, I can tell. You got a good head on your shoulders, and I’m damn sure you’d make some money with us. But I think you gotta just go back inside, find something else.
I shook my head and stared into the ground. Thomas put his hand on my shoulder. He had strong hands, world-worn and blistered. He had dark eyes perched above muscled cheeks. He licked his lips—part of his manufactured coolness—but his jaw grew slack when he thought for a moment.
Once this van leaves there’s no turning back, he said. He patted my back.
Alright then, he said. Go pack your shit.
It took about thirty seconds to throw two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, some socks and boxers in my backpack. I looked at my sad mattress and the crack running up the wall in the corner of my room. I turned to leave and stood in the doorway to Carly’s room for a moment. I heard the front door close, followed by the sound of her footsteps on the hard wood. She walked in and I turned to leave.
Where you headed?
Her eyes were dark and efficient. Her hair was obediently combed, leaving a part lightning rod bright just to the left of center. The rest of her hair dangled in a C behind her ear. You could see the adolescent she once was with her backpack slung over her shoulder.
I turned and left, knowing she was staring at me through the screen door. I walked out to the van where Thomas was waiting with the engine running. I didn’t look back at her, even after I climbed into the seat and closed the door, tossing my backpack on the floorboard. Thomas was smoking a cigarette. Some ‘80s metal band was playing on the radio. Thomas smiled and gunned the accelerator. He waved as we passed the two guys sitting in the black SUV.
He drove out to the old Landmark Hotel at the Lakefront, fifteen minutes away. I followed him through the lobby and down a dark hallway, and he took off his cap and T-shirt, leaving him bare-chested, with a V of chest hair and protruding ribs as he opened a door. The rank smell of cigarettes and mildew greeted me. I squinted and stared around the room at four skinny guys sitting on the floor with their backs to the brown wall paneling and a couple girls seated at a table with a half-empty bottle of Bowman’s Vodka and a nimbus of cigarette smoke overhead.
Thomas walked over to the two girls and told them to scram. He motioned for me to follow him and take a seat. One of the girls wore a thin camisole and glanced at me with puffy half-moons under gray-blue eyes, the pale skin. She watched me the whole way as I sat down and stared around the room. Her shoulders shone bright with lotion. Everyone looked tired and gaunt. The room was littered and dank, worn to fit the rough edges of their lives. The guys sitting in the corner wouldn’t make eye contact when I looked over at them. Thomas’s phone rang and he started talking like he was in the middle of a conversation. He left without saying anything, the door latch clicking shut behind him.
Two of the guys against the wall got up and walked to the fridge, and the room slowly exhaled. Someone handed me a beer and I smiled. The clock said 9:30 when it suddenly hit me, the exhaustion and fear. I slumped to the floor against a wall and eventually fell asleep. I heard them talking as I fell in and out of sleep. Someone came in and hugged someone else. A man talking to another man, who exhaled and said everything would be okay. A third man hugged them and they huddled against the wall together, chattering in soft complaints. I heard heavy inhales and the sounds of a head thudding softly against the drywall from down the hall. The room fell quiet again and I fell back to sleep.
Thomas threw the door open and everyone froze. He pointed to me and nodded, pulling a chair away from the table for me to sit down. I rose stiffly and stumbled to the chair, rubbing sleep from my eye.
Tavon, get over here, he said. Grab my man a beer.
A man got up from the couch and tossed me a beer can.
You’ll be working with Tavon tomorrow. He’s a wizard, this guy, one of the best sellers here. He been doing this for years but he don’t look like it. Got a young face just like you. It’s his gift.
I opened the beer can and it foamed onto the table. The noise made me conscious of people staring.
Listen, this shit, it’s easy. I can tell you seem a little nervous, but don’t. You’re my new star in this shit. And Tavon here’s gonna show you the ropes. Ain’t that right, Tavon?
You got it, boss.
Thomas looked at me with two elbows on the table. I saw the tattoo of some cursive text on the flesh on the inside of his left triceps and a nasty bruise under his collarbone, darker than his light skin.
This your team, Dylan. Look around. This is it. We sink or swim together. Of course, not all of us is winners in this room. See Tavon here, and Kate. They’re the ballers in this room. That means they sleep in the beds, they get the first dibs on food, whatever they want. And the losers? Hah. They my bottom bitch. They don’t get shit. They sleep on the floor and eat the leftovers, and that’s if they lucky. Ain’t that right, Bottom Bitch.
One of the kids sitting against the wall nodded, dim eyes beneath a curtain of bangs.
But you ain’t gotta worry about that, College Boy. You’re gonna be great. I keep track of all your earnings in that notebook right there.
He pointed to a dog-eared spiral notebook on the floor.
You get a $25 per diem and the hotel’s thirty a day. I pay at the end of the week and I get a 25% cut on everything. That’s way below normal. It could be a lot worse. And who touches my notebook, Tavon?
Nobody touches my damn notebook. Under no circumstances can you get familiar with the notebook. Got that?
Now look. You need anything, let me know. You need a bump, some new clothes, a handy under the table, whatever. Just tell me and it’s yours, as long as you’re earning.
Thomas got up and walked over to the closet. He fingered through a row of shirts and pants.
You got a nice shirt? A button-down or anything? Something presentable?
What’s that mean? You got one or not?
He pulled out a light blue button-down and looked at it. Then he looked at me.
Okay, I’mma let you borrow this one. Need to look nice out there. Grab my notebook for me.
I sat still and looked at the thin girl named Kate. She looked sidelong at Thomas. I waited for something to happen.
Oh shit, College Boy. Ain’t gotta tell you shit twice. Alright then. That’s a slap for you.
He pulled out a hundred-dollar bill and walked over to me and set it down on the table.
You like that?
I said you like that? Gotta speak up in here now.
What the fuck, College Boy? You like that or what?
Yes, I yelled. The room was quiet. A few people looked at me but most of them did not. Bottom Bitch sat slumped in the corner, staring into the carpet.
You gotta be vocal in this world, College Boy. You want something you gotta step up. Tavon gonna help you with that.
He picked up his notebook and walked back to the door.
Plus you get the room for the night. That alright with you?
Gotta smile for me.
Yeah, I said. I looked at him and smiled.
Not for nothing, but you gonna be good, College Boy. A real up-and-comer, I can see it.
He walked to the door and swigged his beer.
We jump at nine tomorrow, he said. Be ready, we hitting Decatur Street again. And Tavon, take care of these guys. Nobody gets out of control tonight.
I thought of my room at home and Carly as I lay down on the floor next to the bed with a ratty, soft blanket and a thin pillow. Eventually, Kate pulled the comforter off the bed and curled her back into me. I was surprised but didn’t flinch. She was rail thin and warm and her shoulders were lotiony smooth. I stared up into the stars as they glimmered and faded from view till I realized the stars were just truck lights dancing on the ceiling. I closed my eyes and fell asleep with her hair in my face, the smell of sophistication. When the tears came I buried my head in her neck and she never moved.
I saw the red numbers on the alarm clock beside the bed the next morning and I knew it was time to get up. I tapped Kate on the shoulder but she lay still until Thomas opened the door, at which point she shot up and walked to the bathroom. Thomas clapped three times and yelled wake up, and we all piled into the van ten minutes later. He drove down Esplanade to Canal Street and we reached the French Quarter, where the tourists were walking and the swank hotels were lined up. He parked the van on the third floor of a garage and we dispersed, me following Tavon as he walked past the titty bars and random painted doors toward Jackson Square. I saw a topless woman with Farrah Fawcett bangs in one of them sitting on a bench and leaning forward with her back curled, looking exhausted and unconcerned. At St. Louis Cathedral the white-painted horse-drawn carriages were lined up, and beyond them stood a class field trip standing single-file on the sidewalk, teachers in the front and the rear snapping at children. A few kids stared and squinted in the sunlight; others waited for the front of the line to move again, careening their heads to see what the hold-up was.
Tavon strode purposefully past Jackson Square toward the row of old hotels on Dumaine and I trailed behind him, watching his back. He turned around when we reached the old Spanish-style hotel fronts, cast-iron balconies and men in blazers and turtlenecks.
Look, you can hang with me till tonight, but after that you’re on your own.
And you got to make a deal. You don’t do shit this afternoon and it’s alright. But if you ain’t got nothing for Thomas tonight, there’s gonna be trouble. And there’s nothing I can do for you. You got me?
Tavon had broad shoulders and long arms. The corners of his mouth were downturned and perched above a square jaw, like the face of a linebacker.
We entered a hotel and he nodded for me to stay behind. I could hear him as he sat down next to a woman on an ornate lobby chair with feet carved into lion paws. A glass-top coffee table sat between them with magazines fanned out.
That’s a beautiful Fendi bag you have there, he said.
I saw the woman smile and nod.
You must be from here. Lots of women have good taste. I don’t know why so many of them leave their taste at home.
Nope, I’m from California.
Is that right? Me too. What part?
I listened closely as Tavon said he was conference attendee, stranded till the weekend. He was just old enough to carry it off. He said he was single and bored listening to regional sales associates discuss training techniques with new agents, tired of the breakout sessions and unimpressed with the catering, and wasn’t this New Orleans after all? Shouldn’t there be more?
It was clear the woman agreed without saying so and I walked away, imagining it was me instead of him trying to solicit an older woman. I nodded and fake-smiled at passersby in the lobby, saying hi to the women and ignoring the men until Tavon came back and said to give it a rest, I was making people nervous.
We stopped in five more hotels, the ritzy ones with the marble staircases and free coffee in the lobby, the elevators opening with a ding and the brass-railed luggage racks. At the Landmark, Tavon told a woman he was a widower and that his wife passed away a year ago in the city. He sat in a lobby chair next to her and I watched. He vowed to visit the city once a year in her memory, but he only now realized what a horrible place this was if you were alone. He had no money and didn’t have the heart to leave the city. Somehow he now had a faintly Latino accent. He was hungry and tired, but smiling nonetheless, and sorry for the intrusion, ma’am, but he didn’t anticipate meeting such a beautiful woman in this hotel lobby.
The woman asked if he was staying at the hotel, and he said he had the last two nights but he was out of money now and had nowhere to go. But that seemed like nothing now, because in his country it was a sign of great fortune to speak with such a beautiful woman. I saw the woman furrow her brow and lean toward him.
We walked back up to Canal an hour and a half later. Tavon said you never wanted to be too forward with these high-class women, and that’s all we were after. They had to be hooked slowly. You could pitch anything you want, whatever you’re comfortable with. Make them love you and feel sorry for you. Present a problem and let them solve it for you. Make them sympathize and then find some common ground, something you could both talk about. It was all about getting them to like you and then need your companionship. You had to prey on their insecurities, get them to open up about a dark secret and they were yours. Don’t even bother talking to the really attractive women. Talk to the ones who used to be attractive. Talk to the ones who still make an effort but nobody notices, the ones with their hair and nails done right. Look for the nice shoes and the nice handbag. Their husbands don’t give a shit about them. Usually they don’t want sex; they just want someone to listen to their shit and kiss them at the end of the night, like really kiss them and that’s it.
After six hotels, he had two slaps set up for that night and one deposit. It looked like a good night, he said, but you could never tell during the afternoon. We had an hour to kill before Thomas picked us up and Tavon said let’s get some coffee. He bought me a muffin and a latte from a bakery and we sat down at a two-top against the window looking out to the street. He rambled about it being a rough world out here; that they were mostly dealing with high-class women away from the real trouble, but that didn’t mean shit couldn’t get scary at any moment. There had to be someone who had your back and that was Thomas. He was the muscle and sometimes you needed it.
I nodded and stared out to the street. He put his coffee down and put both elbows on the table.
So why you here, Dylan?
Need the money. Need to get some shit together. Same as you.
No way, man. Not the same as me. We’re different.
If you needed money, you’d go get a job. This isn’t some job. This is something else. You shouldn’t be here.
I have nowhere else to go. There’s no one.
Look at me, kid. You ever suck a man off? Huh? You ever suck a dick ‘cause you’re too broke to eat? No, I doubt it. You’re a college kid. You’ve got a future. We, we’re not like you. We come from shit. Most of us’ll always be shit.
I know I got to do what I got to do.
Oh, really? I bet your family got money, huh?
No, not really.
Oh, no? Nobody in your family got money? There’s got to be someone.
I sipped my coffee. The caffeine was going to my head. My eyes darted at the people passing on the street. I could see the streetcar in the distance, swinging around the corner and turning onto St. Charles.
Tavon never averted his eyes. A moment later he grunted and got up to throw his cup in the trash. We walked outside to the pick-up spot at the corner on Chartres. A couple familiar faces walked up but didn’t say anything. I could see that everyone’s business was their own; nobody talked about what they did or didn’t do. There was no bragging and no consolation. I looked at Tavon, who ignored me now.
My grandpa or whatever, I said. He invented some kind of printing technique, for silk screening or something. Actually, he owned a company and one of his employees invented it. Made a bunch of money on that shit.
Now we’re talking.
And there was some guy who fought in the Civil War, at Appomattox. Some kind of big shot artillery guy who eventually became a lawyer and a state senator. We still got the Confederate flag in my family, the one from the battle.
Of course you do. You got any brothers and sisters?
Yeah, an older sister.
So, it was pretty much middle America for you. Two cars, tiny white house, dog in the backyard.
Oh, my bad.
The van pulled around the corner a minute later with the side door already open. The sound of early ‘80s hair band metal poured out. Thomas smiled as we climbed in and sped away. At the hotel he handed out beers and sat down in a chair. Bottom Bitch and a few other kids sat down against the wall and I figured that was their spot. Thomas said I was gonna kill it tonight, he just knew it. He said to stay near Tavon but don’t be afraid to find my own shit. Go out on my own. Just make something happen tonight, that’s all I had to do.
I tailed Tavon closely when we got dropped off that night, but then Tavon said he was out of here and I watched him walk through the front doors of the Marriott and into the lobby. And then I walked around the French Quarter for hours, up and down streets with no direction or purpose. I walked past Jackson Square again and stared at the white-painted horse-drawn carriages, at the men standing and waiting to carry someone up and down the street. There were throngs of frat dudes and middle-aged couples walking arm-in-arm. There were girls with red Solo cups staggering arm in arm and laughing. I thought I saw Carly’s blond hair for a moment but I was wrong, it wasn’t her. I blended into the crowd but it dissipated after 11 pm. It was late and more of the people walking around did so with a purpose, and then it was 12:30 and I was tired and sober. I stood near the sax player on Royal and walked in and out of the drug store ten times, and the tenth time I saw a clean-cut college guy in a pink button-down and a puka shell necklace staring at me, sucking on a mint.
You like to party? he asked.
No, I’m good.
It’s no big deal. You looked like maybe you were down for something, that’s all.
I shook my head and turned to walk away.
Wait, where you going? I thought maybe we could hang out.
No, I’m just waiting for my ride.
Relax, there’s no one around. Let me buy you a drink.
I looked around. There were several drunk people walking around the corner, talking loudly. I could use a beer and I was hungry.
I can’t. I’m good.
I turned and he yanked my elbow. I spun around and he shoved me against the wall. Suddenly, two more guys appeared from nowhere, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
What you want, gay boy?
I ain’t gay, I said.
You come down Magazine like all them gay boys. I seen you.
No, the fuck. I—
Shut the hell up, said someone, I couldn’t tell who. I looked around for help but no one paid attention. Backs turned on the balconies across the street. People wandered aimlessly down Royal into the night. Reflected light speckled the pavement and flashed in potholed puddles. I saw three men approaching me to the left. Their eyes were dark and aggressive. One of them threw an elbow into my cheek and I blacked out with rage, flying into storm of elbows and squeals. A moment later I was on the ground with my head throbbing and a gash on my lip. I lay with my elbows and butt on the cement. Streams of drool fell on my stomach. I didn’t move for too long. People sidestepped me for a while until I saw Tavon walk past.
Get your ass up, he said. Van’s here.
I was in the back of the van fifteen minutes later, avoiding eye contact with Thomas. He drove with two hands on the wheel and laughed with Tavon. We were back at the hotel quickly and poured into the room. Thomas was staying in the room across the hall and told us to keep it down as he left. I exhaled and curled up on the floor again with the soft blanket, and Kate eventually sat down next to me, rubbing the back of my head while she talked with Tavon and two other guys. I eventually fell asleep to a wheezing sound that grew louder when the lights were off and everyone stopped talking.
I awoke at the first light of dawn and saw Bottom Bitch in the back corner by the bathroom, wheezing and leaning against the wall, his head hung awkwardly to the side. The entire room was asleep except for him and me. I sat up on my haunches and looked at him, waiting for him to look at me, but he never did. I waited for several minutes and watched his chest beneath his tattered white T-shirt. The sunlight encroached and I felt a splitting headache. As the sun grew brighter, I saw the massive bruise beneath his eye and the ropes of saliva coiling out from beneath him, which was when I realized his hands were tied behind his back. There was dried blood at the corners of his mouth and his eye was swollen. His elbows and shoulders were fine-cut and frail, and I walked up to him and untied the rope. He nodded and stiffened and pulled his hands around, where I saw they were scarred and red. I carefully loosened the rope around his wrists and his hands went slack. He pulled his legs to his chest and I walked back and curled up next to Kate, who hadn’t moved. She put her hand on my shoulder when I lay down next to her.
We were out on Decatur Street again early the next afternoon, the sun bright and thumbtacked over the Canal Street skyscrapers. I trailed close behind Tavon, who ignored me. He stopped when Decatur emerged from behind the buildings and pulled out his cellphone.
Look, I don’t want any trouble, he said a moment later. . . . I know it. You the man and everything. . . . Right, right. Look, it’s just you know he ain’t worth it to you, young blood. I mean, what you need this bitch for? He ain’t nothing. . . . Right, but do you need the trouble? I mean, he just a side bitch no how. I never seen you without a side bitch around somewhere. Why this cat mean that much to you? . . . Uh huh. . . . Dude, we both know you can get that anytime. . . .
I wandered away and turned around a minute later to see that Tavon was gone. I saw him rounding the corner at Dumaine and caught up to him in time to see him walking into the first hotel again, the one beneath a white awning and cast-iron balcony. I sat down on a bench and waited till he came out again and he stood and looked at me. He nodded and I got up, and we walked together past the old Jax Brewery and the titty bars, past a white-painted horse-drawn carriage with a family of four in the back smiling and gawking at the river like the goddamn kings of New Orleans, like this city was nothing without them, like this city wasn’t a thousand different things to a thousand different people. Beyond them rose a black cast-iron fence looking sturdy and old as the city itself and beyond that stood a leafless oak tree with a grasping branches above a muscular trunk. The tree was damp and barren.
Look college boy, you got to get in where you fit in, he said.
I know it.
Cause you just be following me around like a damn puppy dog. I can’t help you like this, man.
I squinted into the sun and looked down. Tavon snatched the shades off his face and pinched his nose.
Alright, college boy. You wait right here. I might could have something for you.
I nodded again and watched him walk around the corner and onto Decatur. After a few minutes I started to walk around, and then up and down the street a couple times before I realized he wasn’t coming back.
That night in the van I saw a few people I recognized but no one I had spoken to. Tavon was gone. Kate was gone. Out making money for sure. I hadn’t talked to anyone. I heard guys talking about who they had been with, the drama of it all, and how they only made a few hundred that night because people could be bitches. Thomas drove and congratulated everyone for a great night.
The fourth night Thomas flew through the hotel room door and said we got a new Bottom Bitch. I recoiled into the wall and tucked my knees in slightly but he didn’t look my way.
Nah, just kidding, he said. This kid’ll always be Bottom Bitch. He slapped the kid upside the head. The kid fell over and slumped against the hard Berber carpet without moving.
Look. Some of you ain’t pulling your weight. You know who you are too. Just know I’mma fuck you up if it don’t change.
He snorted into the back of his hand and wiped his nose. He turned and threw open the fridge door and grabbed a beer before turning back around. I saw scratches on his neck and the puffy half-moons under his eyes.
Just remember, this room’s $50 a night if you don’t sell. That’s right, it done gone up. Y’all motherfuckers best figure something out quick.
He turned and walked through the door and into the hallway, slamming it behind him.
The room exhaled again and I watched the men at the Formica table pour Bowman’s Vodka shots in three red Solo cups and raise them. They talked shit about someone named Red, a man who had done one of them wrong and who was notorious for a laundry list of wrongs against men. A man who was down-low, only everyone knew it and he was kidding himself if he didn’t open his eyes. I watched them toss jabs at Red with the back-and-forth rhythm of people playing catch, elbows and forearms on the table and lilting accents like affectations that grew more exaggerated with each swig from the Solo cup till I realized these weren’t the affectations—everything else was.
The next afternoon I followed Kate and Tavon out of the room and down the darkened hallway till Thomas shoved my shoulder and I stumbled forward. I turned around and he nodded at me.
Where the fuck you going?
To the bus.
Nah man. Not today.
I looked down the hallway to the growing space between me and the rest of the group. Paisley amoebas appeared in a parade of purple and orange carpet, dimly lit by brass sconces. Tavon and Kate were silhouettes filing through a rectangle of harsh sunlight at the end of the hallway.
Not today bitch. You ain’t doing shit today, College Boy.
Thomas nodded back to the hotel room. You can head back to the room or you can pay me my money and come with. Your choice?
Don’t be a faggot, College Boy. You know the room ain’t free and you ain’t brought in a damn nickel. You need to pay me what you owe me or get the fuck out.
I’ll get you paid. Just—
Just what? You think I’m a bitch now?
Thomas stepped forward and shoved my collarbone against the wall. He pinned me with his forearm against the wall and shoved his shoulder into my cheek.
You know where you are, bitch? This ain’t the goddamn Ritz-Carlton.
Now you gonna get me paid or what?
What? Man got to speak up in this world.
I said yeah.
Alright, man. Get on the damn bus then.
I awoke again the next morning to the sound of thin wheezing. This time Bottom Bitch was sitting in a chair against the wall and another kid I didn’t recognize was awake and staring at him with wide eyes. The kid looked to be about fifteen. I had never heard either of them speak before and wasn’t sure they could. Bottom Bitch’s face was swollen and purple again. One eye oozed something yellow and was closed shut. The curtain of bangs was matted to his forehead. I got up and loosened his wrists again and he nodded toward the bathroom. The door was open. I looked up and looked back at him, and he nodded again. I scanned the room and saw that no one else was awake. The kid motioned with hands like he was opening a book. I tiptoed into the bathroom and saw Thomas’s notebook on the toilet. I peered back at the kid and he motioned with two fingers downward. I opened the notebook and saw that there was a front pocket. I reached into the pocket and pulled out a cellophane pouch with two pills in it. The kid smiled and held out his hand. I saw the desperation in his eyes and knew I didn’t have a choice. I quickly handed them over and put the notebook back where I found it. The kid took one pill out and gave the other to Bottom Bitch. They were each swallowing as I quickly walked back to my spot on the floor, where I curled into Kate’s spine, feeling her warmth on my chest as I went back to sleep. She put her hand on my shoulder.
The next thing I saw was the door bursting open and Thomas clapping three times. I could tell by the sun it was late morning. A box of doughnuts sat on the table next to the empty Bowman’s bottle. He stood with his hands on his hips and scanned the room. I was lying with my head in Kate’s lap. She smelled sweet, like cigarettes and beer. I heard her stomach growling.
Anyone know what happened to my notebook?
I heard a few people scramble in the corner. I lifted my head and saw that the bathroom door was closed. Bottom Bitch had covered himself in towels and was curled up beneath the space heater, looking more pathetic than before. I heard his thin wheezing.
I’ll repeat. Anyone want to tell me what the fuck happened to my notebook?
Somebody mess with it? Tavon asked.
You’re damn right somebody messed with it. That somebody also untied this Bottom Bitch. Anyone in here want to tell me why Bottom Bitch was tied up?
He owes, said someone, a male voice. I looked at Bottom Bitch, who looked back at me out of his one good eye. He needed a doctor bad.
That’s right. He owes and he don’t sell shit. Bout to dump his ass on the side of the road. Now I’ll ask one more time. Anyone know who messed with my notebook?
It was me, I said. Kate recoiled from me in a spasm and my head hit the floor. Thomas stepped closer.
Damn, College Boy. You just got here. You already fucking up my shit?
I stood up to face him and apologize, but he hit me with the back of his hand and I fell against the wall. I put my hands up and he kicked me in the ribs and back. The sharpest blow hit the back of my head and somehow sliced my lip open. Then the room got dark.
It was night outside when I woke up. Kate and Tavon were the only people in the room. Kate handed me an ice pack and sat down cross-legged on the bed. Tavon sat with the chair turned backward. It felt like I was being kicked again every time I breathed. I carefully touched the gash on my mouth.
You need to go home, College Boy.
I looked at Kate. There was no one else in the room. They had been there for hours waiting for me to wake up.
He needed help. I—
Tavon got up and shoved me down with the heel of his shoe. He glared at me with the same lifeless eyes.
I ain’t kidding, College Boy. You’re getting out of here now.
He got down on his knees and hit me in the arm and ribs. I curled into a shell and he slapped me. His voice cracked and he shoved my head into the carpet one last time and got up, turning and walking out the door. I couldn’t move or see anything. The door closed a minute later and I heard Kate.
You have to leave, Dylan. Thomas is going to be back soon and it’ll be much worse. You’re lucky he wasn’t here tonight.
Only one lamp was on. Kate stood in front of me. She leaned down and touched my face. She grabbed my elbow and tugged on it, and I rose to my knees.
Seriously, Dylan, she said. You can’t be here. They’re going to be back any minute. You shouldn’t have come here.
I got up and she dragged me to the door and shoved me, saying this was for the best. She handed me a twenty and shoved my backpack into my chest and told me to leave again. She opened the door, but I stopped in the doorway and turned around.
Where is he?
You know. The kid. Bottom Bitch.
She looked at me. There were dark worry marks under her eyes. I looked at her pale neck and translucent skin. She looked over my shoulder and I turned around. It was Room 11, Thomas’s room across the hall. I looked back at her and then at Room 11 again. I turned and walked down the hallway past the doors and into the lobby, scanning for a familiar face. I walked out into the parking lot and out onto the highway. I sprinted down the sidewalk until I found a phone booth a few blocks away. It hurt to lift my hand to grab the receiver and dial. I called for a cab and then looked around and hit 9-1-1. The dispatcher answered and asked what my emergency was, and I told her there was a kid locked up in a room at the Landmark Hotel at the Lakefront. He was in Room 11 and he had been there for a while, better hurry, and damn right it was an emergency. This kid was about to die. The woman asked my name and I hung up.
The cab picked me up and we made the slow drive to the shotgun house. I stared out the window and we turned onto St. Charles and made our way Uptown, passing the streetcar at Napoleon. I knew what I looked like. It still hurt to breathe. My tongue probed the gash on my lip. I threw the twenty over the seat when we arrived and unfolded myself out of the cab. I walked up the walkway and opened the door slowly. Inside I found the boyfriend sitting next to two other guys I didn’t know. I dropped my backpack by the door and he stared at me.
Oh, shit, he said
You been in a fight, dude.
Is Carly here?
The other two guys looked at me. One of them raised his eyebrows. The boyfriend chuckled.
Yeah, she’s in there. He pointed to her room. He then nodded and looked at the TV. A football game was on. Beer cans were scattered on the end tables. I stood frozen a moment and the boyfriend looked back at me, waiting for me to say something.
Look, man, I said. I know you don’t need her around. Why don’t you let her come with me?
What’d you say?
I don’t mean any trouble, really. I ain’t trying to start nothing. It’s just, I know she’s more trouble than she’s worth. I know you got other bitches. I know she’s just a side bitch.
One of the men sat forward on his chair, elbows on knees. The boyfriend eyed me carefully.
Oh, you know me now? We old friends or something?
No. Like I said, I don’t mean any trouble. It’s just that she’s scared and—
I don’t give a shit if she’s scared. What’s that mean to me?
You were in the Army?
What that got to do with anything?
I know you Army dudes who get out early have mad bitches when you get back when you got money, when you got a nice car and a place of your own. I know you ain’t got no trouble getting laid. I’m not trying to say anything and I don’t know you, you’re right. I’m just saying you probably don’t need the trouble. She just a side-piece, right?
And she’s trouble, right?
He shook his head and stared at the TV.
I mean, you can get a girl like her anytime, right?
He laughed and looked at one of the other men, who shook his head and smiled. I didn’t know what was funny. He told me to sit down and handed me a beer. He told me I was making him tense, standing in the doorway with my face all bruised up. He asked if I liked football and told me to chill out, watch for a while. I did, but I needed an answer. I sat down and took a swig of my beer. I looked at the door to her room and I looked back at him. He seemed to be watching the game and then he seemed to be ignoring me. He turned to face me and exhaled.
Whatever the fuck, man, he said. I don’t care.
What? I asked.
I mean, she can do what the fuck she wants, man. Shit.
I sat awhile longer, watching TV with them. I finished my beer. One of the men was staring at me blankly, leaning back against couch cushions, looking at me with furrowed eyes like he was solving an equation. He stared at me till I realized he didn’t matter. Only the boyfriend and Carly. He couldn’t do anything to me, and he knew it and I knew it.
I looked at the boyfriend slumped in his chair and got up and walked into her room. She was lying on her bed, listening to headphones. I closed the door behind me with a soft click. She bolted upright and looked at me, palms on her bed and mouth open. She recoiled into the corner of her bed.
Oh my God, she said.
It’s okay, I said, smiling. I’m okay.
She got up and sprinted through my bedroom to the kitchen and returned with ice in a Ziploc bag. She dabbed it to my forehead and touched my mouth softly. She looked at my neck with wide open eyes. She wore flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. She inched away from me and I looked into her bed.
Nothing? She stood back and looked at me with efficient eyes.
It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’m getting you out of here. Get some things together.
But I can’t.
Don’t worry about it. Just put some stuff in a bag and come with me.
No, there’s no way. I can’t leave. I told you. He’ll find me.
It’s a done deal. It’s cool. I already talked with him. He said it was fine.
She exhaled and stared into the floorboards. She dropped her hands from her hips and walked to the bathroom. When she returned it was with her toothbrush and toothpaste in one hand and her wallet in the other. She opened her wallet and pulled out a wad of bills, more than I had seen in one place in forever. She stuffed it and some clothes in a duffel bag.
You’re sure, she said.
I opened the door and we walked through the living room. I nodded at the boyfriend and he nodded back at me.
A moment later we were out on the street. She leaned into me and held my hand and I felt her warmth on my shoulder. We had nowhere to go. I steered us toward St. Charles and stopped us at the streetcar stop. We waited without words until the streetcar came. The seats on the streetcar were mostly full except for the ones in the back, which were facing the wrong way. I slid one backward so that it faced the right way and we sat down. She leaned into me and I stared out to the streets passing: Jefferson, then Napoleon, then Louisiana.