Part one of a short story I wrote:
You could never find the house unless you were out looking for it. It sits squeezed between a pair of old, decrepit buildings rented out every month or so to hard-luck, tough-times tenants. A scrappy place: paint chipping, used-to-be-white windowsills turned gray with dust and dirt, weeds growing up through slats in the porch. A stench of bourbon clings to the place as if that’s what the owners use to wash down the front porch. An old sign swings over the entrance, creaking on rusted hinges: Soleil Levant.
I stare, wondering how she ever found this house. Whether she wandered in on an idle night with the fat moon glowing behind her head. Whether some dashing Southern gentlemen or grinning group of students from the local university coaxed her inside. Guess it doesn’t matter now how she ended up in the house, only that she did.
I dig her letter out of my pocketbook, smoothing the crumpled paper over. It’s the last I heard from her, three months ago. Just a line of cramped, scrawled script, begging us to send her more money. Got to have more, she says, the last payments weren’t enough. Money for what, she doesn’t say. Only that she needs it and she’s got to have it now. Daddy sent her the money and never heard back from her. This is where the letter instructed us to send the money, this mess of boards and bolts.
I start up the steps, the wood creaking beneath my feet. The doors swing inward, sucking me in like a vacuum. High noon outside, dusk inside. All shades shut, all crumpled curtains drawn. Shadows streak across the stained carpet floors, old Persian rugs now worn through with holes, their tassels torn and knotted. I wander through the foyer, glancing at the shimmering chandeliers above my head with their missing crystals and dim-lit glow.
A girl wanders across my path from one room into another, her skirt a crinkled, holey mess. One sleeve hangs off, exposing her bare, milky shoulder and she runs her fingers through her thick, bleached locks, just as rumpled as the rest of her. Her smoky eye cuts my way and she raises her chin, surveying me in one lingering look. Before she vanishes into the doorway, her red-stained lips quirk into an impish smile and she lets out a sprite-like laugh. Then she’s gone.
I pull off my lace-edged hat, clutching it in my gloved hands. Turning the corner, I look for someone, anyone who can point me in the right direction. The aching toll of piano keys calls me to the left and I peek into the corner room. A young man sits at the piano bench, eyes rimmed-red from nights without sleep, collared shirt unbuttoned, and tie slung over his shoulder. Hasn’t shaved in days from the looks of it. He rocks forward and back with the reverberation of the keys through the piano. A girl sits on either side of him. One with her arm slung around his neck, resting her head on his shoulder, snoring like a trusting newborn. The other spins a bottle of gin in her pale hands. She leans on the edge of the bench, closest to the window. Her hazel eyes focus hard outside, as if she’s imagining herself on the other side of the glass. She winces suddenly, ducks away from the window and takes a long swig of the gin. She swallows it down the wrong pipe, choking and spitting it up as it burns down her throat.
I draw back into the hall. Upon the sofas lining the hallway sleep men and women, older and younger, draped across each other like leaves on the sidewalk in autumn. Some snore soundly, others whimper in their sleep. One girl sits in a fat, velvet armchair, a scraggly man sound asleep on her lap. She runs her fingers through his silver-streaked locks with one hand, holds a cigarette in the other, blowing out puffs that turn the hallway to fog.
And amongst the lazy bodies, I hear a coppery voice, like a bell at morning.
“There is a house in New Orleans.
They call the Rising Sun.
And its been the ruin of many a poor girl.
And God . . . I know . . . I’m one.”