Catch up on Part 1-3 here.
It’s a different city the minute the sun sets. Men in polished suits and shoes, women drip with sequins and rhinestones. Everybody dances and drinks and sings in the streets. Fast-paced jazz music pours from the windows and doors of every joint in town, calling in anyone who might pass by with that ragged, sultry sound. Laughter on everyone’s lips, smiles that go on for miles. A touch of hedonism hangs in the air and lightens everyone’s mood. I find myself smiling just walking down the street, an extra skip in my step from the piano and trumpets blaring from nearby cafes.
After a bit of walking, I turn the corner to Soleil Levant. Can’t believe it’s even the same building. I don’t even see the chipping paint or the weeds growing fast. Every window is thrown open with a warm, orange glow. Flickers of movement and figures in the windows catch my eye: the glitter of a woman’s dangling earrings, a couple swirling by, a laughing ring of young girls and gentlemen clinking glasses spilling over with champagne. Men and women go pouring in from the street, linking arms and singing silly songs as they pass through the doors and into the warm embrace of the house. Music: tantalizing jazz sings them into the house. I can hear them dancing, heels and dress shoes stamping the floor to the beat of the bass, voices raised in uproarious laughter. I really can’t believe it’s the same house. All this life and movement and fun. What a place.
I start towards the front door, but before I reach the steps, I hear a lonely voice croaking to the strum of a fiddle in the alleyway between Soleil Levant and the next place over. It’s an old man, crinkled and brown like the bark of an aging oak; his stout hat flops over his features, his feet bare and black from the streets. His fiddle’s missing a string, but he plays it all the same, singing a song hauntingly familiar with a heavy blues-like quality mustered only by a man who’s seen tragedy turn his joy to ashes before his own eyes.
“Now the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase and a trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk”
His voice hangs heavy on the last word and I get a chill like cold, lithe fingers settling on my shoulder. Why? I don’t know. I keep moving just to get away from him.
A redhead stands at the door, welcoming everyone in with a sultry smile. Her fresh green eyes catch me and she puts a gentle hand on my arm.
“Go back home, honey,” she says with a smile on her lips, but a strange urgency in her eyes. “You’re too young for this place.”
“Now get on out of here; go back to your ma and daddy,” she says, pushing me away. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“You don’t understand, I was invited by—”
Like the city, like the house, she’s undergone a complete metamorphosis. Marie descends on me like a rush of cherry blossoms caught on a breeze, dragging me into the house and draping an arm over my shoulder. Her face is all done up—eyes lined with dark, smoky liner, cheeks rouged to a drunken vermillion, lips painted an unseemly red. Fake emeralds dangle from her ears and a string of faux pearls swings round her neck. Her dress drips with ivory sequins, hugging to her figure perfectly, then draping out at her knees into a pool of lace. She looks stunning, breathtaking, and she’s bubbling over with smiles.
“Didn’t think you’d come to see me!” she says, planting a kiss on my cheek. I catch the smell of whiskey on her breath, nearly masked by her rosy perfume. “You were so upset with me when you came by this morning.”
She drags me through the same halls I walked only hours ago. It’s a new house entirely. The chandeliers shine brilliant and proud, the rich carpet feels like grass beneath my feet, everyone’s awake and alive. Anyone sitting down does so only because they’re too drunk to stand or too tired from dancing. There’s not a person in the house who isn’t laughing or dancing or flirting or drinking or singing.
We pass by a room and I catch sight of the man I saw earlier staring at cards alone in a corner. He sits at a slick table now, surrounded by men in polished suits and grinning girls, dealing out glossy cards for a game of poker, a cheery grin on his lips.
Marie calls to him and he gives her a wave.
“Everyone here’s so nice,” she says. “It’s why I haven’t wanted to go back home. I’ve made so many friends here.”
I glance at her, not believing a single word falling from her lips. I straighten my chin. “Like the man in your bed this morning?”
She blinks, her smile faltering. “Oh him? He was just so tired and had nowhere to sleep. A lot of people come here and party all-night and then, then they don’t want to leave! Its just so much fun here, Sue, so much fun!”
She’s forcing the words from her mouth the way you force down medicine. She clings to me like she’s holding to an anchor to keep her from drowning and suddenly we stop in the middle of a hall, couples dancing and twirling around us. Marie’s head snaps to the only area draped in shadow—the hall leading to the spiraling staircase. I see nothing but the figure of a man. He must be smoking since he’s blanketed in fog and tendrils of smoke rise above his head and towards the dim, grim chandelier.
Marie inhales deeply and turns to me. “Just forgot! I have to see someone about something, but I’ll be right back and then we can dance and have a couple of drinks, all right? I’ll be right back, honey, don’t wander off, okay?”
With that, she vanishes into the crowd. I lean in a doorway, watching her finally appear before the smoking man, head down staring at her shoes. They speak for but a second before Marie starts up the staircase, the man following languidly.