Burgundy was the street he liked best if he had to go through the Quarter at all. And sometimes there was no choice: living as he did in a beat-up purple shack in the Bywater, temporarily, mind you, meant that the quickest way to the casino and its many opportunities was straight through the French Quarter. Something about the wrought iron made him queasy. There was plenty of that on Burgundy, too — second-floor terraces busy with bougainvillea vines, American flags and shade umbrellas leaning out at bossy angles. Yet there was never anybody on those decks. The broad wooden shutters on Burgundy were always closed. When the light caught the pastel-painted fronts of the battened-down houses, Bo could even remember why he’d come to New Orleans in the first place. Here was a street with secrets. A block or two south, and, well, the secrets were out.
Today Bo wasn’t just passing through. He had a confession to make at the Most Holy Church of St. Louise de Marillac, the smallest and most insignificant house of worship in the vicinity of the Quarter. In order to reach it, visitors had to brave an alley and a little footpath, muddy no matter what the weather, and ignore the warped and discouraging door. Bo chose it because it was so hard to find. He’d gone back, many times now, because he was rather fond of the deacon. Lucas was studying to be a priest but was so wrapped up in his social advocacy work that his ascendancy up the ecclesiastical ladder had been slow. Bo felt he had soulful blue eyes and the shaky knees of a man who needed to pee. Both seemed to suit a priest, as he understood the priesthood, which he didn’t really.
It was off hours and the little damp church was empty, more or less, and smelled like wet feet. Did priests get bored when they weren’t doing the mass, Bo wondered, by themselves in these big rooms? He’d have to ask Lucas sometime. The deacon was in his office — really more of a broom closet — pecking away at a laptop. The presence of the computer bugged Bo. Those blue bars were everywhere. St. Louise de Marillac, a holy woman nobody had ever heard of; even she had a Facebook account.
“Should you really be employing such things in a sacred environment? Isn’t that sinful?”
“Not inherently”, answered Lucas. “Social media can help round up the flock, so to speak. You’d be surprised.”
Bo would not have been surprised. He was well aware of the roundup efficacy of social networks. The two young men walked into the nave. Technically Lucas was not permitted to take confession in the booths, but they could always sit in the back pews and chat. This was good target practice for him — a damned good way to build up those spiritual muscles — since Bo was, by any priest’s estimation, a real piece of work.
“How are we doing about all the lying. The lying we talked about last time.”
“Oh, terrible,” said Bo. “Just terrible. I’ve been — wait, aren’t I supposed to say forgive me father and all that?”
“We can dispense with the preliminaries. I’m not a father anyway.”
Ticking them off on his fingers as he did, Bo began to enumerate. He’d lied to his landlord about rent, naturally, and to a girl at a bookstore he’d pretended to be a literature professor at Tulane. He’d misrepresented the age of a pair of sconces he’d sold to a couple renovating a house in Freret that had been abandoned since the floods — he’d said they were Spanish antiques, but he’d actually scrounged them from a box that a hardware store had thrown away. He’d executed some high-quality mail fraud; so high-quality he relished the memory of his machinations. He’d told a group of preteens who’d been drinking underage that he was an undercover cop and had, to his delight, more than a few fearing arrest. Of course he’d lied to his momma about everything everything when she’d called. Then there were the various pranks and unsolicited, unprompted lies: names he’d falsified and forms he’d forged and declarations to nobody in particular that day was night and vice versa. Challenged to recall a time in the past few days when he’d told the truth, Bo couldn’t think of anything. It had just been white lies, grey lies, black-hearted black lies, with none of the drab, beige truth staining the chiaroscuro.
“Outside world just not colorful enough for you, Bo.”
“What does it profit you to obfuscate reflexively?”
“Why must you bullshit all the time?”
“Look, Brother Lucas, if I am free to call you that, I have come here to this beautiful church to cough up my wrongs in the presence of a sympathetic confessor, namely you, not to interrogate my motives. That kind of psych work is really beneath priests, in my opinion, and if my understanding of the Book of Romans is right, you people are operating on a much more cosmic level. I admire that. But in the interest of absolution and also because I like you so much, I think it probably has something to do with getting unmapped.”
He could tell that Lucas didn’t quite understand. Becoming unmapped, explained Bo, is the ultimate goal of every sophisticated urbanite, or ought to be, anyway. By way of guidance and also to fill the air with imagery, Bo described the airless environment of the small Louisiana town he’d fled from — everything supervised and circumscribed and all movements observed. Everybody famous, like the Miranda Lambert number: whether you’re late to church or you’re stuck in jail, the word’s gonna get around.
Lucas didn’t know the song. Not surprising: he wasn’t from the South. In its wisdom the Church had assigned him to this neglected outpost in a New Orleans alley. Bo made a note to himself to adjust his range of allusion. He’d have to study up on Wisconsin and the sort of thing they liked up there. In the meantime, just to make him comfortable, he decided to toss him a softball.
“Also I’ve been masturbating a bunch lately. Several times a day.”
Lucas didn’t respond.
“Jerkin the gherkin. That’s bad, huh.”
“In the grand taxonomy of sins, it’s not one that concerns me overmuch.”
“Do you ever see yourself nude in the mirror and get turned on by yourself? By your leg, say? Maybe after a bath?”
“I thought we were discussing your habits, not mine.”
Bo took that as a firm yes. And why not, he had a tight little bod. He filled out that white deacon’s robe very niftily. Lucas dropped to his knees and Bo figured he was being prayed for, which was a nice feeling, like an attic fan on a warm summer day. Instead he pulled out a manila envelope from behind the hymnals in the rear of the pew. Inside were bad reproductions from a cheapo copy shop that had skimped on the toner. Lucas extracted one, folded it over, and, ceremonially, pressed it into Bo’s hand.
“Got to admit I would’ve preferred a communion wafer.”
“I’m not permitted to hold a mass.”
“Those things taste pretty good. Like stale ice cream cones.”
“Bo, like many people, you’re suffering from an absence of community and a hovering sense of meaninglessness. You’re atomized, disconnected from society and acting out anti-socially. You need a cause — something noble to dedicate yourself to. We are organizing an anti-gentrification protest. Come down to our public action on Monday. You’ll walk away with your dedication to this city reinforced and a better understanding of your responsibility to the rest of humanity.”
There was an address on the flier plus a stick-figure illustration of a protester thrashing a plutocrat. Dollar bills flew out of his pockets as he took the stick. The name of the organization, rendered in Cooper Black, hogged the lower third of the page: New Orleans New Coalition for Equality.
“N.O.N.C.E.?”, asked Bo.
“What? Oh, yes. The organizer’s sense of humor. I admit I don’t always get her jokes. It’s a small but dedicated organization. We’ll be forming a human chain across the street.”
“All right. Well, I’ll be there.”
“Ye of little faith.”
Lucas heaved himself to his feet. His robe flounced a bit as he stood up. The deacon looked too fresh for this antique environment — not unlike a new circuit jammed into a rusty old machine. In his presence the Church seemed jerry-built. Work called him, he said; he had much to get done before evening services but Bo was always welcome. It would be wonderful to welcome him to the movement, too. As he walked back toward the altar, Bo grinned at him. Then he called to him.
“Lucas, I lied.”
“Yeah. I don’t masturbate a bunch. Just every now and then.”
Lucas nodded and tucked the manila folder under his arm. Then he wheeled himself back into the broom closet and shut the door. Left alone in the Most Holy Church of St. Louise de Marillac, Bo turned his attention to the statues and wood relief carvings of the stations of the cross. Even as he was scourged, the savior looked beatific under the sting of the whips. Shadows thrown by a bank of candles made the black grooves in the sculpted wood appear as if they receded deep into the wall. Bo ran his hands over the weeping face of Mary Magdalene, tracing the details of the relief with his fingertips. Filth of decades collected in the stained glass windows did not, he thought, diminish their grandeur. Symbols and colors, the blood and the cross and the stinging white light of the holy ghost. The Catholic Church: what a hell of a show it’s been, running here and everywhere for two thousand years.
“We’ve really got to get that bastard thing cleaned. Bust open the poorbox.” This was the priest, fat Father Colvin, in a voice unctuous, and bubbly, as mirepoix in the pan.
“How elegantly the bird poop refracts the light.”
“You sarcastic, son?”
“Not at all. Not at all. After talking to your deacon I find myself suffused with devotional energy. I find your deacon awfully inspiring, don’t you? I find myself warming to his tutelage.”
“He’s a smart kid,” said Father Colvin. He looked unsure.
“He is. He is. He’s an absolute marvel and an asset to the Church. It fills me with hope to encounter such wisdom in a young clergyman. I feel certain that the future of your Church is secure.”
Back on the street, Bo scanned the sidewalks for a wastebasket in which to dump the flier. He spied one outside a dingy hotel. Blue flags with gold fleur-de-lis, tied to the wrought iron bars of the terrace in loose rhythm, fluttered and snapped in the January breeze. It gets downright nippy in New Orleans, he thought; another thing outsiders don’t know.
Just as he crumpled up the handout and tossed it into the bin, a tired middle-aged couple approached him.
“Excuse me, sir, can you tell us how to get to the French Quarter?,” asked the wife.
“The Big Easy”, added the husband.
“Oh, you’re pretty far from there, I’m afraid. Okay, here is what you do. Do you see that park?”
As his wife fussed with a hotel handout map, the husband nodded.
“Cross diagonally through the park. You have to go diagonally. That is critically important. Once you reach the far side of the park, catch the bus headed east. In ten stops you’ll reach the Big Easy.”
“You’ll know it when you see it.”
Dazed, the couple thanked him. He watched them shuffle toward the park. Diagonally, he called to them, be sure to go diagonally. Life was a trip, a puzzle, he, Bo, could slide the pieces around at will and see what happened. The trick was to stay light on his feet. Everybody and everything he encountered was mutable, prone to a good scramble, a delirious tip into higgledy piggledy — he just had to figure out the magic words. How delightful it was when they came to him, heaven sent. Yes, it was a game, and it was one well worth playing. Only when he reached the broad corner of the street did he concede to himself that it would be a lot more edifying, and maybe fun, too, if he had somebody to play it with.
The river looked cute it its cradle. It rocked a bit but mostly held still. How could something this friendly cause so much trouble, wondered Bo. Periodically he liked to check on the Mississippi and make sure it was still there. Usually that meant mounting the big orange bow in the Bywater over the train tracks to Crescent Park, but this morning he’d been wandering again, well past Canal and the casino, past the pretty little shops in the Garden District and the wide institutional churches on St. Charles, on to Prytania, Audubon Park, and that great stretch of green by the water called the Fly. Bo crouched in the grass and watched a cargo ship crawl by. A team of workers in red overalls fussed with a giant metal container. Such a gesture of simple and mechanical manhood was impossible for him to imagine for himself; just thinking about it prompted a surge of lactic acid in his puny biceps. Right now, people all over the city were lifting barges and toting bales in a struggle to provide the bare rudiments of life to the rest of the commonwealth. Might it feel good to to be part of this grand project: to be a cog in the great crane hoisting New Orleans back into position.
To his left he could see where the park ended and the long stretch of dull white warehouses began — not more that a hundred yards away, he reckoned. One of the first things that amazed him about New Orleans when he moved there was the difficulty of getting down to the river. It was only available to people at certain access points. This was not as he’d imagined it when he was growing up in the Flat Lick Bayou. People in the city, he figured, maintained an amphibious existence, hopping in and out of the water at will and, if need be, going about their business sopping wet. City folks were slippery characters, darting in and out of cracks in the cement and tributaries in the river, appearing out of the shallows and disappearing just as easily — not like the people in Pace, who spent all day with the sun’s spotlight on them. The city would be a mess, he hoped: a place to hide.
He’d been disabused quick. Instead of a muddy scramble, the free-for-all, he’d found a town aligned and visible, with whole neighborhoods under the supervision of philanthropists and renovators. The city had been seized by appraisers and held fast under the loupe. The people he’d encountered in New Orleans, he’d learned, weren’t much different from the farmers in Pace. They were happy to make themselves fixed marks on a grid, tiny data points, in exchange for a system that worked efficiently. Even this park was under siege: a development group backed by the local football star had wanted to turn it into a sports complex. Bo shuddered. He hated quarterbacks. Community groups had saved the Fly for now, but who knew which blueprint held the park’s destiny? It was at the Fly protests that Bo had first seen Lucas in action outside the church: a blur of good cheer, shaking hands and signing people up, lending whatever spiritual authority he had to a very secular resistance. Father Colvin had not been happy.
With no confession booth in sight, Bo talked to the river, as good a wishing well as any, and one Americans had been tossing their pennies of hope into for centuries. Show me the renegades, he prayed, float me down to their den on a raft of scuppered master plans. Take me to the people who won’t be pinned down, smoked out, slotted into the algorithm, geopositioned and tracked by magic cookie crumbs. Bring me to the unmapped men, the system-jammers and static-chuckers, the uncooperatives, the unsolvable factors in the equation, the liars. They’d been promised to him. They were supposed to be here. Bo knew they were here, somewhere; he just hadn’t been able to find them. Which, to him, was proof of their success, the artfulness of their subversive game. He’d just have to try harder. One day he’d turn over the right stone.
He let the streets drag him back. He was like a scuppered barge towed along by the day. Just past Tulane, Bo recognized the office of a leftish charity he’d once tried to cajole a check from. Those plans foundered when he realized that they wanted him to talk down on the city. He couldn’t do it. Bo could only tell factual lies. Emotional lies were beyond his talents.
The houses and yards grew more unkempt as he drifted farther north. He turned right onto a commercial block of tobacco shacks and stores with old logos painted directly onto the wood and chipping away. A woman across the intersection caught his eye. Bo was impressed by the explosive quality of her hair and a fragile upper lip, big and soft, slightly upturned and receptive, ideal for expressions of mirth. Or smooching, he noted. A face like that was forged by the Creator for bliss and for no other reason, thought Bo. But she did not look happy or kissy at the moment: she was moving faster than anybody else on the street, toeing the sidewalk with determination. Bo raced to catch up with her and hardly could. Breathless, he stepped lively.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.”
She had a beat-up canvas bag slung over her shoulder and she clenched her right fist. What if she slugs me one, thought Bo. He couldn’t help himself: she seemed like somebody to know. She stopped and gave him a parsimonious smile. What.
“I’m a representative for Southmax, which you may have heard of. We’re a film production company. At the moment, we’re shooting a documentary, really more of a docudrama, to be honest, set here in this neighborhood. And –”
“Ah I’m not sure a documentary is what this neighborhood needs.”
“Exactly. See, that’s exactly why I wanted, needed to talk to you. I agree with you wholly. I, my name is Jerry Taylor, by the way, we’re really looking for someone who is highly familiar with and passionate about the area to give us guidance about the underlying feasibility of the project.”
“I’m sorry. That’s not me. I’m not from this area.” Under her black winter jacket she wore an olive T-shirt that read: Utopia starts with U.
“My apologies. I thought you were from New Orleans.”
“I am from New Orleans.” Now she was getting a little miffed. Not the direction he wanted to go in, but at least she hadn’t disengaged. She was born and raised here, she let Bo know; she rebuilds bicycles from parts in shop in Tremé specializing in fixies. Ever ridden a fixie, she asked.
“Oh no, ma’am. I am far too attached to my limbs.”
“You know Mr. Taylor, that’s insulting on several levels. Fixies are really no more dangerous than other bicycles as long as you ride safe. A town like New Orleans, flat as it is, it’s ideal for fixies.”
“I admire your zeal for your product. When someone begins to proselytize on behalf of something she believes in, I —
Somebody was calling him from across the street. He didn’t look up. He’d learned from long experience never to give away his location and identity until he absolutely had to. Occasionally a way to wiggle free presented itself.
“Bo, I’m so glad you made it. A bit late, but no mind.” Here was Lucas, pink-faced and agitated, squinting, toting a sign. A large red X scored the face of a middle-aged businessman with aggressive hair. Underneath, in Cooper Black, a message had been printed: SUPPORT DREAMS NOT DOLLARS. Bo didn’t know for sure but he knew what he suspected: he’d stumbled into the N.O.N.C.E. anti-gentrification rally.
“I see you’ve met Marie-Thérèse, lead organizer of N.O.N.C.E. Our action today wouldn’t be possible without her tireless advocacy work.”
They shook hands.
“So. This is the human chain, huh?”
“Yes. No, not really. Turnout was pretty light. Tichenor’s goons drove away most of the crowd. By the end it was Marie-Thérèse and me.”
“I’d never bet against you, sir.
Lucas lapsed into sermon mode. Bo never minded. Demonstrations of moral righteousness always relaxed him. The deacon gesticulated and denounced, and grew white hot under the January sun. He took on the character of an overexposed negative: features flooded out, pleasantly cartoonish. In the wake of the hurricanes, New Orleans hemorrhaged public housing stock; areas that were in no way blighted were nevertheless torn down to make way for new developers. Morris Tichenor, a billionaire, wants to buy this whole block, and the next, and the next. We’re not going to let him. Bo didn’t know accurate this account of recent history was. He knew about Tichenor but had never heard anything too terrible. The clergy always had it in for plutocrats. Eye of the needle and all that business.
A phone on Lucas’s hip buzzed. He handed the sign to Bo and took the call.
“Reporter from the Times-Picayune. Excuse me. I need to make a statement.” He walked toward the corner store and sat down on a bench beneath the five dollar muffulleta sign.
“I didn’t even know the Times-Picayune was still afloat,” said Bo to nobody in particular.
“Staff got slashed pretty bad over there I hear. So you’re Bo, huh? The pathological liar?”
“I prefer to say fabulist.”
She was smiling now, this time for real. He should have just led with the hooey. Girls love lies; that was conduct rule number one. But wait, how on earth did she know who he was?
“Oh, Luke talks about you all the time. He loves you.”
“Do you really not have a phone? No social media, no Internet, no credit history?”
“Marie-Thérèse, I am a curl of the sweetest smoke, twisting through the world, molesting nothing, one day dissipating and leaving no mark.”
God, we could really use someone like you in the group, she sighed. Everybody else is an open book. She admitted she was just as bad — constantly posting about N.O.N.C.E., objectives and aims and actions, feeding all of her contacts into the database and waiting on the reinforcement and validation that could only come through the enthusiasm of the like-minded. Brother Lucas, too, only meant well, but every time he tweeted or circulated an action plan, the police and the developers instantly knew what they were up to and where they were headed. Any move they made had already been anticipated. No moles necessary. It wasn’t any way to run a resistance.
Still on the phone, Lucas stood up and gestured to her. Wait right here, Marie-Thérèse said to Bo, I want to talk to you. She huddled with Lucas on the bench, trading signals and orienting their ears. Then, gesturing and whispering, they stood up and rounded the corner. Bo was alone on the block, still holding the sign. He tried jouncing it up and down in the air, and then walked a few paces with it. It was made of heavy wood: church type wood. Winter or not, it was getting warm on the street.
A minute later, a young man in tentative pants approached him. One of his shoelaces was untied. He pointed to the sign. You’re with the N.O.N.C.E. group, he said, trying, without success, to temper the rise in his inflection.
“Yes. Yes I am. I am an ardent believer in the broad objectives of N.O.N.C.E.”
He introduced himself as a reporter from a website that Bo had never heard of. The young man fumbled in his wallet for a card, extracted one, handed it to Bo, and then secured his money as quickly as he could. Bo inspected the card without really reading it. Then with an executive flourish, he tucked it in the pocket of his coat.
“Very pleased to meet you. You might be surprised to learn that I am a regular reader of your publication, and I recognize your byline. I know you to be a fair newsperson. My name is Darlington Ames; that’s A-M-E-S, get that down right. I’m the operational director of N.O.N.C.E.”
“I have a fuller, more illustrative title, but operational director will do. Today’s action was a sadly necessary step in the reclamation of our neighborhoods from predatory capitalists.”
“So you think Mr. Tichenor’s land claim is unethical.”
“Unethical, why yes, yes, certainly. I believe every person in this city should be aware Mr. Tichenor’s deep ties to white supremacist organizations and of course the Ku Klux Klan. I am sure at your site, you’re well aware of all of this, but consciousness needs to be raised elsewhere.”
The reporter scribbled on a pad. Bo scolded him for arriving late to the demonstration. There had been two hundred people here; what was his excuse? (After some equivocation, he admitted, sheepishly, that he’d gotten lost.)
“I expect your piece to commend the organizational efforts of Brother Lucas of the Most Holy Church of St. Louise de Marillac, whose ideology underpins our organization. Also the tireless work of our field director Ms. Marie-Thérèse Fixie.”
“Like the bicycle.”
The kid got his story and scrammed. Once again alone on the block, Bo felt overwhelmed by an urge to return to the Bywater. His legs were tired from marching all day. Bo decided he would keep the sign as a memento of the day, and possibly return it to Lucas should he ever need it again, or if he just needed the wood. On he paraded with the red X over the developer’s face. After a block of walking, his wrist smarted. He tried laying the stick of the sign across both of his arms, as if he was carrying tinder to the fire, but it kept rolling down his sleeves. When he tried it over his shoulders, the wood chafed at his neck. Finally he stood the sign up in an alley with Morris Tichenor’s vilified face pointing toward the wall so he couldn’t see Bo skulking away. It wasn’t supposed to rain this week. He’d be back to check on it soon. He promised.
Bo returned to his regimen of hijinks the following night. In his one ratty suit and purple tie he crashed a wedding at the hotel attached to the casino and told outrageous stories about the groom’s adventures to everyone on the bride’s side. Oh yes I got to know Garrett on safari. What a shot. Bo raided the buffet table hard and stuffed a few samosas in his backpack for later. There were always fresh opportunities at hotels — dreary business conferences in desperate need of an infusion of chaos, luncheons for tourists aching to be misled, family reunions in filial demilitarized zones. In all cases food was copious. Sometimes it was even decent. This one wasn’t, though: they’d skimped on the caterer and hired a dud. He went to bed in the Bywater with a gurgling bellyache.
The next morning he woke with a start from hard dreams of shipwrecks. Somebody brave was rapping at the front door of his rat trap. This was unprecedented: no creditor had ever tried to smoke him out of his den before. Maybe if he shut his eyes and ate his pillow the knocking would stop.
It did not. Bo felt real ill. He hoisted his nether regions, which did not at the moment seem like a part of his physical body, off of the mattress and oozed over toward the door. From the other side he heard a voice: a girl’s voice.
“Bo? Bo. I hear you rumbling around. C’mon I know you’re in there.”
It was Marie-Thérèse. Through the peephole she looked fetching in a black turtleneck and a daisy behind her ear. For a thick second he weighed the options. Was it forgivable to confront this gamine thing with his bulbous appearance? What about the rancid wreck of his flat; would the sight of it disfigure her for life? Because he couldn’t have that hanging on his conscience. He liked her a bunch see. Against his better judgment he turned the knob.
“How d’you get this address?”
“I pinched it off of Luke’s phone.”
“Funny. Funny coz this isn’t actually my place. You realize. It belongs to my cousin, who serves in the Louisiana Merchant Marine and was recently rotated to Biloxi until March. I crashed here because I had business to attend to in the Bywater. Therefore I find your tale dubious. To say the least.”
“Are you going to let me in?”
“Also and moreover and most importantly, how the hell did Lucas get this address?”
“Church knows stuff.”
Bo burped. It rose out of nowhere and dismayed him. Unmoved, Marie-Thérèse began to explain. She didn’t suppose Bo followed the local news too closely. If he had, he might have recognized the swirl of his thumbprint on current events. N.O.N.C.E. accuses Tichenor of Klan connections: that was the headline on the website. An irate Brother Lucas had made them take the story down, but not before it had been screen-captured and widely shared. By now the piece had been read thousands of times and traveled far past the Mississippi. Morris Tichenor had been forced to halt construction, at least for a day, and hold a press conference to address the controversy.
“This is where I’m supposed to tell you that’s terrible.”
“Are you kidding? It’s been fantastic. N.O.N.C.E. hasn’t had this kind of attention in ever.”
They’d been snowed in with contributions: more than seventeen thousand dollars. One old lady in the Garden District thanked them for being the first organization with the guts to tell the truth. With this money they’d have an operating budget for the first time. Tichenor couldn’t sue Darlington Ames because there was no Darlington Ames. The website had confirmed his nonexistence and run a retraction. All of N.O.N.C.E.’s new fans thought they’d got one over on the developer, and the local press, and the universe, which had heretofore seemed somewhat cold and fascist.
“So you’re here to thank me.”
“I wish. Bo, Luke won’t accept the money. He’s over there at St. Louise de Marillac drafting letters. Bo. He’s going to send all the checks back today.”
“You’ve got to stop him. I know you can.” Marie-Thérèse stood with her arms crossed: a small ball of determination. Bo admired her. For her he suppressed the urge to burp again. He squeezed his esophagus and redirected the gas to some surprise region of his anatomy. Shoulders perhaps.
“What’m I supposed to say?”
“You’ll figure it out. Use that silver tongue.”
“Okay. I’ll give it a shot. I’ll swing round the Church sometime this afternoon.”
Unacceptable, he had to go now. Lucas could be putting the letters in the mail any minute. No time for him to shower or shave: just get to the Quarter as fast as possible. Marie-Thérèse had friends in the Bywater — she called it the Ninth — and would wait here while Bo took her bicycle.
“It pedals itself.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“Also there’s no brakes.”
It was true: the bicycle really did ride itself, or more accurately, it rode Bo, pushing his feet up and down on the pedals rather than the other way around. Bo cycled past the scrub trees, wood cottages, and corrugated metal fences festooned with graffiti in indecipherable bubble letters, adapting to the rhythm of the fixie, borne on a breeze, stopping for no one. This was fine: there was nearly no one on the road.
He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Marie-Thérèse had slipped him a beauty. The fixie had a buffed turquoise crossbar and body and cream-colored rims on its wheels. She’d wrapped the handlebars with leather. Bo was no appraiser, but he reckoned he could get a good four hundred dollars for the parts. He knew just the junker who could disassemble it quick, too. There was the small matter of what to tell Marie-Thérèse when she came looking for the bike, but it didn’t trouble him overmuch. Perhaps he got mugged. In broad daylight, would you believe it. Or maybe he’d been undone by his unfamiliarity with fixies and gotten hit by a car, or fell into the river. Some tragedy struck, something had toppled Bo from the seat, unhorsed him on his ride. He’d make it good.
Lying: it was all in the details. Piling up improbable specifics quicker than the listener’s logical defenses could handle — this was the key. She’d know something was off, but she’d be too swept up in the star show to protest. If done properly, she’d be more invested in the holding the story together than she would be in pulling it apart. People were kind that way. Marie-Thérèse, for instance, was like that. She was a sport and a half, that kid: she’d play her part in the vaudeville routine beautifully.
Would Lucas, though? He had an image of the deacon crouched over a desk, face scrunched up, checks for thousands to N.O.N.C.E. in his shaking hands, fitting himself for the hair shirt. Or Father Colvin chastising him. Bo didn’t like that image at all. He focused his attention on the telephone poles, and the black birds crammed on the crossbars, claws sunk in the chipped wood.
The scrap yard lay in the low flats beyond the Bywater. From a narrow bridge over a clutch of railroad tracks, Bo surveyed the scenery: overgrown vacant lots ringed by brown picket fences, rows of squat bungalows with grey tiled roofs, sandy driveways and pylons toppled over. These blocks had been among the first to be inundated when the levees failed. The waves had receded but the watermarks of the storm were still visible everywhere — weathered houses a little crooked on stilts, wary on their cinderblocks, some abandoned and still bearing their spray-paint tattoos from rescue workers looking for survivors, some with rotten walls, others raised on firmer foundations, suntanning. Here a restored garden, there, right next to it, a weed pit, a little farther down the road a mess of wires left at the intersection by a reconstruction team. Bo streaked down a block that had been entirely stripped, the ground pounded flat and slathered in concrete. The foundation sprouted metal cables and was marked for further construction with streaks of blue and yellow paint. Fifty units, ready this fall. On the cyclone fence he read Tichenor’s name. Well darn. Even here, he couldn’t dodge the echoes of the past few days.
Across the street the block had been cleared of all its structures but one. Near the corner of the lot was a stubborn little brick church. It was scarcely larger than any of the bungalows in the neighborhood and wore no priestly adornments: no silver letters announcing a denomination, no stained glass or statues or fountains or brass bell on a dais, no letterboard out front with a pithy word about Jesus. Yet it was unmistakably a church, and Bo would have recognized it as one even without the stubby cross atop a shallow gable.
Bo felt the fixed gears pitch him up toward the roof of the day, like an airplane in an updraft, or a worthy raptured. He skidded to a stop, dragging his sneakers against the asphalt. It was Thursday morning. If the church hadn’t been abandoned, there could be a service.
Reverentially Bo tiptoed up toward the front door to get a closer look. Loose beams like tindersticks were strewn across the small lawn outside the church. The concrete steps had crumbled away. No sermon today; Sunday neither. How much longer, wondered Bo, would it squat on this lot, not quite a corner, before it was rooted from the landscape? Were the developers reverent, or had the building made a quiet case for itself? Bo grasped for an answer and caught a vision. The church would stay in place until time had shorn it of all its remaining marks of holiness — until floods and gales and brutal Louisiana summer days finally bent the nails and parted the cross from the moorings on the roof. Even then it wouldn’t budge. They’d pull apart the bricks and they’d snap right back together. He was sure of it.
Bo peeked in the front window. He counted the rows of pews: eight or so, in the gloom, weathered wood with big brown backs. A little austere for Bo’s tastes, but respectable. Probably Protestant. They meant well but didn’t really get the showbiz angle. Their priorities were pretty screwy.
Fifteen minutes later, Bo hopped off the fixie at the Most Holy Church of St. Louise de Marillac. The nave was deserted. Lucas was stuffed in the broom closet, fussing hard over the letters, forehead all asquirm with consternation. He looked just as Bo feared he would, but exactly. Bo felt bad.
“Knock knock. It’s an emergency. I got something big to confess.”
“You so often do.” Lucas barely turned his eyes in Bo’s direction.
“It is your sacred responsibility as a priest to administer the sacrament to a messed up man in need.”
“I am not a priest and may never be a priest. Right now I am trying to concentrate on what I am writing, which I am only writing because of you.”
“Yes, about that.”
“You look horrendous.”
“Do you realize the trouble you’ve caused? Do you have the capacity to understand the damage you have done to N.O.N.C.E. and its cause by misrepresenting its intentions, or is that beyond your crippled spiritual state?”
“Now, look, no reason to get all brutal on me.”
“You shoveled dirt on the name of a man who, whatever his misguided political aims, did you no wrong. And what about that poor kid from the website, that cub reporter? You probably got him fired, did you even think about that?”
Bo paused. He hadn’t thought of that.
“Get out of here. Just get gone. Please, please do not darken the door of the Church of St. Louise de Marillac again. You are a hopeless case.”
“My understanding of scripture is that the same salvation is available to all –”
Lucas banged both palms hard on his desk. Indignation jumped him up.
“I am well aware of what scripture says on that subject and many other subjects. I went to seminary. At the moment I find myself less interested in spiritual creed and more interested in ridding the room of you and then fumigating the premises. The very sight of your simpering face repulses me.”
The air in the church hung heavy. Lucas looked depleted. He was already regretting the severity of his outburst. Uncharacteristically intemperate, was it not. Some enterprising fabulist could surely capitalize on the deacon’s guilt. Bo saw an opening and schemed.
“Okay. Okay look, you don’t want to see my face, okay. Got it. So let’s go where you can’t see me.”
Bo cocked his head toward the booths.
“I’ll get down on my knees and beg. I really will. You think I have pride?, I have no pride. I’ll grovel. C’mon, Lucas, I’m not asking for absolution here. Just somebody to listen.”
Lucas exhaled. Then he tucked the letters under his left arm. He looked and felt like a kid in a robe: a Halloween ghost, a sodden Fat Tuesday spirit. The deacon trudged to the confessional and shut the door. Bo joined him on the other side of the partition and peered through the fleur-de-lis. A New Orleans-style aperture for guilty whispers, regal and French and geographically specific. Everything about it comforted Bo.
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned.”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Bo, I’m not a father. We’ve been over this how many times.”
“Lucas, you’ve got to tear up those letters. Got to.”
“Never do you ever turn up your nose at a windfall, father. Never refuse a dime. Manna from heaven arrives with no return address. Don’t waste the gift. It’s sneering at God who provides all things. Especially moolah.”
“It’s not just about the money, Bo. It’s also the reputation and integrity of the organization.”
“Integrity nothing, don’t gimme integrity, nobody has integrity anymore. Do you live in this town or what. Look, Marie-Thérèse wants you to.”
There was no immediate reply. Bo could see one blue eye blink beyond the fleur-de-lis. When Lucas spoke, it was with renewed evenness, like a fat man was sitting on his words.
“How would you know what Marie-Thérèse wants?”
“She told me. She came to my place.”
“And what was she doing at your place, Bo?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“You seduced her, didn’t you. That’s what you’re confessing. You slimy, subhuman scumbag.”
“Now what kind of language is that to use in a house of worship? I’m dead serious, father.”
“You’re dead period.”
Bo pressed his fingertips on the partition. He was getting exercised now; he couldn’t help it. His lips were so close to the hole that he was practically kissing the woodwork. You want to hit them where it hurts? You want to strike a genuine blow against the empire? Forget N.O.N.C.E.; get unmapped with me. Pull the plugs, scramble the systems, log out and switch off, get unmapped. They want you to tell the truth, you fib. They want your position on the globe, you slip away. They want you to share, you keep it all to yourself. They hate it! They want quality data, you go garbage, they want plot, you give them setting. They say you need it, you say they can keep it. They hate it! Take a scissor to the network connections, take a redactor’s pen, a big black redactor’s pen, to the official reports, monkey with your identity, shift around, jump in a hole, get lost. Unmapped! Off the blueprint, out of the ‘net; squiggle marks in the margins, termites in the woodwork, whispers sub rosa in the shouting chamber, uncooperative, ungovernable, a God-damned problem, you and me both.
“You want me to leave the Church?”
“Hell no, Bishop! You are in possession of the greatest gift anybody could ask for: the ear of God almighty. Lately I begin to worry that you take it for granted. You cling to those robes like I cling to the hem of your garment, pal. People like me, and you, and Marie-Thérèse, the Church is all we got.”
“Marie-Thérèse. You’ve got to marry that girl, Bishop, I tell you. I never seen two people so unjoined in matrimony who damn well ought to be so joined. You two, a little white house off St. Charles, itty bitties running around, tongue kissing and kinky business, all of it, I will not rest until I see it. If you don’t marry Marie-Thérèse I will sue the Church for gross negligence. Improper handling of human souls. I hear the Holy Father is loosening up on this issue, is this true?”
“I’ve never had an audience.”
“You will. Archbishop, you will. Let me tie the tin cans to the Cadillac. Let me throw more rice than a professional rice thrower. I will be the best nine year old flower girl that St. Louise de Marillac has ever seen. They’ll be flipping in the aisles. C’mon, Lucas, let me make it up to you. Let me make it up to N.O.N.C.E. I’ll do the bake sales. I’ll learn how to play the pipe organ, and play Hava Nagila Ha just to keep the parishioners confused. Oh I do detest my sins because of thy just punishment but mostly because they bug the fuck out of good and deserving you. St. Luke, Luke the Evangelist, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee.”
Now it was Lucas’s turn to peer through the fleur-de-lis. Tears gleamed on Bo’s pink cheeks. No marks of sincerity, he felt, no guarantees of anything, but surprisingly rewarding to discover. There is no silence, he thought, as thick and caramel rich as a church silence, that silence scored only by the crackling of candles. For a long time they wallowed in it, together apart, each on the other side of the wood partition.
“Bo, you wouldn’t have happened to read Paul Tillich’s essay on holy waste, now, would you?”
“Oh yes, yes. For sure. Nah. No. Who’s that?”
“A theologian. Protestant.”
“Protestants are fuzzy on the basics.”
“Not this one. You really ought to read it sometime.”
Bo said nothing. He wasn’t much of a reader.
“I’ll discard these letters. We’ll eat the manna and I’ll hope that Father Corvin hears my own confession and doesn’t arrange with the diocese to pitch me out on my ass. In exchange I need you to do some things for me, too. First, I want you in the front pew of the Most Holy Church of St. Louise de Marillac every Sunday morning. You got me?”
“Then: I want you at every N.O.N.C.E. gathering and action from here on in perpetuity. Every one. Starting next Monday.”
“Check. Double check.”
“Oh, and Bo? The other part? The unmapped business?”
“With your permission. I have a few refinements to suggest.”
Bo lingered in the footpath outside the Church, admiring the stained glass window from the layman’s side. The grit really did improve the panels, he thought, and how on earth could they be kept in pristine condition in a city as buggy as sticky as New Orleans, anyway? Still a little shook up from his confession, he did some inventory on his spiritual condition. A little bit of his immortal soul had been reclaimed from the floodwaters, or so it seemed, alone in the early afternoon and prone, as certain churchgoers often are, to mystic overstatement. Regardless, a fetching young woman awaited him in the Ninth. He had a fixie to return.
– Tris McCall