The block is quaint, polished, save the lake rats. Daphne and deergrass dot the walk and the yardcat’s front legs are short. She does this hop-hop thing through the garden and the old woman in paint-splattered coveralls calls her Bunny. I kneel to pet Bunny but she follows a grayish lake rat into a bush. If you rent here she’ll get used to you, the woman says in an English sort of Frenchsoaked.
Landlady Lora is cherrycheeked, with a teased flame atop her head and pockets stuffed with hog hair brushes. She promises me free light therapy if I move in, something with prisms. I’ll need to stand in a machine. There’s that and more in my Healing Center, she tells me, Down in the basement. Painless hot coal walk, tank soak and tan, a bath just for hands. She says a man notices a woman’s hands before anything. Hers match her coveralls, spotted and worn.
You been through a lot, the landlady says to my bleeding cuticles.
I tell her I’m from New Orleans and nobody cares about hands there.
New Orleans, she says, and out hops the rat, followed by the yardcat in a cloak of dandelion fuzz, yanking the landlady’s attention away from her next question, which had to be Did you lose anyone? because that’s always the next question.
Landlady Lora shows me the one-room apartment, the mudtones and burned bulbs, showerless bath and lone window full of freeway. I see the whole thing in under a minute. She unfolds a form and yells Sign the lease! over a car-horn choir. This will do. I sign, and beneath my curly name is another line that says Emergency Contact. I write M-A-G-N and then stop. I have no Emergency Contact. Is that okay? I mean, in life, is it okay, will I be okay? Landlady Lora promises the water stays hot, that the rats stay by the lake. She makes fish on Mondays, I’m always invited. She tucks the lease into her breastpocket and slams her dry lips onto mine. Our teeth sort of slap in this French way, grandmotherly. I jump at the sound of a car crash outside. The freeway noise melts around it and Lora laughs, It’s just the cars, they boom, you’ll get used to it, I’ll call you Jumpy.
I lift the window, press my nose into the screen. In Oakland the sirens are fast so I jump at those too. I am Jumpy.
I live two floors up if you need me, Landlady Lora says, And the only rule in my building is: no fried chicken in the fridge. I mean it.
Cholesterol and self-control. She says sometimes she can’t be trusted.
I cross my entire heart.
You get used to motel life and then it ends. You live somewhere or you live everywhere. FEMA money dries up, your bank account is thirsty. You check the balance every day, Maybe they’ll give me more! We’re sorry you can't come home, they say. The buses don’t run, the only place hiring is fast food. They pay twenty dollars an hour now but nobody can get there. Gray muck still gathers at the gutters and you can’t scrub waterlines from buildings. You can eat fried chicken anywhere you want. Everyone says Move to Oakland but what do you do once you’re here? You pretend that it's home because what else? You build an altar and hang beads. Everyone you call answers. Your bra brims with beignet sugar. There’s melipone in your coffee and the woman who serves it to you calls you baby. The bee-bushes are banana trees, your friends are all accounted for. I live in California. I live in California. I’m in California and where the fuck is Magnolia? Do I need glasses or is everything just blurry now and who’s feeding the strays while I’m gone?
Oakland tubs are tall with lion-feet and I am part of a soup. The water is hot as the landlady promised and each night I run it hotter, make it burn like September. I am blisterproof, nursed through thirty by Louisiana sun. I sink below the surface, to Magnolia. She’s been waiting. I ask Have you eaten, do you work tonight? Magnolia drags my eyelids down with her lips, over my burning eyes. Down here Magnolia says I love you. Down here I say You’re mine. I pop my head above water, gasp for air, You’re here? I blink away the tubwater but up here I’m alone. I slide down once more, slide right into her and hold my breath until my chest burns blue. My fingers are pickled plums, they scrape at the soap-scum waterline and I float to the surface.
The window’s name is Freeway TV and after my bath I plop damp on this chair named Fall Colors. The sky nightens but I can see the denim laps of people in cars. A car and truck embrace and spin on the pavement, horns blare in vain. The truck wins, white truck, extended cab, long bed. The explosion is quick. It should always be quick. I wonder if he was hungry, if he had to work tonight. If anyone is waiting.
Winter in Oakland is nearly as cold as television. Television, where the news is still the same: The roofs are still blue-tarped, cops still shoot kids. I look for Magnolia in every crowd shot and then I look for her on the streets of Oakland, like she’ll just be here. I buy an everyday pill and I take it every day. I write postcards and send them to addresses no longer standing. I befriend the library next to the food pantry. I burn in the basement tanner. I jump turnstiles toward interviews. I pocket bouillon and bags of fideos, the Alphabet kind, my favorite shape. I dream I work in the tunnels below tollbooths and then I get a job working in the tunnels below tollbooths. There’s a gun range down there. The neighbors say Hi Jumpy! every morning because Jumpy stuck.
First paychecks take forever but when forever comes I buy wine with a French label to share with Landlady Lora. Mondays, her fish days, are our days. We talk Marie Laveau and lodestones and I learn to love the Healing Center, but only with her. She looks like princess in the prism machine, everycolored, made of skin.
You probably have PTSD, she says, from the hurricane and all. That’s what light therapy is for, purples and blues. Her hand rests behind my neck, we are rainbowed, we are skin and I ask Are we being healed right now. We take turns tanning in tiny sunglasses then she bathes my hands for men. She stands me naked in a hot stone dome with the yardcat but to the float tank I say No Thank You.
Jumpy let me show you my paintings, she says, buttoning those coveralls over her breasts. We climb to her apartment and she leads me to her studio. Every inch of floor space is occupied by stacks of painted canvas, all views of our block, her garden, the yardcat. In every portrait Bunny is blue. You love her, don’t you?
She seems like a great cat, I say.
I mean the girl. Magnolia.
She left me, I say.
It might be true. It would have been a great way to do it: wait until there’s some world-ender of a hurricane that destroys every method of long-distance communication. Say I have to work one more night baby, just catch a ride to Memphis, I’ll meet you there in a few days. And then just disappear.
Is she still in New Orleans? Landlady Lora asks.
In some ways she is.
But she’s also in the bathtub.
I skip the bath to watch Freeway TV. This is what I do most of the time, wait for the sound. Tonight I don’t have to wait long. Right after rush hour everyone drives a little faster, a little closer to everyone else. Other than a short screech of tire this crash is mostly quiet. A van full of people, women, five or six of them, and a guard rail. Not too much damage. The van-women sit on the rail touching each others’ faces. I can’t see their eyes, it’s too dark. Traffic thickens around them.
How much of this is my doing?
Fatma cashes my checks each Friday. Her dimpled cheeks bounce behind bulletproof glass. They always doubt me at the Western Union but not Fatma, who calls me Nola. I wonder if workers worldwide were given special instructions on dealing with all of us. Fatma’s fingers are the perfect length and she’s says the number nine this one way: naaahn. I thought I knew how fast the earth spun. I take her home and fuck her all weekend. She asks me questions like Where are your people? Are you in love? Where’s all your stuff? Why are your hands so soft? We call it magic.
And I’m fucking Fatma in the afternoon after fucking her all morning, she’s filled with my whole hand, she holds it hostage and that is fine. The sheets, red with white printed magnolia blossoms, darken and soak, and someone is knocking on the door. I say to Fatma, Breathe, Relax, and she releases my hand. I pull the door open against the chain-lock and it’s some guy with a contractor photo ID on his chest, this big grin on both of his faces like he’s been listening. I’m wearing nothing, and here’s this guy, a contractor, I’m here to measure your countertops, and I say Leave me the fuck alone. The contractor steps back, sharp-browed, laughing this dimply warmwater laugh.
I slam the door in his face.
I try to put my hand back in Fatma but I can’t find her. She can’t find me. All I see is the white pickup truck, the truck that found me in the seventh ward searching for Magnolia weeks after the storm. The white ponytailed driver said Let me help you find what you’re looking for. He offered so I let him, and he said, Everyone’s so lost that nobody will look for you, and I think it was two days and then I was in a parking lot, naked. The hospital gave me a prescription and I took it to La Place because I heard things were open in La Place. In La Place the pharmacist pointed at a copper wall cross. He said Nope, not here. I stuffed the script in my pocket and hoped for the best. I’m sorry Fatma, I’m sorry.
Landlady Lora comes down that night to request quieter sex. Fatma’s gone but she means in general. Also she says the guy upstairs was bound and robbed by a guy disguised as a hired contractor. You’re lucky, she says. Not really, I say. Landlady Lora reminds me that I’m alive, that our street is quaint, polished, save the lake rats. It is dry and there is fish.
New Orleans hurt you, she says, It’s a bad place. A bad place. Here is where you will heal.
A wet place, I say, but not a bad one.
The freeway crash shakes the buildings. The walls droop and drip, they are melting and all this wind stings my face, and I look for anything still, anchored to focus my eyes, but we’re soaking wet and there’s a woman’s outline, Magnolia, Fatma. Yes I’m in love, Fatma, her name is Magnolia and no I don’t know where she is. Nobody does. She’s so lost nobody will look for her. Which woman are you, I ask the figure whose hands grip my shoulders.
Landlady Lora says, I’ll be your emergency contact, Jumpy, just breathe.
I hear that things like mantras and affirmations are sort of real. I write it on the walls of my apartment, on the wall of my underground office, This is where I will heal. I try for a month because that’s how long you should try things, but after a month I learn that mantras and affirmations are definitely bullshit, just like light therapy.
What works is baths. What works is dope with Fatma.
I say Don’t teach me how to shoot it myself.
She crosses her entire heart.
I forget about the tunnels under the tollbooths. I haven’t seen my phone charger and I know there used to be bedsheets. I say Fatma, move in. The prisms, the tank soak, the tan, the hand bath, just move in. And Fatma does, she moves in, and the first thing she does is nail a blackout curtain to Freeway TV. We set up her drums where furniture would be. I turn Hamburger Helper into something and she loves it, never tasted anything quite like it. And then everything speeds up, because it somehow wasn’t fast enough. I black out on Southern Comfort and burn the roux for the first time in my life. That’s how far away New Orleans is. The water only gets hotter. I’m no longer blisterproof. I stop going underwater with Magnolia. I forget to pay the storage shed in La Place. They auction what’s left. People watch that sort of thing on TV. I had the best stuff, I tell Fatma, who says she’ll buy me new stuff.
I hear a crash. I can’t see it.
It’s Lundi Gras and the lake rats have found their way inside. They hang out on top of the refrigerator and judge us, eating our bread. You said they stayed near the lake, Fatma says, so I steal Bunny the yardcat, take her right out of the garden. Cats loved Magnolia. Landlady Lora hears her hollering in my apartment. She comes downstairs, throws open the door.
Jumpy what’s with you?
The fucking rats, I say, you said they stay near the lake, you fucking said.
Bunny hops into the hallway. Landlady Lora shoos her down the stairs and closes the door.
Come upstairs for fish, she says, it’s Monday, we’ll talk. Her face is soft, spotted like her hands.
This building should be condemned, I say.
Come over after six, I’ll be done with my bath by then.
At six I walk to the lake with Fatma. I ask her for a secret. I have too many of my own. She says her father died the day after her mother. He wasn’t even sick, he was just that sad. I swing on a swing and she tells me the story. I love her stories. She says Tell me something I don’t know about you and I tell her I was an artist in New Orleans.
What kind of art? she says.
I was a painter. Oil, like Landlady Lora.
You mean you are a painter, she says, artists don’t just stop being artists.
I smell sun-simmered trash and there are trumpets coming from somewhere. I don’t know what I’m looking at, if I’m looking at anything, but the trumpets and trash and beer and piss, cigarettes, blackening meat, I am home. Magnolia pulls me to her chest, my nose to her neck, her skin that smells like a head shop, smoky bar, Old Spice deodorant, and all of the cookies she’s always baking. She rocks me like a child and I say Mag I think I’m going to be sick.
But I’m not home and Magnolia’s still missing and I’m drunk at the lake with Fatma, who’s crying because I called her the wrong name, and I pissed all over myself and the rats are feasting.
Some couples bathe together. Me and Fatma, we’re a couple and after the park we smell like pennies wet and dirt-caked. I sit naked on the toilet lid while Fatma fiddles with the tub. There’s no hot water, she says.
We never run out of hot water! I fake-french. I try to make her laugh but she’s still mad about the name thing.
We can wait until tomorrow. To pay the bill and to do what couples do.
Fatma swears she paid the bill. She squeaks off the faucet, wraps me in a towel, and leads me to our mattress—which has been on the floor, next to the frame, for quite some time, though I can’t remember why. I close my eyes and listen to the freeway. When there’s no traffic the cars sound like little rockets. I listen to them alone and I listen to them as a choir. I listen the lake rats rattling wrappers in the trash. I listen to the neighbor upstairs, he’s vacuuming. He drags the machine back and forth across the same spot of carpet and I remember watching my mother push her vacuum across the carpet of my youth. The disappearing vacuum-tracks, the way the carpet seemed to darken when she pulled the machine backward. And I listen to Fatma slam-shut the silverware drawer then strike a match. Tiny sizzle in a spoon. The plastic tap against the counter’s edge. Fatma clops across the floor and feeds filthy words to my ear. I request louder sex. I lie still and I listen to her slapping my arm, to her come on baby come on, okay, there we go, good girl.
I wake in the late afternoon and try to run the bath but there is still no hot water. I need to go under. I need to see Magnolia.
Who cares? says Fatma, lazy, naked on the mattress.
I pull the towel around my body and cinch it above my breast. Two flights of stairs lead me to Lora’s door.
Emergency contact? I’ve got an emergency for ya.
I feel wet below my feet. The rug is soaked and a stream of cold water rushes into the hallway from beneath her door.
Landlady Lora? Are you making fish? I call into her apartment, Tea?
I press open the door and see short stacks of blue Bunny cat paintings afloat. The tub spout shouts as tub spouts do. The walls and water blur like everything is vibrating but now is not the time. Focus. Find something solid. Count everything that’s blue. Are you in the bathroom, Lora?
The scrape above her eye wouldn’t have been bad had she not been in the bath when she fell. A butterfly bandage, maybe. Her face was right here, just below the hot-water spout. That’s how she fell and that’s how hot the water was. It’s just been running and she used all of it. It is possible after all. It’s been over a day.
I leave the water running cold over her face. Keep her cooling down. Her paint-splattered coveralls are hanging on the shower rod and I slip into them. There’s a perfume in the medicine cabinet, it smells like a head shop. I dab it onto my neck. Technically this is looting. I move the paintings to higher ground, pull plugs from walls.
I can’t remember the last time I was hungry. Landlady Lora hadn’t made fish yet but her fridge is full of fried chicken. Magnolia liked dark meat so I bring some home to Fatma, who I decide is also hungry.
Eat it, I say.
She eyes my coveralls and says nothing.
You watch the weather reports every hurricane season. You know the exact spot on the map where storms weaken or turn toward Texas. You leave when the waters warm and one day you realize you wish you’d stayed. Because now you never leave, no matter how fucked up it is where you are. One day you forget a friend-date, or you silence your phone and miss a call you’ll regret missing until your memory slips, that bloodline plague. You think you’re alone but you’re one of thousands who’ve wound up by the San Francisco Bay. You serve each other coffee, take each other’s toll fare. You figure out, Hey, we both lived, we both got out, but you figure it out before an audience of civilians. So you keep it together because you’re sick of the questions, the sympathy. I keep it together, I do. I listen to jazz now though I hated it back home, but home is gone, it’s this new thing now, and what does home even mean? Was the city home? Magnolia? I flush the dope and tear down the curtain blocking Freeway TV. I bite into a chicken leg while I watch. Fatma sleeps with her head on the floor, right next to the kick drum. It makes me nervous even though somebody stole the pedal. Nobody feeds the strays when I’m in Oakland. Is Bunny a stray? My feet are wet. Keep it together.
You have to leave. I’m yelling in Fatma’s ear, in Magnolia’s. There is a crash on Freeway TV. It sounds like trucks, hundreds. You have to leave, I yell, to anyone, my mouth full of bones.