Poppy Z. Brite - 1992 - Lost Souls (9 page)

BOOK: Poppy Z. Brite - 1992 - Lost Souls
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The
wood of the bar lost its sheen, grew dull, scarred. Christian forgot to replace
the light bulbs in the imitation Tiffany lamps—a curse of excellent night
vision. The tawdry, alcoholic, glorious life of the French Quarter went on way
up Chartres, far away. No one ever came in before ten.

 
          
Later,
Christian often thought that the man who called himself Wallace should have
appeared at Mardi Gras. There would have been a symmetry to that, a sort of
correctness. But of course life was messy, Christian had lived long enough to
know that.

 
          
The
man came to the bar one night early in September, during a late heat wave. He
had rolled up the sleeves of his white cotton shirt, and the cloth at his
armpits was circled with sweat.

 
          
At
first Christian thought he was an old man, by the usual standards at any rate,
a very old, sad, tired man. Then he looked again and saw that the man could not
be much older than fifty.

 
          
But
this was a man who carried himself as if expecting blows, a man turned inward,
looking out at the world through guarded eyes. His clipped curly hair was only
beginning to go from brown to gray. He had a face that might once have been
kind—deep careworn lines, brown eyes that had seen too much pain. There was
still warmth in those eyes, but it was warmth dampened with weariness and
watchfulness. Christian thought that whatever this man chose to drink, he would
take it straight, and he would take a lot of it

 
          
“Scotch,”
said the man. “Chivas Regal.” Christian poured it over ice. The man held the
glass up to the light, frowned into its amber depths. Then he brought it to his
lips and tossed the whiskey down in one practiced motion. Christian heard the
ice
chitter
against the man’s teeth.

 
          
The
man spat it back into the glass. Then he looked at Christian and said, “My name
is Wallace Creech,” and held out his hand.

 
          
“Christian,”
said Christian, taking the hand. He looked straight into Wallace’s eyes.

 
          
Wallace
stared back, unflinching. Most people started at the touch of Christian’s
fingers and withdrew quickly, rubbing their hands against their clothing to rid
themselves of Christian’s icy touch, glancing away from the cold light of
Christian’s eyes. But Wallace looked steadily back, grasped Christian’s hand
harder, and said, “A fine name.”

 
          
Only
then did Christian notice the small silver crucifix that hung on a chain around
Wallace’s neck, glinting in the dim light of the bar. “I’m afraid I’m not,”

 
          
Christian
told him.

 
          
“I
beg your pardon?”

 
          
“I
don’t belong to a church. I’m not religious.” It is possible to live too long
for such comforts, Christian thought.

 
          
“Ah,”
said Wallace knowingly. Christian expected him to reach into his pocket for a
tract.

 
          
Over
the years, Christian had been given hundreds of them and had found hundreds
more left on the tables, or under them. Everything from the
smudgily
printed, misspelled credo of a snake-handling cult from the Louisiana swamps to
a lurid pamphlet called Rock Music Is Worse than LSD! Christian was curious as
to what drew people to these religions; their obsession with their own
mortality intrigued him, and he read all the tracts.

 
          
But
Wallace didn’t offer him a tract. Instead, he changed the subject abruptly,
asking,

 
          
“Have
you had this place long?”

 
          
Christian
felt a touch of shame. He had misjudged the old man. From the looks of him,
Wallace needed all the faith he could muster. The pain seemed to pour from him.
He must be lonely, just trying to make conversation, and talk was part of a
bartender’s job.

 
          
“Twenty
years,” Christian told him.

 
          
“You
must have been a very young man when you opened it.”

 
          
“I
am older than I look,” said Christian, smiling slightly. His face had not
changed, had grown no older, had lost none of its narrow cold beauty since the
last night of Mardi Gras fifteen years ago, the night he had slept in the arms
of Molochai, his belly heavy and warm with Molochai’s blood. Christian had not
aged for a very long time.

 
          
“So
I gather,” said Wallace dryly.

 
          
Christian
paused, looking into Wallace’s face. Wallace’s expression was no different than
before; the eyes were the same, the hurt, frowning eyes, the lines bracketing
the mouth as weary and patient as before. Christian dismissed the remark as
meaningless—the man only wanted someone to talk to. He was lonely. Religious
people always seemed lonely; perhaps that explained their need to be among
great crowds of people who believed as they did. Such a great comfort, to be
among others of your kind, and such loneliness when there were none. How could
humans ever believe themselves truly lonely when there were so many of them?

 
          
“Another
drink?” Christian asked.

 
          
Wallace
tossed back a second shot of Chivas, then surprised Christian by asking.

 
          
“Is
business always this slow?” Then, realizing what he had said, he tried to
apologize.

 
          
“I
didn’t mean to be rude—I was only curious. It’s a nice place, a good location,
the French Quarter—”

 
          
The
man was babbling, and Christian realized that for some reason Wallace Creech
was terrified. The empty glass in his hand rattled against the bar; the ice
made cold little chinking sounds. The man seemed on the point of belting.

 
          
Christian
dumped the melting ice cubes, scooped in fresh ones, poured another shot. This
one was a double, but he watched Wallace put it away with the same practiced
motion, not even grimacing. Here was a seasoned drinker.

 
          
“Why
are you here, Wallace Creech?” Christian asked softly. “What do you want?”

 
          
Wallace’s
hand went to the cross at his throat. Then, as if trying to conceal the
gesture, he ran a finger around the inside of his collar, loosening it, though
the top button was already undone. ‘There was a girl, once,” he said. “Jessy.
Small, thin. Short brown hair. Black dress. She used to come here.”

 
          
Christian
felt a cold fist squeeze shut somewhere deep inside him. The fist twisted,
clenched; it was wrapped around some vital part of him, tearing him loose
inside. He licked his lips. His mouth tasted of sour blood. He pretended to
think.

 
          
“Jessy,”
he said. “Jessy. Such a long time ago… but perhaps I remember. She stopped
coming in fifteen years ago.

 
          
“Was
that after Mardi Gras … fifteen years ago?”

 
          
“I
think so,” said Christian, and tasted the sour blood again.

 
          
“She
was my daughter,” said Wallace.

 
          
Christian
swallowed. He was suddenly thirsty. “And she just disappeared?” he asked.

 
          
“Didn’t
you call the police?”

 
          
“I
didn’t, no. Jessy was wild.” For a moment Wallace’s face was a Mardi Gras mask
of tragedy; then he put his hand over his eyes, frowned his tears away, and
went on. “She was forever threatening to leave home, saying I didn’t give her
enough money, saying I was dull. She liked to go out and drink. She was angry
because I made her continue with school when she wanted to drop out. She didn’t
seem to care about anything …certainly not her father.”

 
          
Wallace
covered his eyes again. “A girl needs her mother, I think, and Lydia—my
wife—died when Jessy was only five. Suicide, a sin. I brought our daughter up
myself, and did a poor job, I suppose. When Jessy disappeared, I thought she
had run off with a boy. I hoped she would come back when his money was gone.
She had such strange notions…such very strange notions… and sending the police
after her would have made her hate me.”

 
          
“Why
are you here now?” Christian couldn’t look at Wallace’s eyes. He stared at the
silver cross, at the soft loose skin of the man’s throat behind it.

 
          
“Well
… after Jessy left, I moved all her things to the attic. When I realized she
wasn’t coming back, I hated to look at them. Recently I happened to think of
them, and I wondered whether her old clothes might be good enough to give to my
church group. They hold a yearly bazaar for the poor, you know.” Christian
nodded. “While I was going through the boxes, I found an old diary. The entries
mentioned you several times—and your bar. She seemed to have…feelings for you.
I thought she might have told you where she was going. I’d so love to see her
now.”

 
          
“I
don’t know,” said Christian. “She only drank here. She didn’t talk to me. I’ve
no idea where she went.” He realized that he was still staring at the crucifix
and dropped his gaze to Wallace’s empty glass.

 
          
Wallace
gave a heavy sigh. “I’ll have another,” he said. He stayed to drink two more
whiskeys, getting drunker, wandering around the bar. He examined the
stained-glass window and its blind twin, the tables scarred with cryptic
patterns of initials and beer-rings, the worn crimson leather of the bar
stools. From time to time he glanced back at Christian, who silently avoided
his eyes.

 
          
When
Wallace began staring at the door that led to the staircase and, beyond that,
to Christian’s room, Christian picked up his rag and started wiping down the
bar.

 
          
“I’m
closing up. I’m sorry I couldn’t help you with your problem.” His voice was
sharper than he had meant it to be.

 
          
When
Wallace was gone–he left with a quiet, swaying dignity—and the door locked
after him, Christian turned to his rows of bottles and found a squat embossed
bottle nearly full of luminous green liqueur. No one wanted Chartreuse, not
anymore, but Christian always kept a few bottles of it in case Molochai, Twig,
and Zillah came rolling into town some Mardi Gras night. They would want
Chartreuse, Christian knew. Tonight he wanted it too. He wanted the swirling
heaviness of alcohol to weigh his mind down, wanted to sleep deep and
dreamlessly, with no phantoms to swim out of the recesses of memory, no thin
little girls with shadowed eyes and thighs bloody from murderous, innocent
birth.

 
          
Could
he?

 
          
Christian
uncapped the bottle and started to pour himself a shot. His hand paused over
the glass, bony and white, cold on the cold bottle. He smelled the liqueur. A
scent as fresh as the new night, as birth. The smell of altars. He wanted so
badly to be drunk, to sleep. The others—Molochai, Twig, and Zillah-drank
incessantly, even ate; they drowned their true natures in gluttony. But they
were young. They were of a newer generation. Their chemistry was subtly
different; they were hardier, their organs perhaps more thick-walled, less
delicate. Christian remembered the time he had drunk wine, the time he had
drunk vodka, and the memory of pain shivered up his spine. But perhaps this…
Christian clutched the bottle to his chest and carried it up the stairs with
him, turning off the bar lights as he went, ascending in the dark. A blessing
of excellent night vision.

 
          
The
Chartreuse burned going down, and Christian sat tensed in the dark, waiting for
pain.

 
          
But
when the liqueur hit his belly, a gentle green fire began to spread through
him. It was going to work this time. His strange, treacherous body was going to
let him get drunk as he had never been before, and he would rest; for a time he
would not have to think.

BOOK: Poppy Z. Brite - 1992 - Lost Souls
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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