I feel bad for the people milling about in the streets tonight. Summer is holding on with a death grip, wringing sweat from them like life’s blood. The sun’s been down for an hour, but it’s still blistering hot — the pavement didn’t get the memo.
Sirius is busy behind me. He’s like a dark, droning honeybee, buzzing from table to table, picking up plates like pollen to return them to the bustling hive of the kitchen downstairs. I can hear him humming behind me. I don’t recognize the tune, but I listen anyway.
I can’t keep up with them all — the songs. It’s not like the way it used to be, where everyone knew the same songs, passed from mouth to ear and mother to child. Now the music comes from everywhere. There’s so much of it.
It’s because there’s so many of them. Mortals. New Orleans isn’t even one of the bigger cities, and yet, I can barely see the pavement below for the throngs moving up and down Royal Street.
The sliding baritone wail of a trombone cocks my head around. Far down the street, I see the throng part for a quartet of gentlemen bearing golden brass horns. Two of them are young, one middle-aged, and one as old as the other three combined. I can sense the communion in their blood from here. Family, bound close by joy.
Bound close by grief.
The first day I came here to New Orleans, the city wooed me with its long-standing commitment to death. Here, spirits remain welcome. Here, when death comes to collect, there is no wailing. Only singing.
I watch the First Line advance down the street, parading their Friday sorrow in joy’s Sunday best. The elderly man shuffles with his trumpet, bleating bright blue notes between the ooom-pah of the sousaphone in his son’s hands. His grandsons, cousins, take turns wailing on twin trombones, slides flaring in the colored wash of lights from nearby shops.
You can always tell who the tourists are. They get out their phones and start clicking away, recording the free show for their social media accounts. Some of them get a clue and join the parade, adding the energy of their dance to the procession instead of treating it like another souvenir.
The old man is kind, though. He encourages them to join in, welcoming these clueless strangers into the midst of his celebratory grief. He knows his beloved wife can see it, wherever she is. She can see the men who loved her giving her a fanfare right through the Pearly Gates. And she can see the strangers in the street forming a Second Line, dancing just for her.
I smile at Sirius as I go downstairs. The bar is crowded tonight, packed wall to wall. The sweet odor rising from the hookah lounge on the ground floor balances out the tang of sweat and desperation at the bar. I sweep out onto the promenade as the parade draws close.
Spica stops next to me on her way back inside. “Everything ok, Lady?
“See that old man down there? In the purple fedora?”
“The one wailing on that horn?” Spica sets her tray down on a nearby table. “Pretty sure everyone sees him. Wonder who died?”
“His wife,” I say, looking at the aura around the old man. He’ll have a parade of his own soon. “I need you to give him something for me, Juny.”
Spica snaps her head around to look at me when I use her real name. “Alright.”
The waitress holds her hand out to me, expecting a coin. I fold her fingers over her palm, closing her hand, and lean down to kiss her lips. They are warm and soft, like honeysuckle blossoms in the afternoon sun. When I pull away, Spica’s hazel eyes are glazed over, and her heart is beating, hummingbird-fast.
“Go. Give him my blessing.”
Spica backs away from me, hand on mouth, holding my kiss where I left it. I can’t see her smile, but I know it’s there. I watch her slip down the iron stairs into the street and begin threading her way toward the strutting trumpet-player in the purple cap.
The punchy wail of his trumpet trails off as Spica walks up to him. She leans up and whispers in his ear. Her pale hands gather his dark face between them as she bestows my gift on his wrinkled lips. The crowd cheers, happy sounds winging their way to a heaven I’ll never need.
The old man squeezes Spica’s hand before she pushes back through the crowd toward the stairs. The bright notes of the old man’s trumpet resume their place in the song as Spica returns to my side. They pass us by, the grandsons, then the son, then the father.
As he draws even with us, the old man stops and turns to face me. He removes his purple hat and sweeps me a bow. It’s crooked and unkempt, less to do with his age than the bourbon I can feel in his system. I give him a nod in return as he settles his hat back on his head and plays on. “What was that about?” Spica asks, waving as they turn the next corner.
“Death is coming for him soon.”
Spica’s hand flies to her lips again. “Did I give him some kind of magic or something?”
I smile at her. “In a way. That’s what kindness is.”
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