Everything floats down to this place, the very end of Bayou St. John where Delia sits, her feet dangling just above the tepid water. An egret pecks at a bread wrapper that’s washed ashore. Delia is comforted by the filth of the city, by the fact of this bayou, which is right smack in the middle of New Orleans, surrounded by streets and houses. Not at all like the one from her childhood in the boonies of East Jesus. She tilts her head against her boyfriend—her fiancé—Calvin’s thick, bare triceps, which he flexes just a little any time he thinks someone will notice. Like now. The muscle rises where Delia’s cheek is resting on it, tugging her face into a half smile. She pulls away.
“What you so grumpy about?” Calvin asks.
Delia looks across the water to a group of trailers huddled along the edge of the bayou. “I hate that word,” she says. “Grumpy.” She draws out the g-r-r part of it. It’s true. She is grumpy. Who knows why.
Calvin works at Spanky’s Automotive, right here on the bayou, and most Fridays, Delia walks down to meet him after work. Now he unbuttons the navy blue shirt of his uniform, which he has customized by cutting off the sleeves. He wipes his pits with it and sets it aside. “Better?” he asks.
When Delia doesn’t say anything, he digs through his box of catalpa worms and baits his hook, casts his line. He knows something’s up. It seems to Delia that every time they get to a place where she might say what it is, might even say, “That’s it. We’re done,” Calvin lapses into Caveman. Mr. Twitching Muscles. Mr. Cloudy Perception.
“Something happen at the Laundromat?” Calvin asks. A safe question. Delia has started her own Laundromat right here in Mid-City. Every day something crazy happens.
“It’s the bridal shower,” she sighs. Her mother and aunts are throwing Delia a shower in Gremillion, where she and Calvin grew up. It’s a month off, still, but once she accepts the presents, the wedding’s a done deal. Delia’s not sure it’s a deal she wants to make. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”
“Because of the dizziness, you mean?” Calvin asks.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Delia says and closes her eyes against Mr. Cloudy Perception. “I don’t want to go home because of the dizziness.” A few weeks ago, while Delia was changing a fluorescent tube in the Laundromat, she fell off a ladder and hit her head. She’s been having bouts of vertigo ever since. “Calvin?”
“You got to keep your eyes on the prize, baby,” Calvin says, cutting Delia off. “You got to stay focused on the booty, the take, the haul.”
Delia can tell that Calvin doesn’t want to get into whatever it is that’s bothering her. “Right,” she says. “Because I’m all about the haul.”
“That’s my girl,” Caveman says. He puts his heavy arm around Delia and pulls her to him.
Every time Delia complains about the shower, her mother says the same thing: You and Calvin deserve a good start. Delia and Calvin have been living together for almost two years. What could they possibly need? Matching towels and kitchen appliances Delia will never use? If people want to give them a prize for fucking, Delia would rather have a stack of cash to take on their honeymoon to San Francisco. They’re going to spend a week with Calvin’s twin sister, Charlene, who everyone calls Chuck. Back in high school, Chuck and Delia were pretty close.
Chuck and her roommate, Jin, a Chinese girl Chuck met at her job, actually live in Oakland. San Francisco is right there across the bridge, is what Chuck said. She sent a letter with pictures of her and Jin in front of places Delia can’t wait to see. Y’all come stay with us, Chuck wrote in neat square letters. We’ll tear this place up! Neither Calvin nor Delia has laid eyes on Chuck since they graduated high school two years ago. In the pictures, Chuck looks different than Delia remembers. Happier, she guesses. She signed her letter, Love, Chuck and Jin.
Delia watches Calvin cast his line again. He swings his legs out and lets his heels smack against the cement bulkhead and then sings along with their bounce. Bow, chicka-bow, chicka-bow-bowww. Thinking of Chuck and the trip to San Francisco puts Delia’s mood on the upswing. She takes a deep breath and vows again to quit being so cranky with Calvin and to let his happy-man-fishing mood seep into her. She rests her cheek against his flexing triceps and follows the rising curve of his fishing pole from its base in his big hands, whose nails are never clean, to the very tip, which, from Delia’s perspective, seems to be resting among the trailers on the opposite shore. Big Luce, the woman she rents the Laundromat from, lives over there. It’s a single city block of bohemia on the water. Seven trailers curve along the bayou in a bright, white, toothy smile with a single silver cap, a tiny Airstream, right in the front.
If Delia were a quarter inch tall, she could walk up the long slope of Calvin’s fishing pole and down to the fine tip, a springboard that would bounce her right into the center of those trailers. Just like that, she could walk into some other life. In her mind, Delia descends from the fishing-pole bridge and steps into the middle of the trailers where she takes a seat on one of the cypress stumps and waits for the artists to come out and join her. She imagines the artists telling her how they all found each other. Whether all the trailers arrived together or if maybe, one at a time, people realized they belonged there and got themselves a trailer and moved it into the circle.
What could they possibly need? Matching towels and kitchen appliances Delia will never use? If people want to give them a prize for fucking, Delia would rather have a stack of cash to take on their honeymoon to San Francisco.
Suddenly Calvin’s arm tightens under Delia’s cheek, and he pulls back on the pole, winding in line. “I got you now, hoss!” he says, his voice going suddenly high with excitement. Scratch Calvin, and you’ll find a rosy-cheeked little boy just below the surface, one of the many things that Delia admires about him. Whenever she’s around Calvin, all the wobble goes out of the world’s orbit, and everything seems clear and easy. “It’s only as complicated as you make it, baby,” he often tells her.
Delia reaches behind her for the net and sets it next to Calvin. She’d rather disappear for this portion of the program—flailing-fish-meets-net—not just because of what is about to happen to some poor, unsuspecting fish, but because Calvin requires an audience. Someone has to see him fight the fish and win. It’s a fish with a minuscule brain. Delia can’t imagine why anyone would want a witness. And it’s not that Calvin comes right out and says, Watch me. It’s just a rule. Women have to watch men. It’s exhausting.
While Calvin, who is six-two, wrestles a fifteen-inch catfish, a red canoe gets loose from its tie-up on the opposite shore. The artists aren’t outside, and, for a while, Delia’s the only one who knows about the boat’s getaway plans. She tracks the progress of the little canoe, knows that nothing really needs to be done about it. The water will bring it right here to the end of the bayou and push it up on land. You don’t have to tie down every single thing to keep track of it.
“Oh, man,” Calvin says when he sees the canoe. “Some jackass forgot to tie his boat up.”
Delia points across to the tiny trailer park. “Came from over there,” she says. “They’ll know where to find it.”
“Well, no, Delia. When the tide shifts, it’s going to carry it clear to the lake.” Delia doubts this, but Calvin likes to solve problems, and you can’t solve a problem unless there is one.
He lowers the hooked catfish into the grass, puts one of his big boots across its body and works the barb loose from inside the fish’s mouth. The catfish struggles against the pain of the hook, which Calvin swears it can’t feel, and gasps for oxygen, which there’s plenty of, though none the fish can use. “Why don’t you paddle it back over for them?” Calvin asks.
Delia looks away from the gasping fish. “Why don’t you?” The embarrassing fact is that Delia is afraid of boats, one of the many things she’s never told Calvin, who assumes everyone is living a rational life. I’m afraid of boats, she imagines telling him. But you can swim, he’d argue. I’m not afraid of drowning, Delia would answer. I’m afraid of falling. I’m afraid I’ll tip the boat and fall in. But you can swim, he’d repeat. In Calvin’s mind, the best way to correct wrong thinking is through the repetition of a fact. There’s no explaining yourself to him.
Calvin tosses the catfish in a bucket of water, then hops into the red canoe and paddles off. He won’t just bring the boat back; he’ll have to find the owner and explain the error of his ways. Sure enough, after he ties the boat up, Delia hears the faint echo of his Hello? Hello?
A girl comes out of the little silver Airstream and flip-flap, flip-flap, walks over to Calvin. She’s tall and moves the way that rich girls who’ve had ballet lessons move, loose in the hips, feet pointing out. She puts her hands up to her face in an expression of what Delia would say is false embarrassment. It’s the expression girls give to guys when they’re trying to move things along. It’s faster than arguing. Her body language is pitch-perfect, designed to save Calvin’s feelings. You’re trying to be helpful, the girl’s body says, and I’m trying to look embarrassed by what you perceive as my neglect, which is what you want from me. Calvin’s body says, I’m a superhero. It’s my duty to rescue, ma’am, and to explain the world to you.
There’s a frantic splashing in the bucket next to Delia, and she’s sure one of the fish is about to jump out and swim away. The struggle doesn’t last, though. The catfish go quiet in their murky prison. They’ve accepted their fate, Delia imagines. Que sera, sera.
Delia backs her little Toyota truck up onto the sidewalk in front of The Bubble, which is what she has finally decided to call her Laundromat. She’s been too nervous about falling to get up on a ladder and hang the sign she made. At the service entrance, she doesn’t even have the key in the lock before her buddy, Pudge, is behind her. He’s Big Luce’s nephew, and the Laundromat is home base, the place he’s said he spent most of his time as a child, when Big Luce ran her own Laundromat out of this building.
“You need help with that?” Pudge asks, meaning the two used coin-op washers in the back of the truck.
Pudge enjoys breakfast cocktails, which often makes him a little dangerous as a helper. He looks bleary but not unsteady this morning. “I could use some help if you’ve got a few minutes,” Delia says. She wishes Pudge would take money when he helps her, which is often, but he won’t. She doesn’t like to feel beholden, like she’s been helped because she’s a girl. “I’m happy to take a beer,” Pudge always tells her. “Cuts out the middleman, if you know what I mean.”
Delia goes inside. While she’s digging through the storage area for the dolly, she hears yelling coming from the front of the Laundromat. On Palmyra Street, saying hello and fighting can sound just alike, and it’s pretty time-consuming if you investigate every loud conversation.
“Put it back!” she hears a woman yell. “I’ll call the cops. You better put it back.”
Delia runs down the side of the building to the front where she finds Pudge with his hands up. He’s spindly, emaciated, except for a nearly round basketball of beer gut under his T-shirt. One of the washers is off the truck in the street next to him. A girl straddles a bike with a bag of groceries on the back, her finger aimed at Pudge like a gun. She’s wearing those sandals—Delia doesn’t know the name of them—the kind that cost a couple hundred bucks.
“It’s cool,” Pudge says. “I’m cool.”
“Does this belong to you?” the girl asks Delia, pointing to the washer in the street next to Pudge. In the bright morning light, the machine looks sad and used up in a way it hadn’t in the dim warehouse where Delia got it.
“That’s right,” Delia says.
“Well, I caught this guy trying to make off with it.”
“Is that true, Pudge?” Delia asks. “Were you about to put this three-hundred-pound washer on your back and walk off with it?” Delia gives the girl a stare.
“But-but,” the girl sputters, “the side door was standing open and…” She points to the chained front entrance. “I thought…”
The whole scene pisses Delia off. The girl’s assumptions. Pudge’s refusal to stand up for himself. “Pudge,” Delia says without looking at him, “will you get the dolly for me?”
Once Pudge leaves, Delia expects the girl to leave, too. Instead she puts down the kickstand of her bike. “Hey,” she says, looking Delia up and down, “I know who you are.” She takes a few steps closer.
When the girl comes toward her, Delia recognizes the ballerina walk. Clueless, was all Calvin had said the other night when he got back from returning her boat. And clueless is what Delia thinks now. It’s like the girl has no idea how she just insulted Pudge.
Delia nods, watches Maggie survey the rows of ragtag washers. The mismatched dryers. It must look like a dump to everyone else. Outside in front of the Laundromat, the chairs have begun to fill with people stopping to gossip on their way to the corner grocery down the block.
“You’re with the hunky man,” the girl says, “the one who brought my boat back.”
“The hunky man is named Calvin,” Delia says. Hunky man. Why can’t that be enough for Delia?
Pudge comes back with the dolly and works the washer onto it.
“Calvin’s my…” Delia reaches over to steady the tipped-up washer and vertigo sets the world spinning. “He’s my…” but she can’t get to the word in time. Fiancé. She sits down hard on the tailgate of the truck, takes a deep breath against the nausea that the spinning causes. Slowly, slowly, she reaches for the edge of the tailgate and holds on to it. Tells herself there’s no way she can actually fall.
“Oh, God,” the girl says. “What’s wrong?”
Pudge moves closer to Delia but doesn’t touch her. “She’s got a head injury,” he says. “Makes her dizzy.”
“You should take her inside,” the girl tells Pudge, like she’s in charge. “Let him help you inside,” Bossy says, cupping Delia’s shoulder and squeezing it.
Delia’s not in the mood to be told what to do, but while everything’s shifting around, it’s too hard to say so. She reaches for Pudge’s arm, and they stagger inside together.
“Sit tight,” the girl says once Delia’s settled onto the window seat. “Pudge and I will take care of these washers.” She says it like she knows Delia. Like she knows Pudge. Like suddenly she’s a part of things.
Through the big glass windows, Delia watches Pudge and the girl roll the first washer down the sidewalk toward the back of the Laundromat. By the time they come through the service door with the second one, they’re best buddies. Pudge is saying, Maggie something or other, and Maggie, the girl, nods. “I know, can you believe it?” They both laugh at whatever it is they can’t believe. Apparently Pudge has already gotten over the girl’s rudeness. Like Calvin, Pudge is a fucking saint.
Maggie brings her canvas bag of groceries in and sets it on the window seat that runs along the front of The Bubble. Pudge lowers himself slowly onto one of the steps that lead up to the loft, which is Delia’s office. His face is filled with the pain from his ruined knees, the result of an accident when he was in the Army. That’s what all the beer is about. “Best pain reliever I know of,” Pudge likes to say. “And tasty, too.”
“Couple of beers in the fridge,” Delia says, checking the room for spinning. “Help yourself.”
Pudge nods to Maggie. “You want one?”
“Oh,” Maggie says, “no. I mean thanks, though.”
After he gets the beer, Pudge ducks out the back without saying good-bye, which is his habit.
“I like Pudge,” Maggie says. “He’s just really down to earth.”
“Oh, he’s down to earth all right.” The spinning has ended and with it the crabby feeling. “Pudge just looks like a mess,” she says, “but he’s a good guy.” With the crabby feeling gone, Delia can see that Maggie is maybe nicer than she first thought.
Maggie begins digging in her grocery bag, her head bent over it, the tight curls of her black hair twisting this way and that, a few of them aimed straight at heaven, completely unaffected by gravity. She’s rooting around in that bag as though sitting on this bench in the Laundromat with Delia is exactly what she planned to do with her morning. Maggie finally looks up. “Cracker Jacks?”
“What?” Delia asks, then puts her hand out to where Maggie is shaking a box of Cracker Jacks. She looks at Maggie’s mouth to see if more words will come out. Maggie has a beautiful mouth. Looking at it pushes open a door that Delia’s been keeping closed for a long, long time.
“So this is your place,” Maggie says, “your business?”
Delia nods, watches Maggie survey the rows of ragtag washers. The mismatched dryers. It must look like a dump to everyone else. Outside in front of the Laundromat, the chairs have begun to fill with people stopping to gossip on their way to the corner grocery down the block.
“It’s nice sitting in here,” Maggie says. “It has a really good vibe to it. You know, like soulful.”
“Yeah, I don’t know, it’s not prefab or like a chain. It has soul.”
Delia wonders if Maggie is being sarcastic. “It’s all right, I guess.”
“All right? Shoot. Being an entrepreneur takes cojones.”
Cojones, Delia thinks, balls. Why does everything worth doing have to be about balls? She tells Maggie that she’s saving up to go to school in the fall.
“I’m in my third year,” Maggie says, then pulls the bottom of her T-shirt into a ball and knots it, exposing her tan midriff to the meager breeze of the ceiling fans. “It’s completely overrated. Trust me.”
A wine-colored birthmark follows the curve of Maggie’s rib. It’s shaped like, like Delia doesn’t know what because she’s trying not to stare at the private swatch of skin. It’s a relief when Deysi Hernandez from down the street walks in with her old grandmother, who’s pushing a grocery cart full of laundry.
“Abuelita,” Delia calls out to the old grandmother, lacing her fingers together and squeezing her own hands. Abuelita nods a greeting, and Deysi searches the room for men who might want to admire her. Pudge is totally smitten with Deysi. It’s a good thing he’s not here to receive his usual dose of tease-and-dismiss.
Delia and Maggie watch the women fill four of the washers like it’s something they’re doing together, like when Delia was a kid, and she and her friends would walk down the highway to the shopping center that had a Laundromat and a Dollar Store. They’d go back and forth between the two, hanging out just to see what would happen. The Laundromat was always her favorite.
“You want a cold drink?” Delia finally thinks to ask. She nods toward the machine across the room. “I mean, you did save my washer from being carted off on the back of a skinny drunk man.”
“Is that the going rate for good citizenship?” Maggie asks. Citizen-she-up is how she says it. A south Alabama accent. “You get made fun of and then somebody buys you a cold drink?”
“Looks like it,” Delia says. She goes to get a couple of root beers.
When Maggie takes the drink from Delia, her long fingers seem to wrap around the bottle in slow motion, and in a very particular pattern. Like she’s playing notes on an instrument. Delia holds onto the bottle a half second too long, clears her throat and goes to the back to bring change to Deysi and Abuelita, who have begun arguing over missing quarters.
From the back of the Laundromat, Maggie looks like a film star on a crappy movie set. Unlike most of the customers who frequent The Bubble, she’s dressed like someone who has somewhere to go, and Delia wonders what she’s doing just sitting there. Or maybe that’s what college is like. You dress up and go to class every now and then, but the rest of the time you wear your nice clothes and just do whatever you want.
“Sorry,” Delia says when she gets back to the window seat. “What were we talking about?”
“I just had a thought,” Maggie says, slapping Delia’s knee. “We’re having a fish fry at the compound. You and Calvin should come.” She gets up to toss the empty Cracker Jack box. On the way back, she runs her fingers across the face of the ancient snack machine left over from Big Luce’s day. “Don’t you just love fish fries?” Maggie asks.
As a matter of fact, Delia hates fish fries. Fish fries are the exact sort of thing she had hoped to get away from when she came to the city. That and fishing. But at least in the city, you might get invited by anyone to do just anything. Where Delia and Calvin grew up, everyone knew everyone, and it had already been decided three generations ago which people’s houses you’d be invited to, and which people you’d never get to know.
“If I could,” Maggie says, sitting back down next to Delia, “I’d have a fish fry every day.”
“Yeah? Well, you’ll love Calvin, then.”
Before Maggie leaves, it’s all settled. Friday, after work, Delia and Calvin will go to the compound. Delia has heard tales from Pudge about the artists living over there, about the parties they throw, parties Delia has watched from across the bayou. What do they talk about so late at night? What will she say to them Friday when she meets them? She’s no artist. According to her high school teachers, Delia has two main talents: fixing mechanical things and being a smart aleck. Neither would serve a young lady very well, the teachers said. Who you calling a lady, Delia always said back.
The night of the fish fry, Delia and Calvin cross the small bridge over the bayou and walk down a grassy path to the trailers. When they get to the compound, Maggie greets them and then there are introductions all around. The artists are mostly men, mostly pale and scrawny or chunky from inactivity. They tend to offer their area of expertise with their names. Benny Bagneris, alto sax. Calvin goes right to work having a little fun with them. “Calvin Lafleur, uncouth swain,” Calvin says as he offers a permanently grease-stained hand for shaking. Calvin’s not stupid, but he’s not witty, either. He got that uncouth swain bit off the TV, Delia imagines. Some show with a hey-bra guy saying something surprising to the college folk. Unlike Delia, though, Calvin isn’t much bothered by other people’s assumptions. Calvin’s OK with Calvin, so Calvin’s OK with the world. He fits in everywhere.
“You brought wine!” Maggie says when everyone is finished laughing at the uncouth swain remark. “Fancy.” Bottles of beer telescope up through the ice that has been dumped into Maggie’s red canoe. Not a bottle of wine in sight. “No problem,” Maggie says, “I’ve got a corkscrew in my trailer.”
“I’ll just put my beer with the rest,” Calvin says and shoots Delia a told-you-so look. Earlier in the week, Delia had read that white wine goes with fish, and she went to a wine shop and asked for a nice bottle.
“Fourteen dollars?!” Calvin had turned the bottle in his hands to see if maybe there was some kind of prize floating inside.
Delia explained to him that artists weren’t a bunch of bubbas who drank cheap beer. She was thinking of Maggie’s expensive shoes. There would be white wine, Delia told Calvin, because it goes with fish. “White wine might go with fish,” Calvin said, taking a swallow of beer and belching impressively, “but beer goes with me.”
Over by the ice-filled canoe, Calvin is scoping the area for his prey of choice. “What y’all got in the way of fish?”
“Grouper,” one of the guys says. “Organic.” He points to a neat line of fish on a table, bought, no doubt, from one of those places that can take a week’s pay and fit it into a single bag. Delia is afraid Calvin is going to laugh, but he doesn’t. He just goes right over to the table and starts educating the artists about how to fillet a fish.
Maggie brings Delia to her little silver Airstream. Inside, she opens a tiny drawer in the bite-sized kitchen. “Voilà!” She hands a corkscrew to Delia.
Delia has never in her life opened a bottle of wine, but she’s seen it done in movies. “What kind of artist are you?” she asks, picking at the wine’s foil cap with the point of the corkscrew.
Maggie smiles. She has beautiful teeth. “The dilettante kind,” she says.
Dilettante? Delia wishes she had her little notebook so she could add it to the list of words she needs to learn for college. “But like do you paint or play music or…”
“I write poetry,” Maggie says. She winds the spirals of her hair into a tight rope and then releases it. It blooms back into a dark, hurricane cloud. “But I might be changing to photography, or I might join the Peace Corps. It depends.”
“What does anything depend on?”
This, Delia decides, is how artists are, how she herself wants to be. Everything isn’t necessarily logical or practical. Life can be this way or that way or some other way altogether when you’re an artist.
Maggie pulls a couple of actual wine glasses from a shelf over the sink. “What I wouldn’t give to wake up with the key to a Laundromat in my pocket and know for sure that I was about to do something good with my day. Something productive.”
“Trade you,” Delia offers.
“You have too much life smarts. College would bore you in a minute.”
Still fooling with the wine opener, Delia wonders what in the world has given Maggie the impression that she has life smarts. To her relief, the cork comes out of the bottle smoothly and with a satisfying pop. While Delia pours, Maggie crosses the small trailer to her bed, which is the only place to sit. On a small door—a bathroom? a closet?—hangs a picture of a woman reading at a podium. Delia wants to ask about it but doesn’t want to seem ignorant. It’s probably somebody famous.
Maggie pats the bed, “Come. Sit. Talk.”
Delia hands Maggie a glass of wine. “Salut,” she says and sits on the batik-printed bedspread. The spread is a sari or some other foreign word Delia can’t think of right now. She’s seen them in the flea market. When they toast, the glasses ring with a long, clear tone. Crystal. It dawns on her just this minute what the expression “crystal clear” means and why crystal is better than regular glass. The sound is beautiful.
Delia sits with her back to the wall, perpendicular to Maggie, whose smooth, bare legs are draped across the bed’s pillows.
“So,” Maggie says, taking a sip of wine, “what kind of artist are you?”
“That’s one of the things I thought I might find out at college.” If they’ll take me, Delia wants to add. She’s still not sure exactly how all that works.
Maggie pulls a book from one of the many stacks against the wall and hands it to Delia. “Have you read this?” she asks. The Poems of Richard Wilbur.
Delia wonders if it’s a book everyone knows about, if she should know about it. She’s been reading at the Laundromat, trying to get ready for college. She starts to lie and say she’s read the book—she feels so far behind everyone her age—but then she wonders if maybe Maggie is going to lend it to her, which will give Delia an excuse to come back to the little Airstream.
“I haven’t,” Delia admits.
She’s discovered that, to make Calvin fit into the picture, she’s been shaving away at pieces of herself. The piece that loves to read, for instance, because Calvin’s dyslexic and having books in the house just reminds him of his long struggle with school, he says. And Delia has realized that she shaved away the part of herself that deep down thinks real, true love probably has more attraction to it than what she feels for Calvin. All this redesigning has left her sleepy and dense. Shaving at herself seems like cheating or lying or some other kind of sin. Maybe it’s what everyone does. Her hesitation with the wedding, her doubts, might be perfectly natural, like everyone says. But she wonders if her crankiness with Calvin might be from having to listen to the shaved pieces of herself shouting at her: WakeUpWakeUpWakeUp.
“Here,” Maggie says, putting out her hand to take the book back from Delia. Holding the book feels good, and Delia tightens her grip, makes Maggie tug just a little before she lets go.
While Maggie flips through the poems, Delia studies a tear in the thigh of her own jeans, the ones she wore when she painted the Laundromat. When she put them on, she thought the paint spatters, the tear, looked sexy and artistic, but they could easily be mistaken for bad grooming, she sees now. The ripped fabric hangs open like an entryway to something private, and she smooths it closed.
Maggie wags the poems in the air when she finds what she’s looking for. “It’s a poem about laundry,” she says, “and souls.” She scoots closer to Delia. The book rests easily in her hand, her long fingers spread across its back. The toes of her bare feet come to rest on Delia’s thigh where Maggie pushes the denim flap open with one perfectly painted toenail.
Delia shifts away a little. The touching feels weird. Or should, she thinks. She scratches at an old scar on her forehead, the one she keeps hidden beneath her bangs.
While Maggie reads, Delia sips at the cool wine. She drifts in and out of the poem, tightening and loosening her focus until the meaning dissolves into how the letters sounds moist in Maggie’s mouth, the n’s like something. Something that makes Delia fidget. Something quick that she wants to last longer. Nnnn.
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone…
The way Maggie says the word lovers gives Delia the shivers. There are nuns in the poem—even nuns sounds a little dirty—and dark habits. And the mention of a difficult balance, which makes Delia think of vertigo at first. Delia crosses her legs, looks down at the chipped red paint on her own toenails. How long since she’s looked at her own feet? At anyone’s feet? They seem so personal, suddenly, so bare and exposed. It’s like she’s been on vacation from her body. She wipes her moist palms on her jeans, then takes a bigger sip of wine than she means to so that she has to hold it in her mouth and swallow a little at a time.
Outside, some hooting starts up, and the sound snaps and pops in the stillness of the trailer. Delia and Maggie both put their heads up to the small window to see what the fuss is about. Calvin is doing handstands, walking along on his palms. The scrawny artists try to copy his moves. They’re already in love with him. Calvin takes the feet of Benny Alto Sax and raises them into the air, then walks the upended musician neatly over to the fire pit. The artists follow and squat around the brick-lined pit, where the fire has gone out. Calvin makes a pyramid with his hands to show the proper way to stack the wood, and the guys nod, some of them pushing on the one who must’ve been the architect of the faulty first attempt. City kids, Calvin’s expression says.
Maggie points at Calvin. “He’s a cutie, all right.”
Her arm is touching Delia’s while they stare out the window, their faces so, so close. “Yeah,” Delia says because it’s true. Everyone always thinks that Calvin is adorable. Delia misses thinking it, too.
Delia and Maggie take their wine outside and go to help with the preparations. More women have arrived. Girls, really. Next to Maggie, they all seem insubstantial, like the graphite shadow left on the page after something is erased. Delia’s introduced, but she forgets the names as fast as she hears them.
Calvin commandeers a guitar, and the musicians fire up some big band music, which Calvin hates but says nothing about. Maggie grabs Delia’s hand. They stutter-step out to the grass at the edge of the bayou to dance under a pale slice of moon.
It’s dark now, even darker near the water. When Maggie pulls Delia into her arms, tiny fishes wiggle up Delia’s spine. In the humid night air, the music bends at their backs, and they both are sweating. They spin and spin until the whole world goes dreamy, the faces around the fire blurring to a patch of warm color. Still, Delia can’t stop worrying that she and Maggie will slip, will fall. The line where the ground stops and the water starts is nearly invisible in the dim light.
It’s when their cheeks touch, when Delia’s hand slips smoothly around Maggie’s waist, that Delia begins to worry that she likes it, the touching. She begins to worry that Calvin will see it, will know. Before she can make words for what, exactly, Calvin will know, she loses the moment entirely; she can only feel a strange longing for it, a simultaneous fear of it, as though she isn’t in it at all. Then the moment comes back on a sweet cloud of perfume that rushes under Delia’s feet, lifting her, suspending her over the bayou, and the moon and the dancing and the longing cook themselves down to something thick and liquid inside her, and when she looks Maggie in the eye, they come this close, this close to kissing. Before they do, though (how much before? a second, maybe?), the music stops for good like that dream Delia has, the one where she’s flying, and as soon as she knows it, she wakes up. Just like that, the music stops, and Calvin calls for her. “Where y’at, baby?” he hollers. “The fish is ready!”
Delia sits with Calvin on the other side of the fire from Maggie while everyone is eating their fish. When she sneaks a look through the flames, she catches Maggie looking back. They both turn their heads away then, and there’s the food to compliment and the fire and the meal to enjoy. And every once in a while, the secret look.
Later that evening, out by the water, when everyone is saying their goodnights, Maggie leans in and whispers something to Delia, something Delia can’t make out exactly, but which her body recognizes. The mysterious words set the fishes wiggling along her spine again. Maggie pulls back after the whisper and kisses Delia on the cheek like a European, left and right and left.
Delia repeats the Euro kiss, the final part nearly landing on Maggie’s mouth. Nnnn.
“Hey,” Maggie says, “wait here for a second.”
While she’s waiting, Delia turns to look for Calvin, who’s gone up on the grassy path to say good-bye to Benny Alto Sax and the others. He and a few of the guys have found a bottle of starter fluid, and they’re squirting it from the path over to the fire just to watch the flames leap in the air.
Delia jumps when she feels a hand on her shoulder. She turns around to find Maggie holding out the Richard Wilbur book.
“I hope you’ll come again,” Maggie says.
“I hope…” Delia starts, but then she doesn’t know how to say what she hopes. Her eyes skim past the book to Maggie’s wrist and then they glide over the curve of her forearm, up to her shoulder, coming to rest at the place where a whorl of Maggie’s hair dips behind a perfect ear.
Delia imagines squeezing the hurricane cloud of that hair. She feels giddy with the thought of it, with the notion that this is something she could do, that she might do. She might just wrap her fingers in Maggie’s hair and then…what? And then kiss her, that’s what. She almost says it, too. She opens her mouth as she reaches for the book of poems. “I want to…” but before she can form the words, vertigo makes her knees go weak, and she can feel her heart pounding in her fingertips as the world spins out from under her. She tugs at the book just a little, just enough to say yes, before she lets go. Before she lets herself fall.
Barb Johnson worked as a carpenter in New Orleans for more than twenty years before receiving her MFA from the University of New Orleans. She has recent publications in or forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Washington Square, and Oxford American. In 2009, she became the fifth recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s $50,000 Gift of Freedom. In November of 2009, HarperCollins will release her first book, a collection of short stories entitled More of This World or Maybe Another.
The poem quoted above, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is from Richard Wilbur’s Collected Poems 1943-2004. Go read. Listen. Fall in Love.