Charlotte has been ignoring him for the past couple of hours since he started talking to Dionne, which has been a nice change of pace. Currently, she is standing on a small stage made out of plywood watching a musician tune his guitar, which he can’t hear over Iggy Pop belting, “I am a passenger. I stay under glass. I look though my window so bright. I see the stars come out to night … and everything looks good tonight. And I ride and I ride and I ride!”
Charlotte takes swig of nearly empty bottle of vodka dangling from her hands. She looks at the musician’s ass as he bends over to adjust his amp. Paul hears the guitar squawk over Iggy. The musician stands and says something to his friend. His hair is graying at the temples, but he is in shape and dresses a little too young in tight jeans, lace-up boots and a flannel shirt. Charlotte brushes her hand across his face, the gesture lose and sloppy, like the vodka is actually having an effect. Can dead people get drunk off of real alcohol? Paul frowns at the thought as Charlotte turns to look at him.
“He’s hot,” she mouths.
Paul rolls his eyes and goes back beer.
“Are you sure I can’t get you anything to eat?” Dionne says. She is standing behind the bar with her back to the small stereo system shoved onto a shelf next to less popular bottles of liquor — Campari, Port, St. Germain, Creme de Cacao and a bottle that has a drawing of an artichoke on it.
“No, I’m still full from lunch.” He pauses. “But I’m going to have to switch to water after this. I can drink more than three without getting drunk.”
Dionne seems pleased with this, so he plays to it. “It’s gauche to get hammered. We don’t do that in my family. We get pleasantly buzzed and then go to sleep. Who wants to nurse a hangover in the morning anyway?”
“I agree.” Dionne looks at his glass, then back at him. “I don’t even drink.”
“You don’t?” He feels like a jerk now.
“No. I stopped drinking when I was seventeen and got pregnant.”
Now it’s Paul’s turn to have a moment of doubt. He looks her up and down.
“You have a kid?” he says.
She nods. “Does that turn you off?”
Ah. She’s testing him.
“No, not at all. I just wouldn’t have guessed. You don’t look like a mom.”
“Moms don’t have to look like moms. I’m not a middle-aged woman looking for meaning in life. It’s just one part of who I am.”
Paul thought about this, and he understood. “Yes, a lot of people pretend. Think that’s what they should be doing. It’s what society expects for a person of their age and status.”
“Well, I’ve got no status. I’m working in a bar.”
“I like that you’ve decided to just be yourself.”
She eyes him. He wonders what sparked the distrust suddenly.
“How old is your kid?” he asks.
“She’s ten now.”
“What’s her name?”
“Marcelle. Marcy for short.”
He rotates the beer in his hand in a contemplative manner. He’s a hypocrite. He lied to Dionne earier about being related to Hetta Iyer to impress her. He’s made a lot of mistakes today.
She moves towards him and positions herself so that only the wooden bar separates them. There’s a man on the stool next to them. He’s leering at Dionne’s breasts. Paul shoots him a look. The man turns away.
“I owe you an apology. I wasn’t being honest when I first met you.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“I’m not related to Hetta Iyer. I went to see her for a different reason. A personal reason.” He clears his throat and glances at Charlotte. She’s stroking the musician’s hair as he turns the pegs on his guitar to tune it. His eyes are closed and he seems to be enjoying her touch, if only on a subconscious level.
“Anyway, I led you to believe I was related to her, which probably made you think that I’m loaded.”
“You said you were her son.”
“Yeah. I know. I’m not. I’m sorry. I live in Brooklyn and am getting my PhD at Columbia in Religious Studies. A friend of mine said I should introduce myself to Hetta for research on my paper. She said that Hetta could help.”
“Another lie,” Dionne says. “You think I can’t tell? I’m not stupid. I knew you were lying the moment I met you. And you’re lying now.”
Paul opens his mouth and closes it. The music on Dionne’s Spotify suddenly dies and he can hear the musician’s guitar as he strums a chord. then another. There is a distinct hum of voices in the bar too, conversations between friends that he could not hear before. “I don’t know you well enough to be totally honest on that point,” Paul says finally.
Dionne snorts. “Well, let me know when you’re ready.” She gestures to the stage. “Your friend over there has drank $80 worth of Vodka. That’ll be on your tab.”
Pauls’ head snaps up. The beer is cold still between his hands, and the pads of his fingers are numb. “You see her?” he says.
“Yes, of course I see her.”
“Are … are you the only one who sees her?” Paul stammers. No one else has seen Charlotte, not even July though she says she can feel her presence.
“I don’t know. You tell me. Do you see her?”
Dionne watches Charlotte for a moment, then turns to him. “I guess you’re being haunted then, right?”
“I think so. I mean, half the time I think I’m just schizo.”
“No, you’re not crazy. She’s there. I can see her.” Dionne’s eyes narrow. “But she fades in and out. Man, she’s working that bottle hard.”
Paul sees that Charlotte is taking another swig of vodka. There’s only a couple gulps left. She spins the cap back on and starts dancing to phantom music, her head swinging, black hair swaying. A marigold loosens itself from the side of her head and flutters to the stage.
“I don’t know what to do about it.”
“Looks like you need an exorcism.”
“Just kidding,” Dionne says. “Is that why you went to see Hetta Iyer? Did you think she could help you get rid of her?”
“I did … a friend of mine who’s a medium told me that she was a demon-slayer.”
Dionne laughs. “A demon-slayer? That’s interesting. I doubt that, but I do think the woman has some special abilities, though I’ve never seen her in action. She’s an odd bird, Ms. Iyer.” Dionne looks like she’s thinking. “She gives off this weird vibe.”
“What sort of vibe?”
“I don’t know. It’s sort of a vibration that doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever felt before. It’s in a different tune — a note I’ve never heard. Most people emit some kind of energy, you know, and it has a sound that you can feel in your body.”
July had said something similar to Paul once, though she described it more as a halo of light that she called an aura.
Just then, Paul’s phone rings. He knows it’s his. No one else would use the intro to House of the Rising Sun as their ringtone. Except, the sound is coming from the stage where Charlotte is. Paul pats his jacket pockets. “God damn it. She took my phone.”
Paul stalks towards the stage. The musician looks up, startled as Paul reaches toward Charlotte. “Give it back,” he growls.
She smirks. “Uh-oh. Got you to talk.”
“Hey, man, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the musician says.
“Not you, her,” Paul says. He’s one too many beers in to care if he sounds crazy. “Charlotte, give me my phone.”
She sifts through her pocket and takes it out just as the House of the Rising Sun stops playing. A missed call pops onto the screen. She waggles the phone in the air and makes a sad face. “Is this the only way I can get you to pay attention to me?”
“You seemed fine with your musician friend here.”
“Hey, buddy, my name is Max,” he says. “Now, will you please get off my stage?”
Max and his musician friend are glaring at him, but Paul is far away, ears burning with rage. He snatches the phone from Charlotte.
“Whoa!” Max says. “What is this? Some sort of magic trick? How’d that phone appear in your hand suddenly? Dionne, did you hire a magician?”
“Looks like I did,” Dionne says with a smirk on her face.
“Don’t take my shit,” Paul says to Charlotte. He reaches over and snatches the vodka bottle out of her hands. “And stop drinking for gods sake. We’re done here.”
“Holy shit!” Max says. “Did you see that Dionne? The guy just produced a bottle of vodka!”
“I did,” Dionne said.
Charlotte tilts her head up and looks down at Paul. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here with Max.” She licks Max’s neck in a long stroke upwards and wriggles her tongue in his ear. Max doesn’t notice, his eyes still fixed on Paul in disbelief.
“You’re disgusting,” Paul says. “If you want to stay here, that’s fine with me. I don’t want you around anyways.”
“So, that’s what this is about. You’re sick of me.”
Paul clenches his jaw, turns and stalks towards the bar. He grabs his bag, rifles through his wallet and puts $100 on the counter. “It was good knowing you,” he says to Dionne. “Sorry for the trouble.”
“No trouble,” she says, still smirking.
He puts his hand on the door to push it open, but he hears Dionne again. “Hey, if you want to talk more, you know where to find me.”
Paul feels shame. He wants to be normal. He doesn’t like making a spectacle of himself, but with Charlotte, he can’t help it. She eggs him on. And the fact is, the longer she is with him, the more strange people he’s been meeting. First July, then Hetta and now Dionne. All of them seem to have some sort of magical quality about them. Has he become a magnet for the weird? He can’t imagine what could possibly happen next.
“Thanks, but unless you can help me get rid of her, I don’t have much to talk about,” he says to Dionne. Then he opens the door and slips into the moonlit, autumn night.