Brett Riley

 

Harley leaned over the tiny balcony’s railing. What would happen if he fell into the Bourbon Street horde? Would they catch him like a crowd-surfer from 1992? Or would they watch him splat and revel on? The possibilities tugged Tanya toward two conflicting positionalities—the clinical, objective Ph.D. candidate researching her Anthropology dissertation, and the protective sister who had always stopped Harley from walking in front of buses and driving off piers.

Let it play out. A scientist strives not to alter environmental conditions and cause/effect situations. That was true.

Stop him before he breaks his neck. He’s your brother. You love him. And that was true, too.

Harley sloshed a little Jack and Coke onto himself as he saluted the Mardi Gras revelers. Then he downed the drink in one gulp and belched. He wore a Black Keys concert t-shirt, jeans, motorcycle boots, not one but two necklaces with bullet-shaped pendants. On his right arm, a green snake tattoo wound from elbow to shoulder, the last third of it hidden under his sleeve. The runes from Led Zeppelin IV marked his left forearm, a black-and-white hellhound his outer bicep. His black hair hung two inches longer than seemed practical for a recent and unemployed college graduate.

Tanya uncapped her pen and wrote Subject ignores self-preservation instincts during mating displays in Notebook #4, which, like the first three, was filled with sources and field observations. Later, she would organize and incorporate the material into her diss, tentatively titled Show Me Something, Mister: the Sociopolitics of Mating Behaviors of Urban White Males in the Southern United States.

Their parents were professors at the University of Tennessee and had wondered aloud to Tanya—as if she had any say in it—when Harley might put his degree to use. He still lived in Knoxville and played guitar in a country bar band. Tanya kept a tiny Garden District apartment while she finished her graduate work at Tulane. She had invited Harley down for the last days of Carnival and had sprung for the room to maximize his immersion in these specific environmental conditions. He had no idea she was studying him for her New Orleans chapter.

Harley set his cup at his feet and grabbed the bag of beads. He pulled out a fistful—deep green, pink, purple, some pea-sized, some as big as key limes. Tanya edged in beside him. Below, the crowd surged and receded, surged and receded. They danced in spaces too small to breathe. Most drank. Three girls in Louisiana State University t-shirts spotted Harley, raised their arms, and squealed.

Throw me somethin, mister, one shouted. Her companions whooped like howler monkeys.

Harley mimed taking off his shirt. The girls giggled and shrieked and shook their heads. Harley nodded and mimed again, holding the beads out, shaking them like a maraca. Two of the girls doubled over in drunken laughter. The third one lifted her shirt. Bare, perky breasts bobbed in the night air, nipples erect, areolae pink and small. Harley whistled, gave her a thumbs-up, and dropped the beads over the side.

Tanya stepped back. In the anonymity of public spectacle, she wrote, subject solicits uninhibited sexualized interaction. Female subjects respond, bartering their bodies for trinkets. What does this indicate about situational self-image and social mores?

Harley grinned. She smiled. It had always been that way between them—their parents in class or locked in home offices where they wrote articles and graded papers, Harley making mischief and looking for Tanya’s approval, Tanya giving it so that he would not pout or ask her to play some dumb video game, where you responded to all stimuli by shooting something. Despite their progressive politics, her parents had left her to nurture and caretake while her little brother hunted trouble and gathered nonsense. Patriarchy in practice.

Harley howled at the moon. Many voices answered, screaming Fuck yeah, dude and Throw me somethin. Harley beat his chest like Tarzan and howled again, leading the crowd now, fists raised above his head.

Consciousness-altering substances combined with public accreditation charge any expostulation with import. Reflects the call-and-response patterns of certain religious ceremonies. Conflation of sexual and spiritual ecstasy, or pure Hedonism?

Harley leaned against the rail, eyes closed. Tanya shut her notebook, went to him, and pulled him backward by his shirt.

* * *

Harley stumbled inside and sat on Tanya’s bed and held on to the mattress’s edge until the world stopped spinning. Fiery whiskey sloshed in his gut. He bent over, elbows on knees. Gotta eat.

Tanya scribbled in one of her notebooks. New Orleans, Mardi Gras, bodies and booze everywhere, and she had barely looked up. What would his psychology professors have said? Conceals true self behind façade of scientific objectivity. Of course, for all he knew, she could be drawing porn—a big cock wearing a Carnival mask and wrapped in labia that clung and folded like a frock coat.

Once, they had been close, their defense against the times Mom and Dad forgot to make dinner or dueled over poststructuralist reception theories when they could have just watched Finding Nemo like everybody else in the theater. Then Tanya went to graduate school. Every time she came home, she seemed a little more distant, clinical, bloodless. No time for Harley, like he had moved and left her alone with the ghosts in that house. And now she kept staring at him and writing, as if he were a bug on a pin.

His open suitcase sat on his bed, pants cuffs hanging out, his dirty clothes tossed in the corner. Tanya had folded her laundry and slipped it inside a hotel dry-cleaning bag. Exhibits anal-retentive, perhaps even obsessive-compulsive, organization and ritual. She leaned against the wall, one arm tucked under the notebook, rather than disturb the diorama on the desk—keys, purse, spare notebooks and pens and Post-Its, everything arranged in neat geometrical lines. She’s a nerd, and not a cool Felicia Day type, either. Another distant academic, well on her way to becoming their parents.

Or maybe he was just drunk.

He got up and poured another Jack and Coke, plopping in a few cubes from the bucket. Tanya wrote. He drank to the tune of street jazz, of voices raised in Dionysian ribaldry, of thousands of feet clomping on pavement and asphalt and broken, scattered beads. When he poured a second drink and handed it to Tanya, she set it on a lampstand and sipped bottled water instead.

Man, he said, I can’t believe New Orleans liquor stores deliver to your hotel.

Uh huh, she mumbled.

So. How’s the dissertation coming?

Not bad.

Okay. Don’t talk my ear off or anything.

Mmm-hmm.

Anybody special in your life?

Define special.

The room’s on fire. There’s a rat in your hair. Your breath smells like burped-up broccoli.

Okay, then.

He sighed and closed the balcony doors. Hearing all those people just made him feel lonely. When Tanya suggested the trip, she had seemed eager, excited. Now, she looked about as enthusiastic as your average barstool. She’s always been scared to cut loose. She used to keep one eye on me and one on Dad’s study door, like he might kick it open and whip the shit out of us for having fun. Now this ultra-seriousness, the refusal to engage, the dodging of the relationship question—is she emulating Dad, or am I just part of a whole thing she’s rejecting?

After a while, Tanya said, You hungry?

Yeah.

She dropped her keys, her pen, and the notebook inside her purse.

Subject’s lack of intimacy suggests an overdeveloped ego. He finished his drink and grabbed his wallet off his bed.

* * *

In the elevator, Tanya leaned against the back wall as Harley jabbed the buttons. They needed the lobby, but he selected the top floor and then half-leaned, half-fell against the side of the car. Hands in his pockets, he hung his head. Tanya opened her notebook. The intoxicated white urban male exhibits symptoms typical of other groups in similar circumstances, such as loss of fine motor skills. By the time she finished that sentence, the car had stopped at the top floor, and Harley’s chin rested on his chest.

The doors opened. A woman in her mid-twenties stepped inside. She wore a low-cut denim blouse, tight shorts, and stilettos long and sharp enough to impale you. Deep tan, blonde hair, overdone smoky eyes, dark red lipstick, breasts like jumbo scoops of coffee ice cream. She punched the lobby button. Harley nearly fell over trying to get out of her way. The woman stood next to Tanya. Harley grinned like a fool and waved at them.

Upon the appearance of a sexually mature female, the male ceases to exist as a person and becomes a neon sign that flashes I have a penis and would like to stick it in you.

Harley rocked back and forth, humming something. The doors stayed open for what seemed like an hour. When they shut and the car moved, Harley turned to the woman and said, So. Mardi Gras, huh?

The woman shrugged. What about it?

It’s, uh, pretty wild out there.

Uh huh.

Inhibitions break down in inverse proportion to an inflated sense of self-worth. However, male’s mating call elicits little response.

Where you headed? Harley asked.

Out, the woman said.

Cool.

The car settled on the first floor. When the doors opened, the woman fled as if shot from a cannon. Harley gave chase, hoping he would see her later, maybe they could get a drink, she should be careful because of all the assholes out there. Then a skinny man with greasy brown hair waved her over and took her hand. Harley stopped so quickly that Tanya could practically hear brakes squealing. The couple stepped outdoors, where the crowd absorbed them. Some frat boy carrying one of those two-foot-long tourist-bait Hurricane goblets bumped into Harley and spilled half the drink on him. Harley turned back to the lobby, his arms held out like a gunfighter’s, looking at his soaked abdomen and crotch as if wondering how a world could exist where such was possible.

Subject abandons seduction attempt only when another male asserts prior claim. Behavior reflects learned patterns in patriarchal society—women’s bodies as public spaces, male agency, female’s status as property or prize.

Harley approached, dabbing at his soaked clothing with cheap brown paper towels from the lobby bathroom, grumbling under his breath. He glanced at Tanya and blushed.

Come on, she said. Restaurant’s over there.

Yeah, he said. I’d like some boiled crawfish, with corn and new potatoes.

Like that time Mom and Dad brought us to the conference at the Marriott on Canal.

Right.

I mostly remember us watching cartoons on one bed while Mom and Dad read books on the other. Research for some article.

He winked. They were always writing in their notebooks and shit.

Her face burned. She closed her notebook and capped her pen. Got it, she said.

No worries. I just want you to have a good time.

The hostess stood behind her podium, a laminated seating chart and a grease pencil in hand. The restaurant hummed with conversation. Servers dashed about with trays of drinks and platters. Harley inhaled and smacked, patting his belly. The hostess smiled, but she looked tired. Her calves and feet probably hurt from hours of standing in high heels. Her on-the-bigger-side-of-B-cup breasts were pushed nearly to her throat, her black dress split high enough to see her garters.

Harley ogled her like a cartoon wolf, lacking only the eyes that bugged out with an ah-OOO-gah! and the Valentine’s heart beating out of his chest. The hostess calculated his angle of vision, her cleavage its terminus, and looked resigned. Female service industry worker’s dress reflects a bird’s courtship rituals—raised crest, breast outthrust. Given the unlikelihood of female’s interest in patrons as sex partners, display suggests management’s strategic attempt to conflate sexual desire with hunger and women’s bodies as means of public satiety.

Wow, the joint is really jumping, Harley said. How do you keep up?

Party of two? the hostess asked, looking at Tanya.

Yes, Tanya said.

The hostess consulted her chart and grabbed two menus. Right this way.

They dodged servers and drunken revelers and people who stepped out of their booths without regard to foot traffic. The hostess stopped at a table approximately the size of a checkerboard and perhaps five steps from the kitchen doors, which servers and busboys banged open every few seconds. She set the menus on opposite sides of the table. The top six inches of them overlapped. How could you order anything larger than a cup of soup or a side salad without stacking plates vertically?

Yancy will be your server, the hostess said. Enjoy your meal.

She hurried off. Harley watched her ass swaying in her tight dress. Urban females seem inured to peacocking. Harley examined the menu. He was handsome in a goofy kind of way, like a younger and grungier Jim Carrey, right down to the overlarge mouth and bright teeth. He had always had girlfriends, but he was batting 0-for-2 tonight.

Yancy the server arrived—mid-forties, with receding brown hair and deep lines around the mouth, suggesting a lifetime of smoking. What would y’all like to drink? he asked, talking like Janis Joplin sang.

Two whiskey sours, Harley said. And whatever she’s having.

Just water, Tanya said. Double lemon.

Be right back, Yancy said. He zoomed away.

Harley studied the menu, even though the boiled-crawfish-and-fixings dish was marked in its own little box as a house specialty. You’re wound too tight, Sis, he said. You aren’t in AA. Let go a little, or you’ll squeeze yourself to death.

Paternalism replicated in sibling relationships.

When Yancy returned, Harley ordered the boiled crawfish platter. Tanya selected a cup of gumbo and blackened snapper. When the drinks arrived, Harley drained one in a gulp. Tanya sipped her lemon water and watched Harley’s eyelids droop.

* * *

Several cocktails later, Harley stumbled out onto the streets. Had Tanya paid the check? Had he? Had they finished eating? He felt full. No pressure in his bladder, so he must have visited the restroom at some point. His mouth tasted sour. Had he barfed? He held one of those frozen drinks in a plastic souvenir glass that could double as a lance, should he find himself charging a knight on horseback. No idea where it came from. He took a sip. Hurricane, of course. What else did tourists drink in New Orleans?

Music floated from every open bar—lots of jazz, rock riffs, country songs metamorphosed into lounge numbers you might hear in a joint where a hot woman in an evening gown sang on top of a piano and everybody chain-smoked and drank Old-Fashioneds. Clusters of drunks sang songs that seemed disconnected from the music. Harley’s head spun. He could feel the Earth’s rotation, the angle at which he stood in relation to its tilt. He could see in every direction, like a camera panning three hundred and sixty degrees. Perhaps he was dancing.

Tanya hugged the hotel wall. She was writing again. Three feet from her, a guy ralphed all over the sidewalk while a buddy patted him on the back and laughed. My own fate if I can’t stop spinning. Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. But the dance had disengaged from Harley’s will. Soon enough, he fell hard on his ass, the impact rippling from his coccyx to his medulla oblongata. Somehow, he kept hold of the drink. Tanya wrote, glanced at him, wrote. A gaggle of college-aged kids walked by. One offered Tanya a cup of something. She shook her head without looking up.

Just like Mom and Dad. Stick so far up their asses they could probably taste it. Would take research to the Super Bowl.

Harley stood up, legs wobbling as if he were on stilts. Someone bumped him and set him spinning again, but this time he kept his feet. He drank and looked about. People as thick as summer grass, the musk of thousands of armpits caked with long-failed deodorant, half-heard conversations and cackles of maniacal laughter fit for comic-book villains, sweaty flesh pressed against his bare arms. A redhead in blue jeans and a tight Best Coast t-shirt caught his eye, made her way to him, and kissed him, her tongue deep in his mouth. He closed his eyes and felt her taking his half-empty drink and did not care. Then she was gone.

He looked about and saw the hotel, now half a block down the street, Tanya nowhere in sight. Probably went back inside. She’s usually in bed by ten. Another gift from Mom and Dad. Make straight A’s in first grade and seal your fate. Up before dawn, school all day, two hours of homework, maybe half an hour outside with friends, dinner and dessert and then flashcards and quizzes and goddam reports on current events like we lived in Social Studies class, thirty minutes of TV, bath, prayers, bed. I should have been older so she could learn my secret—never bloom until college. Solid B student, middling expectations. Once you’re too old to ground, then show your true self. But Tanya’s the older model, the original, the Golden Child. She’s the perfect amalgam of Mom and Dad, all the Terminator single-mindedness and none of the human inefficiency. She never had a chance.

This train of thought lasted two blocks. Had he walked, or had the crowd carried him like a leaf in a stream? Didn’t matter. Somehow, he had gotten another drink, beer this time, a clear plastic cup, dark stout with a half-inch head. He might have stolen it.

Nearby, a crowd surrounded something on the sidewalk. He pushed through, excusing himself, grinning at strangers who paid him no mind. In the center, a man sat in a lawn chair, his legs sprawled out. A woman knelt between them, her head bobbing up and down. The man’s head hung over the back of the chair, his eyes closed, mouth open. A sign made with cardboard and Sharpie hung around the woman’s neck and down her back. It read, Free Blowjobs.

Huh, Harley thought.

Everyone filmed them.

She could suck a golf ball through a water hose, someone said. Titters from the crowd, even though the line was older than dirt.

Conflates sexual contact with intimacy and self-worth. Oral fixation. Shit like that.

He downed his drink and let the cup fall and sat down on the walk. The crowd buzzed as he stared through a forest of legs. Blue jeans and loafers. Sneakers and sandals. Bare shins and calves, some hairy, some tan. Dress hems. Flats and high heels. Why would anybody wear heels in this crowd? Or ever?

Socialized that way. Like us. Tanya and her notebooks, just like Mom outlining articles on the beach. Or the time we asked Dad for tickets to Disney on Ice and he took us to a lecture on Mediterranean art. Now Tanya, always working. These women, their moms probably put them in skirts and three-inchers by sixth grade. Like a bunch of mini Scarlett O’Haras ready to debut on the Big House’s staircase. I bet their feet hurt like fuck. Gender whatchamacallit. Stratosphere. Stradivarius. Stratocaster. Goddammit, what’s the word?

He closed his eyes.

When he opened them again, he lay on the walk, people circling him. His back and ass felt wet, his crotch warm. He looked down. The woman with the sign had his penis in her mouth, down to the hilt.

Had he agreed to this? What was he lying in, and how long had he been there?

He really needed to pee.

Everyone held drinks and phones. Some grinned. A few wore that brand of expressionlessness that sets in after the tenth or eleventh cocktail. One guy looked furious, as if he wanted to kick the woman’s teeth in, or Harley’s, or both.

Get you some, boy, somebody said.

Uh, said Harley. Excuse me? Ma’am?

Someone squealed. More laughter. And then everyone vanished. Three cops arrived, demanding that people act like human beings, goddammit. One pulled the woman off Harley, jamming her arms behind her back and cuffing her. The other two yanked Harley to his feet. His pants and underwear fell to his ankles. Cameras strobed.

Sick jackass, said one of the cops.

No, fellas, Harley said. I didn’t mean to.

Right, said the cop, cuffing him. You just tripped on the curb, and your dick fell in her mouth.

I think I passed out.

Sure. You’re under arrest—

Harley projectile-vomited on the second officer’s shirt.

The man looked at his uniform, spattered with sour alcohol and half-digested crawfish and corn kernels. Son of a bitch, he said. Get this fucker outta here before I accidentally stomp on his head eight or ten times.

* * *

Tanya fought her way to Canal and Rampart and got an Uber. She had left her notes in the room. She did not want to lose them.

The cops had hauled Harley away, strings of puke dangling from his lips. What would they charge him with—indecency? Public drunkenness? Stupidity?

Needing connection, the urban white male trends toward excess, heedless of consequences.

Central lockup, huh? said the driver, a man in his early thirties. He wore a plaid shirt, a goatee, hipster glasses, a porkpie hat.

Yes, she said.

Happens a lot this time of year.

Tanya had never meant to let it go so far. Harley had been drunk and staggering, but so had half the crowd. When she lost sight of him, she had stopped in a doorway to make some notes. Then the cops rushed in, and there lay Harley, erect penis bobbing like a divining rod. The cops stood him up and let his pants fall as they read him his rights. Tanya had chosen him as her research subject because he seemed, in so many ways, a typical man—intelligent and motivated, sure, but basically a big kid who wanted to get laid—and she had tried to maintain her scientific objectivity. But he knew nothing of her project and had probably expected her to pull him back from the edge. As if her responsibility for him, born in their isolated childhood, would only die when one of them did. That look on his face as he shuffled to the squad car, like a trapeze artist who, falling, realizes that someone has stolen his safety net—bewilderment, fear, a dawning sense of having been betrayed in some fundamental way.

Outside the car, nighttime New Orleans—streets full of headlights, identical lampposts flickering by, humanity on the walks, bright doorways where homeless people sat and talked to themselves. Or maybe they heard voices, like she did when she researched.

They’re Mom’s and Dad’s voices. His when he explained to us that Phoebe on Friends could never afford a decent New York apartment on a freelance masseur’s salary. Mom’s while she told us Simba’s assumption of Mufasa’s throne just reinforced patriarchal stereotypes, that the film owed much of its plot to the Fisher King legend, that Timon and Pumbaa’s hakuna matata philosophy meant they had accepted the jungle’s hegemonic class system, and while aristocratic Simba would go back to eating gazelles one day, his proletarian buddies would always dig for grubs.

So who’s in jail? the driver asked as he fiddled with the radio and settled on something that sounded like Coldplay. Friend or family?

Family, she said.

Can’t live with em. Can’t shoot em.

You sure can’t.

They turned a corner into a traffic jam, cars snarled everywhere, turning left on red lights and lingering in intersections. The walks nearby were dark and filled with people, shadows bulging together and pulling apart like saltwater taffy, all of them somebody’s child, somebody’s sister, somebody’s true love, but also just themselves, individuals trudging through the night, trying to find their way.

One of those shadows broke away and reeled into the street, weaving among the cars, stopping here and there to put its hands on a hood, eliciting angry honks and raised middle fingers. Then the figure stepped into her Uber’s headlights. It was a man in his mid-twenties, blue polo shirt befouled with some dark liquid, knee-length shorts pumpkin-orange. He locked eyes with Tanya, squinting against the lights. He put both hands on the hood and made a humping motion.

The driver honked and yelled, Get off my car, you asshole.

The man spit on the windshield and staggered around to Tanya’s window. He bent and looked in, eyes glazed. He said something she could not understand and then straightened, dropped his pants, and pressed his genitals to her window, rubbing them up and down, side to side, penis limp and flopping, thick black pubic hair waving like seaweed in the shallows.

Subject attempts to attract mate by baring its undersized primary sex organs.

God, said the driver. I’m callin the cops.

Tanya photographed the man’s gyrations. By the time she cropped and filtered the picture, he had moved on, but she barely noticed. She wrote a caption: a dying grub on top of a Chia Pet. Where was Pumbaa when you needed him? The car lurched forward as she texted the picture to Harley. He would not see it until after she freed him and he sobered up, but then his eyes would widen, and he would look at her, and they would laugh and laugh and laugh.