THE DEVIL WALKS US to the hat shop on Royal Street, talking in a voice like he eats rocks. The city is going to hell, he says. Shouldn’t he like that, you whisper, and we laugh and feel free, the sun already gone but light lingering like the raw pink of an open mouth. The smell of bourbon on your breath makes me want to take a bite out of your neck. You hold my hand like it is something extremely valuable.
In back of St. Louis Cathedral, a skinny boy in leathers moves his body like an S to a boom box beat we can’t hear over the city’s noise—car horns, the clop of slow-moving horses pulling buggies full of couples who point and exclaim over the devil, so that I feel strangely possessive: Find your own!
The devil comes to a stop in front of the boy, whose small white buttocks, round as a pair of oranges, move loosely in his chaps, as if separate from the rest of his body. A bass line fades in and out with the wind, and for a moment we think he might join the boy in a dance; what easy seduction! Instead, he fans his hands as if at a stench, preaches Shame!
Perhaps this devil, his lump of cock outlined in red spandex, thinks of us as a richer challenge. After all, he found us fully clothed, holding hands. Highlights in my hair. You, robust and tall. Our smiles the smug ones of lovers who anoint themselves fated.
When we get to the hat shop, he pulls us together for a photo like we’re old friends. This is Trudy, he says, indicating a brunette in an oversized sweater who won’t meet our eyes. You can pay her. Ten bucks. You hand over a bill, don’t even haggle, and I wonder if this is the difference between husbands and lovers.
Inside the hat shop, we crack some jokes about the devil, obvious ones, laughing so hard the other patrons in the shop turn to look. I try on a slouchy hat and you tell me I look like Faye Dunaway. You put on a wide-brimmed topper that makes you look like a retired gardener, and I buy it for you as a gift. Our love is new, it demands extravagance, even though I’ve spent the last of my money to get to this city to see you.
In a bar later, we look at the photo on your phone. You look happy, maybe because I have come all this way to see you. Maybe because you believe what you told me, which is that we’re not bad people, we’re just in love.
My expression is muddier. Perhaps I am thinking of the son I kissed goodbye at the airport hours earlier, how he clung to my neck, cheeks flushed with fever—how I left anyway, the tendons of my groin taut from imagining you inside me.
Perhaps I’m embarrassed to be caught in such an obvious metaphor. The devil, us. Et cetera.
Some cultures believe a photograph can relieve you of your soul. So let us blame the picture, then. For the powder that rolls our eyes back that night in the Marigny. For the sheets we cover in blood when we fuck. Most of all, for the husband and child, somewhere distant.
On a balcony close to midnight, you argue with a Turk about ISIS, then ask him to come to bed with us. A guy on the street below tosses up a joint. I’m a mother, I call down to him. He nods, but I can tell he doesn’t believe me.
• • •
TO READ MORE FICTION, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 54.1
KEIJA PARSSINEN is the author of the novels The Ruins of Us, which earned a Michener-Copernicus award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, which won an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her writing has appeared in the New York Review of Books Daily, the Washington Post, Slate, Salon, the Lonely Planet travel writing anthologies, the Southern Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere, and has been supported by fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and Ragdale, among others. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Truman Capote Fellow, she is now an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Kenyon College.