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Third Place

Michelle A. Lemire

The sweet, dark scent of smoke from a Macanudo cigar lingers in the pungent air of the nightclub. The woman sitting close to the stage smiles weakly and suppresses a cough. The man next to her, the man smoking the cigar, is ordering more drinks for the table. He tips the waiter double to impress the expensive call girl. My gaze makes its way back to the slick strings of my great mahogany bass. I nod my head to a rhythm most men would have lost, if their minds were wandering the way mine has been.

Mike, the saxophone player, breaks in with a moaning solo. I tone down my bass a bit, and let Mike take center stage. The percussionist, Elija, taps his cymbals, digging down deep to the soul of the groove. The ladies are watching Mike now. The young prostitute is fidgeting; fixing her dress strap, rolling her napkin in her lap, putting on lipstick for the third time in one set.

Our trumpet player, JJ, slides up to the front next. I close my eyes, blocking everything else out, and let the music sink in. Some say the trumpet's not as sexy as the sax, but it couldn't be told by the way JJ plays. JJ has got real talent. Fingers popping hot and sweet on the short notes, lingering slow and low on the long ones. He drinks his wages worth of bourbon every night. The next morning his head will split in two if anyone so much as hums the blues, but in the evening he is stellar.

When my turn is up, I'm not there. Oh, I'm chunking along as if I know exactly where I'm going. People tap their feet and move their hips to the beat I'm dishing out. They grin wildly when they think I'm connecting with them from the stage, but I'm not even in the club. I left yesterday, with a little girl in red on her way home down the river.

Like a fool, I keep dreaming she might emerge from the kitchen where she would have sweet-talked the head chef into a late dinner; maybe some of his smooth and spicy gumbo, or left over jambalaya. She would bounce out of the kitchen, wagging her hips and smiling mischievously, cayenne on her breath.

Then she would take center stage, and the rest of us just disappear. To her, to the audience, to the bar staff, hell, even to our own selves, we were no longer there. She would start out the song with a bluesy hum, something low. Standing right in front of me, she would sway slightly; her sequined dress hugging her perfect curves. I would try hard to concentrate on my bass, but its shape would always bring me back to her, as I watched the base of her neck as it slid into her shoulders; her ebony skin glistening with the slightest dew of perspiration under the lights.

When the song was over she would lower her eyelids, and stare lovingly at her flashy high-heeled shoes until the applause finished washing over her. Then she would turn, pick up her drink, and take a long pull through a straw. After that her smile would return.

I'm smiling now, just remembering her. I finish my solo and open my eyes expecting to see her nodding in my direction . . . but instead the stage in front of me is empty. In the center stands a lone mic, unaccompanied since the day she left.

I glance over the crowd. The eyes of the late night regulars shine back at me. In the corner of the room, I recognize the hunched silhouette of Big Henny, the root doctor. I can't see her face, but I know she is making sad frowns at me. Her one lazy eye is looking at the floor, the other eye, glazed filmy with cataracts, is watching the back door of the club, but her third eye, reserved for voodoo mischief, is aimed at me.

The set finishes with a round of scattered applause. JJ is at the bar before the rest of us step off the stage. JJís wife, Sophie, slouches on a stool, eyeing JJís female admirers. She is a short, stocky woman, with crazy in her eyes and cruelty in the curl of her lip. Her three babies are at home with Granny, while Sophie holds her leash on her man. This is the first time Iíve ever seen her in the club, and JJ is ordering double shots to compensate. I rest my bass on the stand and drag my feet to Big Henny's booth.

Big Henny is smoking a huge cigar that smells like something she killed in the swamp. She wears a shapeless, purple dress and a floppy, crimson hat with big feathers sticking out of its band. Wrapped around her thick neck are long, lanky necklaces dripping with the dried remains of sacrificial cats and birds. Clunky rings and plastic bobbles decorate her wide, stubby fingers. Her charcoal skin sags all over her body. She looks like she climbed inside an elephant and tried to make his wrinkles fit her bones.

"You got to get Adele out your mind, boy," Big Henny says. "She is gonna poison your soul."

I'm sitting on a chair across from Big Henny. I don't look at her when she mentions Adele. I don't want her to see that Adele is exactly what I've been thinking about since the day she sauntered into this club.

Adele came to New Orleans from a little town up the river. She didnít have any family in the city, and I never met any of her friends. She liked to spend time with Old Man Jake, the piano player, but most times I saw her she was alone.

Big Henny clucks her tongue and taps her empty shot-glass on the table. She is scowling at me now, as if she can read my mind. Big Henny is not my momma, but she is almost an aunt by marriage, which gives her the righteous power to scold me.

"You ought to come swamping with me, " Big Henny says, "get your mind off this place." She speaks in a low, growling tone that makes me think she is swallowing half of what she has really got to say.

I shake my head, no. I hate the swamp. If I want a rest, it wonít be down in the dankness of the bog, sloshing around, sniffing for mushrooms. Even if I was to carry a few voodoo charms in my pockets, I would still get bit by something and likely die.

I excuse myself to get a drink from the bar, but I know I haven't escaped. Not as long as Adele is in my head and Big Henny is on my tail. They are the only two women who have ever made my head hurt as much as my feet.

Adele got me to worrying the first night I walked her home. She had been sitting at the bar matching JJ shot for shot all night long, and when I got up to leave she followed me. JJ stumbled after us, but Adele shouted at him to go home to his wife, and JJ went mumbling back to the bar.

As we walked down the street arm-in-arm, she hummed a sad tune I hadn't heard before. By the time we got to her door I was practically carrying her. She was staring at her shoes with red, swollen eyes. I asked her what was wrong, but she said she was just drunk. I could smell the alcohol on her, mixing with her perfume, and the hidden scent of red pepper and paprika. I had seen her drunk before, but I had never seen her cry.

Her lips were soft and cold when she kissed the ridge of my jaw. For a moment her hand squeezed my fingers reassuringly. Then she rushed inside her building as soon as she worked the door open. Dumbfounded, I just stared at her until the door slammed shut in my face.

Adele wasn't at the club the next night. Jake said she wasnít feeling well, female problems, or some such thing.

JJ was sitting on a box at the back of the stage pulling on his earlobes and moaning. He said he didn't want to play. His head was aching and his stomach wouldn't settle. I told him he should have another drink. He scowled at me and wandered off toward the bar.

A shout makes my head snap around. JJ slams into me on his way out the front door, Sophie on his tail. He doesn't make it. The floor is covered in regurgitated bourbon shots. The crowd shifts away from him. A few people leave. They're not drunk enough to be sympathetic.

The last time I saw JJ this bad off was the night Adele returned to the club. She had been hiding away in her flat, saying a jealous woman put a hex on her. Adele wouldn't answer the door for anyone. Not even me.

When I asked Big Henny to look in on Adele, she said it was too late. She said Adele had hired another conjure woman to pluck an infant from her belly. Big Henny said the baby must have taken some of Adeleís spirit with it, because she wasnít recovering well.

When Adele finally crept into the club she looked like an old, stray cat who had been beaten and starved. She was forcing a smile that stretched too far across her face, and all her teeth, even the back ones, were showing. On stage she wiggled around uncomfortably on her stool. She sang off key for three songs before she gave up and excused herself to the bar. JJ followed her.

When I went into my solo I noticed them arguing. Adele turned away from JJ to watch me play. I smiled at her, hoping she would come back to the stage. She tapped her foot and stared at an empty space past my shoulder.

Adeleís body was sagging as if the life juice was being sucked out of her. JJ touched her arm, startling her. She covered her face with her hands and stumbled over customers as she fought to get out of the club.

"She's gone," Big Henny says.

For a moment I can't remember where I am. I can still feel the stifling heat of the marsh on the afternoon we found her. My clothes stuck to me as I waded through knee-deep sludge to reach the tree where her body was caught up. The fog was thick with mosquitoes and the scent of rain. I think I was moaning when I picked up her limp frame, all bloated with swamp water. Long threads of moss and weed clung to her gray skin. Her eyes were wide and empty, but I could feel her soul hovering close by.

JJ wailed and cried, waving his hands at the sky, falling to his knees, and vomiting a weekís worth of sorrow. He clutched his head with both hands and shouted his grief and apologies, but I wasn't listening and neither was anyone else.

"Cass, Honey," Big Henny says.

Mike, Elija, and Jake have started up the music again. I can hear where my bass is missing from the song. I also hear where Adele's voice could have filled in and made the tune that much more sweet. I nod toward Big Henny, letting her know I'm still here. While in reality, I'm out watching that boat move away down the river, carrying a girl in her finest, red dress, heading home. Big Henny is wrong about Adele. She doesn't want to poison my soul, she just needs to hold my hand for a while.