Stuttering percussion and icy synths reverberated across the surging dance floor, and Jardin‘s swelling patronage was being swept up in the triphop’s intoxicating physicality. It was foreplay, and every dancer measured their calculations.
The shuffling, arrhythmic beats pulsing through the bar sent waves of color that folded in on themselves and back out, unfurling and blooming, each permutation an aftershock of the endless reflections.
From her high bar stool, just off the disco’s center, on a little diamond of the labyrinthine, elevated walkway, Virgil scanned the club for familiar faces.
Vol. 1: Overture
By Dawn Saas and Nic Frankenberry
Powered by the Apocalypse and the work of D. Vincent Baker
as well as
Urban Shadows by Andrew Medeiros and Mark Diaz Truman
Microscope by Ben Robbins
Content Warning: Depictions of attempted abduction, drug use, and graphic violence.
There was a man Virgil thought she recognized near the restrooms. Virgil didn’t know his name. The man was in his late 20s, and Virgil realized it had been years since she’d seen him. There was a long scar on the side of his face she hadn’t seen before, and the man had gained almost thirty pounds. However, Virgil recognized his square jaw, and she hadn’t seen someone wear a blazer like that in a disco since the 80s. A blazer, shirt, and slacks weren’t the fashion of choice anymore although Virgil was starting to realize she wasn’t quite sure what fashion was these days.
Virgil had watched the man deal ecstasy in a handful of clubs downtown and on the Strip, but Virgil wasn’t sure how long she’d been gone or what this man was dealing now, if anything. Virgil had never had need of his pharmaceutical services.
She had seen an OD or two in her day. Heroin in the 60s. Coke in the 70s and 80s. Heroin again in the 90s. Ecstasy in the aughts. Virgil wondered what the kids were into now… and when now was. Virgil would have been in for quite the shock if someone had told her that heroin was making another comeback.
In the southeastern corner of the dance floor, a tall, muscular black woman in a sparkling strapless dress danced with a stout Dominican woman in a tank top and jorts. The taller woman had a penchant for picking up her much smaller dance partner and twirling her. The sturdier of the two giggled and rested her head against her escort’s stomach. The tall woman rubbed her partner’s back and then kissed her head. The pair started dancing, and the black woman clasped her lover’s back against her chest and swayed.
Jardin‘s proprietor, Arsene, was chatting with a young black man in sunglasses that Virgil also recognized… and not without a certain amount of distress. The pair were sitting at the central bar. Arsene was in their favorite outfit. Their tight, white sweater was a willing canvas for the club’s kaleidoscopic streams of color, and their black, knit cotton skirt reflected a thin, shifting flower bed of its own. Any time Arsene was on the dance floor — and the Laotian disco magnate’s appearances were becoming increasingly rare — the less sober patrons of Jardin would swear Arsene’s head was manifesting from an explosion of pure color. Virgil reckoned that sight was the closest she’d ever get to a drug trip.
Virgil bent over across her empty table to study the man in the sunglasses. His name was Elijah. Virgil thought that Elijah and the black woman she’d watched dance knew each other, but she wasn’t confident in that observation. It always took Virgil a little bit of time for her memories to come back.
Elijah had a long cane, resting against the Rosebud. The cane’s gold handle pulsed in tune with the club’s atmospheric pyrotechnics. Arsene offered their hand to Elijah. Elijah shook Arsene’s hand, and they started to walk towards the club’s rear. Elijah used his cane to guide his path.
Virgil lost track of time. If anyone on the dance floor had looked up at her, they would have seen her sitting stock still, looking out on the dance floor, focusing on nothing. Virgil was in her black, cotton trousers and dark red button up shirt with the open collar. Her wavy, dark brown hair fell just above her shoulders. Her clutch sat on the table. There were no drinks. Virgil didn’t drink.
By the time Virgil stirred again, Jardin was at capacity. It was just past eleven and the avant-garde of Pittsburgh’s dance caste were hip-to-hip on the dance floor. Virgil was stirred from her catatonia by the discordant buzz of electronic whirrs. She was whisked away from a daydream of her last shift at the Oakes Mills’ northern foundry. Virgil was a fan of dance music that captured the horror and madness of industrial decay. It felt apt.
Bodies churned on the dance floor. The nightly bacchanal had arrived. Virgil watched two men without clothes grind against the walls, the more svelte of the pair swiftly stroking his otter’s sex. A tangled knot of men, women, and everyone between and outside of that false dichotomy had formed an undulating blur of hands, tongues, and skin in another corner of the disco. On a separate lane of the elevated walkway, separated from Virgil by a chasm of color and bass, a heterosexual couple were in the throes of their own love-making. The woman was on top, riding her partner who was splayed across their table. The man’s jeans were wrapped around his ankles, and the woman’s shirt had long since been tossed into the frenzied crowd.
Virgil was moments away from leaving her table and making her way to the orgiastic center of the evening when a woman stumbling towards the bar caught her eye. A mere drunk wouldn’t have been enough to grab Virgil’s attention, but this woman was bouncing off of the exultant revelers occupying the crowded disco. The woman was reeling around like she didn’t see anyone around her although she was also making an unmistakable track towards the Rosebud. The woman was wearing an off-the-shoulders black dress, and her hair fell in light curls down her back.
After the woman made it to the bar — moments after she was hip-checked by a woman with her face buried in the crotch of another woman who was being held in the air by a man she was furiously necking — the stumbler attempted to take a seat but fell off her bar stool instead. As the woman started to pick herself up, Virgil realized Jardin‘s most inebriated spectacle was Robin and that Virgil had been away so much longer than she had ever considered.
Virgil was out of her chair and heading to the nearest stairwell to the dance floor before Robin was back on her feet. A bearded man in a trelby at the table closest to the stairwell whistled at Virgil and yelled a lewd come on. Virgil didn’t acknowledge his existence. She did not have a habit of suffering the presence of rude men, but Virgil had bigger worries. Before the evening was over, her cat-caller knew how lucky he was that he hadn’t garnered Virgil’s attention.
Cutting across the dance floor as Jardin‘s sexual congress inched towards its climax was no easy feat. The dance floor was limbs splayed in ecstasy, bodies rolling against and over one another, pelvic thrusts and hips grinding. Virgil waded through the orgasmic entropy. Couples and triads and larger, uncountable groupings would reach for her and attempt to draw her into their fornication, and on any other night, Virgil may have joined. However, that night, Virgil did not stop until she reached the Rosebud.
By the time Virgil made it to her destination, she found Robin sitting upright, if not entirely steadily. The Clit was otherwise empty except for the bartender who seemed unaffected by the lustful energy coursing through Jardin. As Virgil sat down on the stool next to Robin, the music briefly stopped, and Virgil could hear Robin singing.
Virgil had spent a not insignificant portion of her afterlife in nightclubs. From big band and swing to rock & roll and soul to punk and grunge to electronica and hip-hop, Virgil was intimately acquainted with popular music. She hadn’t seen a film since her death in 1944, but Virgil knew the music that was played at clubs and had marked the progression of time with the changes in those tunes. Virgil had never heard anything like Robin’s melody, and it was all the more confusing because she knew Robin could not sing.
Virgil had been at Jardin one evening in the 90s when Arsene had hosted a tantric sex experience. The New Age vocals that had been twisting through the club’s speakers were the closest comparison Virgil had, and she knew that wasn’t close to describing what Robin was singing. Robin’s voice sounded like it was coming to Virgil from another plane, and the other planes of being were something with which Virgil had a more than passing acquaintance. Robin’s voice and its powerful crescendos and heart-stopping plummets took a deep hold of Virgil, and Virgil thought, for a moment, she was going to simply fade away. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Jardin‘s skittering, percussive dance beats returned, and Robin closed her mouth and stopped singing. Before Virgil could reach out to touch her friend, Robin turned and smiled at Virgil, but Virgil quickly realized Robin wasn’t truly smiling at Virgil or even looking at her. Robin was smiling through Virgil and looking through her, and Virgil knew she was too solid to be looked through just then. Robin’s pupils were the size of hubcaps, and Virgil was starting to realize how much older Robin looked when Robin lifted her hands and began to sign.
“Walk with me.”
Robin looked at Virgil, and Robin continued to smile blankly past her. Somebody must have drugged Robin. That was all Virgil could think. If Virgil found whoever had roofied Robin, she… Virgil didn’t want to think about what she would do. Virgil needed to get Robin somewhere safe where she could sober up in peace, and Virgil had so many questions and so many apologies once Robin was straight.
“Sure… Robin, where are we going?”
“Somewhere more quiet.” Robin burst out in laughter at her own joke.
Robin grabbed Virgil’s hand and led her to the back of the club. Robin was singing again, and Virgil was too fixated on Robin’s voice to notice the club parting before the two of them as they walked towards the back. Jardin‘s music was so loud that Virgil could feel the rhythm in her spine… which had no right to have any feeling. Virgil died in a car accident that shattered her neck and her spine, but being dead and walking around anyways had a way of making biology cease to make sense. Yet, Virgil could still hear Robin’s song. She could feel it on her skin and in her head. The melody was inside of her. Virgil was sprouting up through the earth. She could feel her skin exploding in petals and green.
Virgil shook her head violently, and she was back in reality and Jardin. She and Robin had just reached the back door that led up to the club’s backstage.
“Where are you taking me?”
Robin stopped in her tracks and smiled at Virgil. Virgil thought Robin looked more alert, but her pupils were still dilated and Robin still had that same glazed smile. Virgil was desperate to get her out of Jardin.
“Under the eaves and under the boughs, where only the angels tread.”
Robin stopped smiling and her face was a model of seriousness. Virgil’s heart would have stopped beating if it still pumped blood.
Virgil had made up her mind to start dragging Robin out of the club’s main entrance and to put Robin in a cab to Squirrel Hill — if that was even where Robin was still living — when the drug dealer in the blazer with the scar on his face started crossing the dance floor. He was making a beeline for Robin. Just as Virgil began to wonder if this was the man who had drugged her friend, the dealer reached the two of them and grabbed Robin’s hand. He started to sign at her with his free hand.
“There you are! Where have you been? You had me worried sick. I’m taking you home right now.”
The man in the blazer turned towards Virgil and, with a look of thinly veiled contempt, spoke out loud.
“Who are you? Do I know you?”
Virgil didn’t respond and just stared at the man. The man shook his head impatiently and then signed the same question back to Virgil who responded only with his initial question signed in return.
“I’m her boyfriend. We’re leaving now.”
After responding, the man began to drag Robin away by her arm until Virgil reached out reflexively and grabbed the man’s other wrist.
“What the fuck are you doing?” The man asked the question as he fought back whimpers of pain.
“Let her go,” Virgil signed. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”
Virgil squeezed the man’s wrist tighter, and he stared at her in disbelief and agony.
The man tried to wrest his wrist away from Virgil one last time, and Virgil blacked out. She thought of her father grabbing her by the arm. She thought of all of the men who had tried to grab her in clubs and on the streets over the last 80 years. Virgil felt the anger flowing through her, and, when she came back to, moments later, the man was screaming in agony. Virgil held the shattered remains of his wrist in her clenched hands.
Robin signed at the man, “Todd?” in sincere concern.
Virgil could feel the eyes of the club turning her way. Jardin‘s coital conglomerations had come to a screeching halt, and everyone in the club in their various states of undress, intercourse, and orgasm were looking at Virgil and Robin as well as Todd’s mangled wrist. Todd had let go of Robin’s hand and held his wrist as he screamed in fury and pain.
Virgil felt time slowing around her. That wasn’t usually what happened. Virgil was so used to blinking and then weeks and months would race past before she opened her eyes again. Now, time was coming to a crawl. Robin was paralyzed with concern for Todd. The partiers were starting to turn in mass and gather towards the corner. Virgil was trapped or would have been if things like walls had been any impediment since her death.
Virgil let her body fade away. It wasn’t difficult. Staying material was the hard part. Virgil let the tension of physical existence run off of her, and, in a blink, she was gone. To the crowd, where the woman in the vintage clothes had been — looking like a Lawrenceville hipster experiencing a violent breakdown — there was now empty air.
Virgil’s view back on that crowd had changed more dramatically. Jardin and its patrons had been bathed in the phantasmagoric, flittering rainbow of the club’s lights. That color was now muted and dull, like paint that had dried in an overeager sun for decades. Virgil’s eyesight was perfect. Her vision was better than it had been when she was alive. Before Virgil stepped back behind the veil, she could see the frayed stitching in Todd’s blazer. She could see the old stains of sweat on his white shirt. Once Virgil blinked out of the physical world, the fine details of Jardin blurred like a child’s watercolor drawn in the dark. The afterlife was a muddy blur, and Virgil hated its vague ambiguity.
Without thinking, Virgil reached out and grabbed Robin by the arm and dragged her across the border of the separate worlds they truly inhabited.
Virgil had never done this before. She had no idea if Robin could follow her home, but she couldn’t leave Robin behind if she didn’t have to. Virgil had no idea what Todd was capable of or what he wanted from Robin. Virgil knew she wanted Robin as far away from this man as she could get her. When Virgil grabbed Robin’s arm, Virgil didn’t feel the physical sensation of touch. She didn’t feel the warmth of Robin’s skin or the short bristles of her thin, brown arm hair. Virgil’s core was consumed by Robin’s song.
Every part of Virgil’s being became intertwined with that melody, and Virgil would have stopped and listened to that song for hours, but she didn’t have hours. She still had enough sense of herself and the world around her to know that she had to go. Virgil counted her blessings for still possessing the awareness to know that if she stayed immaterial too long, she’d dissolve. She had no idea when she’d return.
The crowd gasped and screamed as Robin disappeared as well. Virgil knew the mess she had caused and all of the people she’d have to answer to, but she didn’t have time to worry about anything except getting Robin out of this club. Virgil could deal with the repercussions of this showy display later. She had Robin by her hands and the pair ran through Virgil’s realm and passed through the walls to the club’s rear like they weren’t even there. Virgil knew that as far as she was concerned, the wall didn’t exist.
Virgil and Robin were in a narrow corridor behind the dance floor. There was a fire exit to the left. Virgil could feel herself coming apart at the seams. It felt like her consciousness had been poured into a roaring ocean, and Virgil’s sense of herself was drifting apart in a thousand pieces in a thousand directions. She couldn’t believe how quickly this was happening. Was it the effort of bringing Robin with her? Virgil wasn’t sure but she figured if this was wrecking her, she could only imagine what it was doing to Robin.
Virgil stopped in the corridor and gathered herself back together. The world returned in clarity. The corridor was lit in harsh fluorescents, and its brick walls and linoleum floors were spotless underneath the humming light. Robin was back in the physical world as well, and Virgil was about to lead her out the fire exit when a deep, booming voice echoed behind her.
“It is rare for spirits to visit my club. I suspect we may have much to discuss, little ghost.”
Virgil’s head turned on a swivel, and at the opposite end of the corridor, Arsene stood with their arms across their chest.