Monday, January 27, 2014

Meet Comiski, aging police reporter for the Times-Picayune...

about to tumble into New Orleans's fictional race riot that actually prefigured the real thing.
      From the novel, The Big Easy, just released in paperback.

              "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house."
                                                                        James Baldwin
                                                                       The Fire Next Time

The shuddering eye of the St. Charles Avenue trolley swung around Lee Circle. Sparks flew from the overhead wire; the contraption ground to a halt with the shriek of steel punishing steel. Comiski, flushed and short of breath, swung aboard and took his seat among the last of the homeward-bound secretaries and coffee brokers. The carillon bells on top of the Hibernia Bank were completing a syncopated version of “Danny Boy”; the stuttering music touched a chord of memory — drinking bouts with forgotten buddies on the patio of the Napoleon House, trips by open car to Pass Christian, marriage. He tried to remember the words: Oh, Danny Boy, the something something of something are waiting. Or was it falling?
The trip uptown depressed him; the pattern was as familiar as the lurching machine in which he traveled — expectation, recrimination, anger, and, finally, loneliness. The routine was the only thing left of a brief and ridiculous marriage. It repeated itself without variation after eight or nine years, confined him to the downtown bars where he didn’t have to see the spreading oaks, the irregular brick sidewalks and ghostly facades of the Garden District homes.
Comiski could barely remember a face. The pain always originated in his groin: she had long muscular legs, a vacuous smile cultivated in countless social engagements that appeared in the middle of their worst arguments, a habit of touching her teeth with the tip of her tongue when excited. He met her at a political rally; she was a debutante in search of a cause, and Comiski was a starting reporter fresh from the state university, full of confidence and irreverence. He accepted the fact that she wanted to come to his apartment, just as he later accepted marriage, his mother-in-law’s hatred, his father-in-law’s boozy attempts at camaraderie, his new wife’s attempts to get into the bathroom each morning ahead of him, to apply a flawless mask of makeup. Comiski also accepted the necessity of stuffing himself into a tuxedo two or three times a year, to attend functions where his name and his bafflement offended people he had never seen before or since. When she left him — stepped into a cab and drove back up Prytania Street — it was as if his wife had simply spent a year at a foreign university and then decided to change her course of study.
Comiski put the blame on their apartment — a slaves’ quarters on St. Anne where they seemed constantly on the point of collision. Their appetites coincided: they met head-on at the refrigerator, the radio, and the sink, in the narrow passage between the bed and the bookshelf, almost sat on one another’s lap in the bathroom. They celebrated their first and last anniversary in that apartment; the thought still made him feel claustrophobic. Comiski could taste Jack Daniel’s and fresh mint, charred game birds, could see his father-in-law’s flushed face, buck teeth, and cowboy hat filling the doorway — his desperate enthusiasm — two Mason jars of mint julep under his arms. Behind him stood the immense black cook holding a platter piled with quail slaughtered on somebody’s bean plantation, her crisp white uniform and paper cap like the vestments of a priestess, and behind her, grinning and resigned to a nightmare, was the chauffeur, already sweating in his wool uniform. The silver Chrysler nearly blocked the street: their entrance reminded Comiski of a circus act in which a procession of clowns unpacks itself from a baby carriage.
Comiski, his wife, and her father sat on the bed and drank from the Mason jars; the cook and the chauffeur confined themselves to what was supposed to be the kitchen — an alcove partitioned off by a curtain. Cigar smoke and steam filled the room. The pictures fell off the walls, and when the feast was finally ready — burned in the overheated oven and served on top of a suitcase covered with a bedspread — the three of them were drunk. Comiski’s father-in-law launched into a benediction with bleary eyes and slack jaw, his voice assuming a biblical cadence: Lawd God, bind these two young people in the etuhnal mantle of Thy muhcygrant them, oh Lawd, the benefits . . .
The chauffeur sat on a beer crate, tried to hide his head behind the curtain. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, revealing arms like the blades of dull butcher knives; one white eye peered at Comiski through the fringe, filled with wonder and amazement. The cook stood over them with the steaming birds, awkward and patient, eyes clamped shut in atonement for a world of sinners, her hands trembling with the platter’s weight.
Lawd — LAWD — grant now in this Thine hou-wah of felicitay and endurin happiness all they muhcy, and let us not forget Thy bounty if the days do for a time grow dahk . . .
Comiski had no more vivid memory and no keepsakes, just artifacts left over from the disastrous campaign. There was the couch — a wedding present from his wife’s mother — that had stuck with him through the years like a dispirited but loyal beast, wounded by a thousand ashes, scorched once when he passed out with a cigar in his hand and it almost became his funeral pyre. There was the electric toaster he was constantly trying to repair with thick, unskilled fingers, and the straight razor — a family heirloom bestowed upon Comiski by his father-in-law with ceremony. The blue steel blade was inscribed with the names of his wife’s grandfather and great-grandfather — whoremonger and slave-beater respectively, Comiski suspected; the mother-of-pearl handle was wrought to fit the hand and displayed, on the butt, two precise notches. This blade has quieted down no less than two unruly black bucks ... He didn’t believe the story, but sometimes when he was shaving his finger touched the notches, and he nicked himself.
Comiski had gone to fetch his wife after a week passed. His mother-in-law received him cordially; he sat in a lawn chair and took part in chatter about storm windows. Another goddamn hurricane. His father-in-law stood among the rosebushes, dressed in what he considered to be work clothes — riding boots and a sport shirt with the sleeves rolled up — shouting orders at the chauffeur. The air was motionless, expectant: there wasn’t a bird in sight, and the rattle of ice cubes in Comiski’s glass was deafening. He knew something was wrong, felt a wash of desolation like the impact of those waves laden with flotsam that rose up out of the shallows off Grand Isle, where they spent their honeymoon. He wanted to raise his arm and shield himself from the vision of that dark stretch of sand, the off-shore oil derricks — skeletal fins of fornicating sea monsters — the clouds of mosquitoes droning among the cypress, the heat and the ooze of that timeless unnatural land. And where, madame, is your daughter? He couldn’t forget the dewy curls pressed against the woman’s head, the thin painted lips out of a low-budget horror film, her words delivered with the sanctity and the finality of a papal bull, “I’m happy to say she is at this moment riding a bicycle through Provence.”

Comiski clambered down from the trolley at the corner of Jackson Avenue, stood on the corner looking up and down St. Charles. His reason for being there was obscure. A score of Lucky Dog salesmen pushed their wares out of a garage across from the Pontchartrain Hotel, wearing striped jackets and cardboard hats, fanned out to hawk a taste of deprivation along with the low quality wieners, stale buns, and watery mustard trundled about in carts made to resemble huge hotdogs on wheels. They reminded Comiski of the wine-sodden floor of the Cave Inn, stalking through the streets like scepters of his own conscience, and he bought a Lucky Dog as much out of a sense of atonement as hunger. He ate hunched over a trash bin on the corner, followed his supper with a drink in the Cameo, then headed toward the river.
The Big Easy in paperback at:
And as an ebook at: s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1387798630&sr=1-1&keywords=james+conaway+big+easy

No comments:

Post a Comment