Friday, January 31, 2014

Readers have asked about the woman on the cover of The Big Easy...

Her name's Carrie. She's complicated and dangerous, as the reporter discovers:
           “I’m feeling like my usual evening aperitif,” the girl said. “I’m feeling like breezing into Maylie’s and chatting with all my friends.”
Comiski followed her toward the hundred-year-old wisteria vine that draped the restaurant’s portico. He imagined the bankers and the stockbrokers drinking their Southern Comfort and talking soy beans; he was perspiring.
“What’s the matter?” she asked him. “You losing heart?”
“It’s not my kind of place.”
“Stop worrying — I’m black, not you.”
She pushed through the doorway.
Comiski silently rejoiced: it was too early for the bankers; a white-haired gentleman with a gold chain across his paunch sat at the far end of the room reading an afternoon newspaper — Comiski’s crime report — and he didn’t even look up. The bartender stopped peeling lemons and stared at the girl with guileless amazement.
“You git on out of here,” he said.
“We want us some drinks.” She rested her arm on the rail. “Give me and my friend here some of those martinis.”
“I ain’t giving you shit.”
“Now that’s not what I asked for, Cracker.”
The man jerked up his sleeves, revealing forearms like boiled hams, leaned over the bar.
“Merle!” he called.
A drawn little man came out of the kitchen, drying his hands on a dishtowel. He wore a wide silk tie emblazoned with a Rebel flag; his shirt pocket was stuffed with pencils.
“What you-all want?” he asked.
“We want some drinks,” the girl said. “We want us some great big ole martinis.”
“This here’s a private club. Now you git!”
“My, my, ain’t that nice? Well, we’ll just join up in your private club.”
Merle turned to the bartender. “She wants to join the club. Ain’t that a kick in the ass?”
They laughed dryly. Comiski had an insight: they should all sit down and have a drink — a cooling febrifuge — take up the argument later. He of course would have two drinks . . .
Merle said, “You don’t qualify. Our members have to be eighteen years of age, and they have to be white.”
The bartender pushed a stack of heavy glass ashtrays in front of her. Comiski noticed that the white-haired man had spilled his drink over the newspaper, and he was making spastic efforts to stand. His feet appeared to be entangled beneath the chair.
The girl swept the ashtrays off the bar, and they bounced noisily at Merle’s feet; two of them shattered.
Comiski pushed her toward the door.
“Why you nigger . . .” Merle said, and he hit Comiski ineffectually on the ear; the bartender came around gripping the neck of a bowling pin. The man with white hair found his voice at last, began to shout.
Comiski walked backward, herding the girl outside; the men followed, watched as he hustled her along Poydras. A car pulled up in front of the restaurant, and the bartender bent over and began to talk urgently with the driver. Comiski thought: how quickly the reaction sets in — the terrible swift sword of retribution. Already he could feel the trouble stirring. Across Loyola the lights in the offices of the Federal Building blinked on like searchlights; the carillon bells lisped through another round of “Danny Boy,” mocking in their ethereal imprecision.
“Why did we just do that?” he asked.
She jerked her arm away. “Why not? Maybe I can’t touch the bastards, but I can sure mess up the view — I do that best.”
They entered the ruins again; Comiski stepped behind a crumbling brick wall to drink.
“I don’t suppose you had to go in there,” she said. “I suppose that’s something.”
She led him across the lot toward a clapboard cafe. One wall was painted red a decade before, bore the inscription, chat ’n chew, no. 2; the windows were plastered with cigarette and pomade advertisements.
“You can tell all your friends you tasted soul food,” she said.
“What makes you think I’m interested in soul food or in martinis? You’re big on extremes.”
“And you’re big on fence-sitting. The water rat floating down the bayou, culling crap from both banks. Don’t come in if you don’t want.”
The narrow shotgun structure was crowded with makeshift tables and chairs; Christmas lights and strips of tinsel hung from the beams, and a juke box with exposed entrails shuddered through a lugubrious version of “Born to Lose.” A veil of smoke drifted out of the pass-through from the kitchen, smelled of fried cornmeal.
A group of black men sat in one corner, drinking beer from quart bottles; the heavyset proprietor got up from his plate of red beans and rice and stepped behind the bar. He smiled benignly.
“Good e’nin. What can I do fo’ you-all?”
"What do you want?” Comiski asked her.
It was a new intonation, a lapse into dialect; he said, “But you told me ...”
“I’m not hungry no more. You eat.”
Comiski ordered an oyster loaf and a beer; the man disappeared into the kitchen and returned almost immediately, carrying half a loaf of French bread. He set it in front of Comiski and stood watching, his flat glistening face exuding hospitality.
Comiski began to eat, spat bread onto the plate; he opened the sandwich and found the oysters and garlic butter laced with soap powder.
“You eat it,” he said.
"Why, we’d be dee-lited.”
The man beamed, reached for the plate and upset the glass of beer; he pushed it into Comiski’s lap with his towel.
“Why, we’s so sorry.”
Comiski got off the stool, brushed at his trousers. The men in the corner stopped talking; the juke box hummed expectantly.
“Dat’ll be fi’ dollar,” the proprietor said.
He put a one-dollar bill on the bar.
“Now we done tol’ you . .
The girl made a cabalistic sign with her left hand, headed for the door; Comiski followed her.
The man called, “We reckon dat’ll be ’nuff.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, when they were on the street. “I didn’t figure on that.”
They walked toward the expressway; the beer felt cold against the old bruises on Comiski’s thighs. He glanced behind them, saw two women talking in a darkened doorway and a man in an orange wig who passed under a streetlight like a somnambulist and vanished in an alley. He thought he heard the echo of a motorcycle.
“You better come up for a while,” she said. “You might be marked.”
They climbed the stairs in darkness; the room was empty. She switched on the radio, waved him toward the bed.
“Make yourself at home. I’m going to put on the kettle.”
Comiski sat down without removing his raincoat, drank, and held the bottle between his knees.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She stood at the stove, her back to him; he could hear her laughing.
“Carrie. What’s yours?”
“Andrew.” Comiski couldn’t remember the last time someone had called him by his first name. “It was a concession to my mother’s family. I grew up in Mississippi.”
“That’s wonderful, Andrew. See if you can find something besides that sorry-ass Muzak.”
He tuned in Pete Fountain and his mooning clarinets, had another drink. The girl carried a soup spoon with the handle bent double to the table, unrolled a piece of towel that protected a yellow syringe; she carefully filled it with the liquid in the spoon.
“Some kettle,” Comiski said.
“Don’t get excited, Andrew. This ain’t smack.” She held both arms up to the light. “Some people get upset about a little speed. Remember, I never did get that aperitif.”
She inserted the needle with careless assurance. Comiski closed his eyes; when he opened them again, he saw three bubbles scuttling up the blue trace inside her biceps like some apparatus in a fish tank.
“Those things are going to take out one side of your heart.”
“The AMA puts out that propaganda,” she said. “A little air never hurts.”
The mass of hair engulfed her face. He turned away as she went through the motions of cleaning up, watched the taillights of speeding cars follow the curve of the expressway and drop from sight.
“You think I’m strung out, Andrew. I’m not strung out — I’m bored.”
“I’m going. You tell Tea . .
“Forget Tea,” she said. “He’s got things on his mind, won’t be coming around here.”
She sat down on the bed, touched her lips with her tongue; her eyes were bright and aggressive.
“When Tea needs somebody, he gets a hold on them, like when he needed daddy Parks. He needed Parks, see, so we all hooked up — a regular menage a trois. Now Tea doesn’t get behind sex anymore, and Parks wasn’t much better, at his age. Some ménage à trois. Tea says when his plans get underway, then he can ball again. He says it’s a matter of priorities.”
Comiski said, “Tell me who broke into Parks’s grave.”
“Don’t you know who that was, Andrew? I thought everybody knew that one. It was that same bunch you got messed up with — they were looking for the stash.”
“What stash is that?”
“Our smack, Andrew.”
“You mean heroin?”
“Wow. I mean smack. Horse, honch, duji, H, snow, heroin — it’s all the same animal. Parks kept it hid in a pad with three crazy white people and a whole mess of cats. The honkie runts never could find it. That’s how come ... ”
“That’s why they defiled the corpse,” he prompted. 
“That’s it. Just clean honkie fun, stealing black men’s heads. They even brought it round for us to look at — friendly persuasion.”
Comiski shuddered; Carrie’s constant bouncing motion made him seasick.
“It’s a shame Parks crumbled before the last drop,” she said. “Now all that bread’s going into the big plans. You should hear Tea talk about it, Andrew. He’s all the time singing about the New Order, some black citadel he says is going to poke up out of the ashes. Shit like that.”
"Tea's a poet."
“He’s a fanatic.” She touched the scab on Comiski’s wrist. “Hey, they really leaned on you.”
“I’m going.” He spoke decisively, could think of no place to go; the bottle was empty.
“Don’t do that, Andrew. I couldn’t stand sitting round this place on my lonesome. Tea’s not coming back, you see, and then my baby . . .”
“Your baby?”
“Oh, forget that, man. It’s just been one of those days, it really has.”
Comiski was affected by her palsy. He covered her lips with his hand; the line of her mouth was soft yet precise, moving against his fingers as the words went on. He had a vision of his bare neck pierced by the rusty blade he had noticed in her purse. What your white man most fears ...
It was a fumbling embrace. The bourbon bottle clattered against the floor; the scent of her hair was feral and disturbing.
“Well, well,” she said.
Comiski was embarrassed by the sound of crumpled plastic, got up to take off his raincoat; Carrie stripped away the saffron dress and sat bare-chested on the very edge of the mattress, reflecting his own amazement.

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