«Tongue brought me here»
There were no hotel rooms in New Orleans, or anywhere in the New Orleans sprawl. A jazz festival had eaten them, every one. It was too hot to sleep in my car, and even if I'd cranked a window and been prepared to suffer the heat, I felt unsafe. New Orleans is a real place, which is more than I can say about most of the cities I've lived in, but it's not a safe place, not a friendly one.
I stank, and itched. I wanted to bathe, and to sleep, and for the world to stop moving past me.
I drove from fleabag motel to fleabag motel, and then, at the last, as I had always known I would, I drove into the parking lot of the downtown Marriott on Canal Street. At least I knew they had one free room. I had a voucher for it in the manila folder.
«I need a room,» I said to one of the women behind the counter.
She barely looked at me. «All rooms are taken,» she said. «We won't have anything until Tuesday.»
I needed to shave, and to shower, and to rest. What's the worst she can say? I thought. I'm sorry, you've already checked in?
«I have a room, prepaid by my university. The name's Anderton.»
She nodded, tapped a keyboard, said «Jackson?» then gave me a key to my room, and I initialed the room rate. She pointed me to the elevators.
A short man with a ponytail, and a dark, hawkish face dusted with white stubble, cleared his throat as we stood beside the elevators. «You're the Anderton from Hopewell,» he said. «We were neighbors in the Journal of Anthropological Heresies.» He wore a white T-shirt that said «Anthropologists Do It While Being Lied To.»
«We were. I'm Campbell Lakh. University of Norwood and Streatham. Formerly North Croydon Polytechnic. England. I wrote the paper about Icelandic spirit walkers and fetches.»
«Good to meet you,» I said, and shook his hand. «You don't have a London accent.»
«I'm a Brummie,» he said. «From Birmingham,» he added. «Never seen you at one of these things before.»
«It's my first conference,» I told him.
«Then you stick with me,» he said. «I'll see you're all right. I remember my first one of these conferences, I was scared shitless I'd do something stupid the entire time. We'll stop on the mezzanine, get our stuff, then get cleaned up. There must have been a hundred babies on my plane over, IsweartoGod. They took it in shifts to scream, shit, and puke, though. Never fewer than ten of them screaming at a time.»
We stopped on the mezzanine, collected our badges and programs. «Don't forget to sign up for the ghost walk,» said the smiling woman behind the table. «Ghost walks of Old New Orleans each night, limited to fifteen people in each party, so sign up fast.»
I bathed, and washed my clothes out in the basin, then hung them up in the bathroom to dry.
I sat naked on the bed, and examined the papers that had been in Anderton's briefcase. I skimmed through the paper he had intended to present, without taking in the content.
On the clean back of page five he had written, in a tight, mostly legible scrawl, In a perfect perfect world you could fuck people without giving them a piece of your heart. And every glittering kiss and every touch of flesh is another shard of heart you'll never see again. Until walking (waking? calling?) on your own is unsupportable.
When my clothes were pretty much dry I put them back on and went down to the lobby bar. Campbell was already there. He was drinking a gin and tonic, with a gin and tonic on the side.
He had out a copy of the conference program, and had circled each of the talks and papers he wanted to see. («Rule one, if it's before midday, fuck it unless you're the one doing it,» he explained.) He showed me my talk, circled in pencil.
«I've never done this before,» I told him. «Presented a paper at a conference.»
«It's a piece of piss, Jackson,» he said. «Piece of piss. You know what I do?»
«No,» I said.
«I just get up and read the paper. Then people ask questions, and I just bullshit,» he said. «Actively bullshit, as opposed to passively. That's the best bit. Just bullshitting. Piece of utter piss.»
«I'm not really good at, um, bullshitting,» I said. «Too honest.»
«Then nod, and tell them that that's a really perceptive question, and that it's addressed at length in the longer version of the paper, of which the one you are reading is an edited abstract. If you get some nut job giving you a really difficult time about something you got wrong, just get huffy and say that it's not about what's fashionable to believe, it's about the truth.»
«Does that work?»
«Christ yes. I gave a paper a few years back about the origins of the Thuggee sects in Persian military troops. It's why you could get Hindus and Muslims equally becoming Thuggee, you see—the Kali worship was tacked on later. It would have begun as some sort of Manichaean secret society—«
«Still spouting that nonsense?» She was a tall, pale woman with a shock of white hair, wearing clothes that looked both aggressively, studiedly Bohemian and far too warm for the climate. I could imagine her riding a bicycle, the kind with a wicker basket in the front.
«Spouting it? I'm writing a fucking book about it,» said the Englishman. «So, what I want to know is, who's coming with me to the French Quarter to taste all that New Orleans can offer?»
«I'll pass,» said the woman, unsmiling. «Who's your friend?»
«This is Jackson Anderton, from Hopewell College.»
«The Zombie Coffee Girls paper?» She smiled. «I saw it in the program. Quite fascinating. Yet another thing we owe Zora, eh?»
«Along with The Great Gatsby» I said.
«Hurston knew F. Scott Fitzgerald?» said the bicycle woman. «I did not know that. We forget how small the New York literary world was back then, and how the color bar was often lifted for a genius.»
The Englishman snorted. «Lifted? Only under sufferance. The woman died in penury as a cleaner in Florida. Nobody knew she'd written any of the stuff she wrote, let alone that she'd worked with Fitzgerald on The Great Gatsby. It's pathetic, Margaret.»
«Posterity has a way of taking these things into account,» said the tall woman. She walked away.
Campbell stared after her. «When I grow up,» he said, «I want to be her.»
He looked at me. «Yeah, that's the attitude. You're right. Some of us write the best-sellers; some of us read them. Some of us get the prizes; some of us don't. What's important is being human, isn't it? It's how good a person you are. Being alive.»
He patted me on the arm.
«Come on. Interesting anthropological phenomenon I've read about on the Internet I shall point out to you tonight, of the kind you probably don't see back in Dead Rat, Kentucky. Id est, women who would, under normal circumstances, not show their tits for a hundred quid, who will be only too pleased to get 'em out for the crowd for some cheap plastic beads.»
«Universal trading medium,» I said. «Beads.»
«Fuck,» he said. «There's a paper in that. Come on. You ever had a Jell-O shot, Jackson?»
«Me neither. Bet they'll be disgusting. Let's go and see.»
We paid for our drinks. I had to remind him to tip.
«By the way,» I said. «F. Scott Fitzgerald. What was his wife's name?»
«Zelda? What about her?»
«Nothing,» I said.
Zelda. Zora. Whatever. We went out.