«Nothing, like something, happens anywhere»
Midnight, give or take. We were in a bar on Bourbon Street, me and the English anthropology prof, and he started buying drinks—real drinks, this place didn't do Jell-O shots—for a couple of dark-haired women at the bar. They looked so similar they might have been sisters. One wore a red ribbon in her hair; the other wore a white ribbon. Gauguin might have painted them, only he would have painted them bare-breasted, and without the silver mouse-skull earrings. They laughed a lot.
We had seen a small party of academics walk past the bar at one point, being led by a guide with a black umbrella. I pointed them out to Campbell.
The woman with the red ribbon raised an eyebrow. «They go on the Haunted History tours, looking for ghosts. You want to say, 'Dude, this is where the ghosts come; this is where the dead stay.' Easier to go looking for the living.»
«You saying the tourists are alive?» said the other, mock concern on her face.
«When they get here,» said the first, and they both laughed at that.
They laughed a lot.
The one with the white ribbon laughed at everything Campbell said. She would tell him, «Say 'fuck' again,» and he would say it, and she would say «Fook! Fook!» trying to copy him. And he'd say, «It's not fook, it's fuck,» and she couldn't hear the difference, and would laugh some more.
After two drinks, maybe three, he took her by the hand and walked her into the back of the bar, where music was playing, and it was dark, and there were a couple of people already, if not dancing, then moving against each other.
I stayed where I was, beside the woman with the red ribbon in her hair.
She said, «So you're in the record company too?»
I nodded. It was what Campbell had told them we did. «I hate telling people I'm a fucking academic,» he had said reasonably, when they were in the ladies' room. Instead he had told them that he had discovered Oasis.
«How about you? What do you do in the world?»
She said, «I'm a priestess of Santeria. Me, I got it all in my blood; my papa was Brazilian, my momma was Irish-Cherokee. In Brazil, everybody makes love with everybody and they have the best little brown babies. Everybody got black slave blood; everybody got Indian blood; my poppa even got some Japanese blood. His brother, my uncle, he looks Japanese. My poppa, he just a good-looking man. People think it was my poppa I got the Santeria from, but no, it was my grandmomma—said she was Cherokee, but I had her figgered for mostly high yaller when I saw the old photographs. When I was three I was talking to dead folks. When I was five I watched a huge black dog, size of a Harley-Davidson, walking behind a man in the street; no one could see it but me. When I told my mom, she told my grandmomma, they said, 'She's got to know; she's got to learn.' There was people to teach me, even as a little girl.
«I was never afraid of dead folk. You know that? They never hurt you. So many things in this town can hurt you, but the dead don't hurt you. Living people hurt you. They hurt you so bad.»
«This is a town where people sleep with each other, you know. We make love to each other. It's something we do to show we're still alive.»
I wondered if this was a come-on. It did not seem to be.
She said, «You hungry?»
«A little,» I said.
She said, «I know a place near here they got the best bowl of gumbo in New Orleans. Come on.»
I said, «I hear it's a town where you're best off not walking on your own at night.»
«That's right,» she said. «But you'll have me with you. You're safe, with me with you.»
Out on the street, college girls were flashing their breasts to the crowds on the balconies. For every glimpse of nipple the onlookers would cheer and throw plastic beads. I had known the red-ribbon woman's name earlier in the evening, but now it had evaporated.
«Used to be they only did this shit at Mardi Gras,» she said. «Now the tourists expect it, so it's just tourists doing it for the tourists. The locals don't care. When you need to piss,» she added, «you tell me.»
«Because most tourists who get rolled, get rolled when they go into the alleys to relieve themselves. Wake up an hour later in Pirates' Alley with a sore head and an empty wallet.»
«I'll bear that in mind.»
She pointed to an alley as we passed it, foggy and deserted. «Don't go there,» she said.
The place we wound up in was a bar with tables. A TV on above the bar showed The Tonight Show with the sound off and subtitles on, although the subtitles kept scrambling into numbers and fractions. We ordered the gumbo, a bowl each.
I was expecting more from the best gumbo in New Orleans. It was almost tasteless. Still, I spooned it down, knowing that I needed food, that I had had nothing to eat that day.
Three men came into the bar. One sidled; one strutted; one shambled. The sidler was dressed like a Victorian undertaker, high top hat and all. His skin was fish-belly pale; his hair was long and stringy; his beard was long and threaded with silver beads. The strutter was dressed in a long black leather coat, dark clothes underneath. His skin was very black. The last one, the shambler, hung back, waiting by the door. I could not see much of his face, nor decode his race: what I could see of his skin was a dirty gray. His lank hair hung over his face. He made my skin crawl.
The first two men made straight to our table, and I was, momentarily, scared for my skin, but they paid no attention to me. They looked at the woman with the red ribbon, and both of the men kissed her on the cheek. They asked about friends they had not seen, about who did what to whom in which bar and why. They reminded me of the fox and the cat from Pinocchio.
«What happened to your pretty girlfriend?» the woman asked the black man.
He smiled, without humor. «She put a squirrel tail on my family tomb.»
She pursed her lips. «Then you better off without her.»
«That's what I say.»
I glanced over at the one who gave me the creeps. He was a filthy thing, junkie thin, gray-lipped. His eyes were downcast. He barely moved. I wondered what the three men were doing together: the fox and the cat and the ghost.
Then the white man took the woman's hand and pressed it to his lips, bowed to her, raised a hand to me in a mock salute, and the three of them were gone.
«Friends of yours?»
«Bad people,» she said. «Macumba. Not friends of anybody.»
«What was up with the guy by the door? Is he sick?»
She hesitated; then she shook her head. «Not really. I'll tell you when you're ready.»
«Tell me now.»
On the TV, Jay Leno was talking to a thin blond woman, it's not just the movie, said the caption. so have you seen the action figure? He picked up a small toy from his desk, pretended to check under its skirt to make sure it was anatomically correct, note 1, said the caption.
She finished her bowl of gumbo, licked the spoon with a red, red tongue, and put it down in the bowl. «A lot of kids they come to New Orleans. Some of them read Anne Rice books and figure they learn about being vampires here. Some of them have abusive parents; some are just bored. Like stray kittens living in drains, they come here. They found a whole new breed of cat living in a drain in New Orleans, you know that?»
slaughter s ] said the caption, but Jay was still grinning, and The Tonight Show went to a car commercial.
«He was one of the street kids, only he had a place to crash at night. Good kid. Hitchhiked from LA to New Orleans. Wanted to be left alone to smoke a little weed, listen to his Doors cassettes, study up on chaos magick and read the complete works of Aleister Crowley. Also get his dick sucked. He wasn't particular about who did it. Bright eyes and bushy tail.»
«Hey,» I said. «That was Campbell. Going past. Out there.»
«The record producer?» She smiled as she said it, and I thought, She knows. She knows he was lying. She knows what he is.
I put down a twenty and a ten on the table, and we went out onto the street, to find him, but he was already gone. «I thought he was with your sister,» I told her.
«No sister,» she said. «No sister. Only me. Only me.»
We turned a comer and were engulfed by a crowd of noisy tourists, like a sudden breaker crashing onto the shore. Then, as fast as they had come, they were gone, leaving only a handful of people behind them. A teenaged girl was throwing up in a gutter, a young man nervously standing near her, holding her purse and a plastic cup half-full of booze.
The woman with the red ribbon in her hair was gone. I wished I had made a note of her name, or the name of the bar in which I'd met her.
I had intended to leave that night, to take the interstate west to Houston and from there to Mexico, but I was tired and two-thirds drunk, and instead I went back to my room. When the morning came I was still in the Marriott. Everything I had worn the night before smelled of perfume and rot.
I put on my T-shirt and pants, went down to the hotel gift shop, picked out a couple more T-shirts and a pair of shorts. The tall woman, the one without the bicycle, was in there, buying some Alka-Seltzer.
She said, «They've moved your presentation. It's now in the Audubon Room, in about twenty minutes. You might want to clean your teeth first. Your best friends won't tell you, but I hardly know you, Mister Anderton, so I don't mind telling you at all.»
I added a traveling toothbrush and toothpaste to the stuff I was buying. Adding to my possessions, though, troubled me. I felt I should be shedding them. I needed to be transparent, to have nothing.
I went up to the room, cleaned my teeth, put on the jazz festival T-shirt. And then, because I had no choice in the matter; or because I was doomed to confer, consult, and otherwise hobnob; or because I was pretty certain Campbell would be in the audience and I wanted to say good-bye to him before I drove away, I picked up the typescript and went down to the Audubon Room, where fifteen people were waiting. Campbell was not one of them.
I was not scared. I said hello, and I looked at the top of page one.
It began with another quote from Zora Neale Hurston:
Big Zombies who come in the night to do malice are talked about. Also the little girl Zombies who are sent out by their owners in the dark dawn to sell little packets of roasted coffee. Before sun-up their cries of «Caf'e grill'e« can be heard from dark places in the streets and one can only see them if one calls out for the seller to come with the goods. Then the little dead one makes herself visible and mounts the steps.
Anderton continued on from there, with quotations from Hurston's contemporaries and several extracts from old interviews with older Haitians, the man's paper leaping, as far as I was able to tell, from conclusion to conclusion, spinning fancies into guesses and suppositions and weaving those into facts.
Halfway through, Margaret, the tall woman without the bicycle, came in and simply stared at me. I thought, She knows I'm not him. She knows. I kept reading though. What else could I do? At the end, I asked for questions.
Somebody asked me about Zora Neale Hurston's research practices. I said that was a very good question, which was addressed at greater length in the finished paper, of which what I had read was essentially an edited abstract.
Someone else—a short, plump woman—stood up and announced that the zombie girls could not have existed: zombie drugs and powders numbed you, induced deathlike trances, but still worked fundamentally on belief—the belief that you were now one of the dead, and had no will of your own. How, she asked, could a child of four or five be induced to believe such a thing? No. The coffee girls were, she said, one with the Indian rope trick, just another of the urban legends of the past.
Personally I agreed with her, but I nodded and said that her points were well made and well taken, and that from my perspective—which was, I hoped, a genuinely anthropological perspective—what mattered was not whether it was easy to believe, but, much more importantly, if it was the truth.
They applauded, and afterward a man with a beard asked me whether he might be able to get a copy of the paper for a journal he edited. It occurred to me that it was a good thing that I had come to New Orleans, that Anderton's career would not be harmed by his absence from the conference.
The plump woman, whose badge said her name was Shanelle Gravely-King, was waiting for me at the door. She said, «I really enjoyed that. I don't want you to think that I didn't.»
Campbell didn't turn up for his presentation. Nobody ever saw him again.
Margaret introduced me to someone from New York and mentioned that Zora Neale Hurston had worked on The Great Gatsby. The man said yes, that was pretty common knowledge these days. I wondered if she had called the police, but she seemed friendly enough. I was starting to stress, I realized. I wished I had not thrown away my cell phone.
Shanelle Gravely-King and I had an early dinner in the hotel, at the beginning of which I said, «Oh, let's not talk shop.» And she agreed that only the very dull talked shop at the table, so we talked about rock bands we had seen live, fictional methods of slowing the decomposition of a human body, and about her partner, who was a woman older than she was and who owned a restaurant, and then we went up to my room. She smelled of baby powder and jasmine, and her naked skin was clammy against mine.
Over the next couple of hours I used two of the three condoms. She was sleeping by the time I returned from the bathroom, and I climbed into the bed next to her. I thought about the words Anderton had written, hand-scrawled on the back of a page of the typescript, and I wanted to check them, but I fell asleep, a soft-fleshed jasmine-scented woman pressing close to me.
After midnight, I woke from a dream, and a woman's voice was whispering in the darkness.
She said, «So he came into town, with his Doors cassettes and his Crowley books, and his handwritten list of the secret URLs for chaos magick on the Web, and everything was good. He even got a few disciples, runaways like him, and he got his dick sucked whenever he wanted, and the world was good.
«And then he started to believe his own press. He thought he was the real thing. That he was the dude. He thought he was a big mean tiger-cat, not a little kitten. So he dug up . . . something . . . someone else wanted.
«He thought the something he dug up would look after him. Silly boy. And that night, he's sitting in Jackson Square, talking to the Tarot readers, telling them about Jim Morrison and the cabala, and someone taps him on the shoulder, and he turns, and someone blows powder into his face, and he breathes it in.
«Not all of it. And he is going to do something about it, when he realizes there's nothing to be done, because he's all paralyzed. There's fugu fish and toad skin and ground bone and everything else in that powder, and he's breathed it in.
«They take him down to emergency, where they don't do much for him, figuring him for a street rat with a drug problem, and by the next day he can move again, although it's two, three days until he can speak.
«Trouble is, he needs it. He wants it. He knows there's some big secret in the zombie powder, and he was almost there. Some people say they mixed heroin with it, some shit like that, but they didn't even need to do that. He wants it.
«And they told him they wouldn't sell it to him. But if he did jobs for them, they'd give him a little zombie powder, to smoke, to sniff, to rub on his gums, to swallow. Sometimes they'd give him nasty jobs to do no one else wanted. Sometimes they'd just humiliate him because they could—make him eat dog shit from the gutter, maybe. Kill for them, maybe. Anything but die. All skin and bones. He'd do anything for his zombie powder.
«And he still thinks, in the little bit of his head that's still him, that he's not a zombie. That he's not dead, that there's a threshold he hasn't stepped over. But he crossed it long time ago.»
I reached out a hand, and touched her. Her body was hard, and slim, and lithe, and her breasts felt like breasts that Gauguin might have painted. Her mouth, in the darkness, was soft and warm against mine.
People come into your life for a reason.