Thursday, April 30, 2009
Here's another piece of the novel i've been working on. Look up tag 'crescent city blues' for earlier ones.
The sun was not even out yet, though the sky was growing lighter in the east, beginning the shameful undressing of secrets the night tried to keep but never could. The streets of Downstairs were shiny with dew and God knows what else, dotted with empty cups and the occasional lumpy pancake of vomit. Despite the early hour, a small crowd had already gathered around the mouth of the carriageway, straining to see what the fuss was about.
It wasn’t always easy to tell which denizens of Downstairs--or Upstairs for that matter--were the early risers, and which ones had been up all night. A certain wobbliness was to be expected from most people who visited the city, and for many, the night’s adventures in seeking out the bottom of a glass blended right into the next day’s.
As Officer Nate DuChamps stood just inside the yellow crime scene tape, he tried in vain to peek at what the crime scene investigators were doing at the other end of the tunnel without looking like he was doing so. Simultaneously he was trying to keep an eye on the growing crowd of rubberneckers that was gathering outside the tape.
“What’s going on down there, boss?” said a female voice that materialized next to him.
Nate winced as he glanced down through the near-palpable cloud the small woman exhaled, a fetid stew of cheap cigarettes and many, many hours of cheap beer.
“You just never mind about that, Mo,” said Nate. “They got them a crime scene to investigate, and they don’t need you getting in the way.”
“Nathaniel DuChamps! How I’m getting in the way? I just asked you a question,” she replied, feigning affront as she peered up at him owlishly through her huge glasses.
Maureen was one of those French Quarter fixtures from way back, a product of the Irish Channel--like Nate’s own family--and a survivor of the floods who had probably never even considered leaving, even when things were at their worst. She was a tiny, dried-up woman, like a rip of beef jerky sporting thick glasses that might have been fashionable at some far-off time in the last century. Today they bore as many scratches as they did clear glass. It might even have been the same pair Nate remembered her wearing when she used to keep an eye on the neighborhood kids. They said she had been a nun in some far-off past, although these days she seemed to prefer being married to beer than to Jesus.
She still had a trace of steel in her voice when she wanted, though, a tone that could only come from someone who had once been charged with keeping many unruly kids in line.
“Just...you know, sorry, Miz Maureen, but you gotta stay back and let us do our jobs here,” Nate said.
Maureen snorted. “Looks to me like you doing the same job I am--watching. Come on, Nate, you know me. Just tell me what’s going on. Is they dead people down there?”
“Yeah, they’s people down there,” he said, warming up to the idea of being the one with inside information. “And they dead, all right. I found ‘em. Three kids. Well, I thought it was three when I first went down there...the light ain’t so good, so I musta been wrong... They’s two of ‘em. A boy and girl.”
“Aw, that’s so sad,” Maureen said, taking a sip from her plastic cup of beer. “Was they robbed, you think?”
“I don’t know, Mo,” he said. “I can’t really talk about it...”
Maureen just looked off in the distance and waited, patiently sipping from her cup.
It took about fifteen seconds before Nate broke down. It was just too big a discovery, the biggest crime scene he had ever personally come across; he was bursting to share it with someone besides other cops, who always acted unimpressed with everything.
“So, yeah, I’m on early morning Downstairs patrols now, I have been for a while, since...well, for a while,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, but still speaking loud enough for nearby onlookers to hear. “And I walk past--”
“Aw, sweetie, they got you walking around down here? In the dark? That ain’t right,” Maureen said.
“Naw, it’s okay,” he said. “We got training and stuff. So I’m walking past this carriageway--”
“How long they keeping you down here, babe?”
“It’s all right, I’m telling you, I don’t mind,” he said. “So I’m walking past and--”
“Does your momma know they doin’ that to you?”
“Mizz Mo, do you wanna hear this or not?” Nate said with rising exasperation. “So I walk past and I see something down the tunnel there, looks like a pile of laundry or something. I figured it was prolly someone sleeping one off, but I go down there to investigate, right, and lo and behold--”
“You got the crowd-control situation in hand, there, DuChamps?” boomed out a voice right behind Nate. He tried his best not to jump, but his partner Pete’s voice was like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“Yeah, Pete,” Nate said quickly. “I was just...seeing if there were any witnesses...”
“Yeah? You ask them if they seen any ghosts too?” Pete sneered. He was a beefy man, a classic cop in many ways, all bluster and boast, and a guy who truly enjoyed having power over other people. Currently he was one of Nate’s primary tormenters at the precinct.
“I didn’t see no ghosts, MacIntyre,” Nate sighed. “The light down there--it’s really dim, you know? I thought--”
“Yeah, well, you called in three bodies, and by the time I got down here they was only two. So you musta seen a ghost, I figure. I figure you got scared shitless,” Pete said, laughing.
Maureen looked up sharply at the big man when she heard him curse so casually, but Pete didn’t notice her.
“Anyways, them crime scene guys wanta ask you a couple more questions,” Pete continued. “I don’t know why they’d wanta talk to you, seeing as how you got the heebie-jeebies so bad. I’ll handle the perimeter. Let’s move on back people--”
“Sure Pete, I’ll go see what they want,” Nate said. “See ya later, Mizz Maureen.”
As Nate looked back over his shoulder, he saw the tiny woman staring straight up at Pete, unmoving on the other side of the crime scene tape. Pete towered above her by at least a foot, but she was unfazed.
“Ain’t you little Petey MacIntyre?” she asked, too loudly.
“Well, it’s Officer MacIntyre now...”
“Sure, yeah, I know you. You that boy used to try to get the all the little girls to show you they panties, ain’t that right?” Maureen said.
“N--no,” the giant man said, suddenly reduced from an intimidating 6’4 cop to a naughty six-year-old shuffling his feet.
“Sure you are! Your daddy had that little samwich shop down by Napoleon Street--”
As Nate trotted down the corridor, he couldn’t help smiling to himself: if Pete had been out on patrol with him like he was supposed to, instead of cribbing at his girlfriend’s, he could answer the crime scene guys himself instead of dealing with Mo’s too-personal queries.
Mac was a bully. It was a game that cops liked to play with their own if there weren’t any criminals nearby to push around, a game that almost came to them subconsciously. If you asked virtually anyone who joined the force, they would tell you they wanted to protect and serve, that they wanted to keep the streets safe. Perhaps, if they were feeling a tad self-righteous, they would even say they had a highly attuned sense of justice.
But despite all the high-minded rhetoric, Nate knew in his heart of hearts that many--not all, but many--of his co-workers had joined up simply because they were bullies. They liked the strength that the uniform and the badge conferred onto them, they liked the power they felt from carrying a gun--and more importantly, they liked pushing people around.
Bullies have an unerring radar that allows them to pick out the weakest person around. They are drawn to the weak like wolves sensing a baby caribou with a pronounced limp. That was the atmosphere at the precinct where Nate worked, and Pete tried hard to be the alpha wolf.
Nate was thoughtful--he knew he wasn’t terribly bright, but he was thoughtful. And he was more sensitive than the typical cop, especially since his fiancée had jumped off the train on their way to Orlando three years back. The others took his sensitivity for weakness.
Plus he looked soft. He had no chin to speak of, and an accompanying overbite that pushed his already prognathous lips out even further. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
He was just an oddly-shaped man, and it was most apparent when he was working. They simply could not find a uniform to correctly fit his peculiar, pear-shaped body. It wasn’t that he was fat, exactly. The uniform-makers knew what to do with that. There were plenty of fat cops around--especially in New Orleans. But Nate wasn’t fat, or at least he wasn’t fat everywhere. On some regions of his abundant carcass, the scratchy material clung to him like so much blue vinyl; in other places, it clumped and sagged and drooped oddly.
More than anything, Nate looked like a water balloon that had been squeezed around the top and bottom, sending all the fluid to his squishy waist. His uniform shirt was billowy and loose around his pigeon chest; his thin upper arms flapped like near-meatless chicken wings inside his shirt. Above his narrow shoulders, the too-wide collar threatened to swallow his tiny head. But the very same uniform shirt that fluttered and sagged droopily above adhered around his middle section tightly, stretching the fabric open between the overstrained buttons. Around the middle he was wrapped snug and taut as a blue sausage casing crossed with a black belt, riding ridiculously high around his upper abdomen.
To further add to the indignity of his appearance, Nate also had long, skinny legs for someone of his height. The result was that, as he trotted down the carriageway clutching his night stick and pistol to his sides, Nate looked rather like a waddling double-hamburger that had been stuck on a spindle and dipped in blue paint. He was Mayor McCheese, only with his burger-head at his waist rather than on top.
His saving grace, appearance-wise, was that he had tremendous hair.
Hair that was astonishing, breathtaking and mind-numbing in its dark, shining, lustrous beauty. When Nate passed by in the street, balding businessmen ceased yammering inanities into their cell phones, the stunted idiot-language of buy and sell grown thankfully dim as they stared at his scalp in open jealousy and follicle lust. Drag queens screeched and clawed one another for a chance to flirt with Nate and run their greedy fingers through his coiffure. Packs of genuine women huddled together and assessed him covertly, as though he were a lunch combo, debating in fierce whispered tones whether the hair might be a valuable enough selling point so as to make purchasing the rest of the package worthwhile.
The answer was inevitably ‘no,’ but it always took a summit of the highest echelons of femaleness to reach that conclusion: Yes, it’s true, you get the eggroll and soup with that, but for your entree you only got to choose from the moo goo gai pan and that weird-looking orange chicken stuff. And both of those looked like they’d been under the heat lamp for quite some time.
All of this went on around Nate, but he was mostly oblivious to it. He knew he had nice hair, of course; he often peeked at himself in shop windows as he passed, at the rich swirls of dark brown waves that sat piled atop his tiny head like a shiny cloud. The luxuriant curls that rested upon his skull would have been the stuff of legend had they sprouted from some more fortunate soul, appearance-wise.
At least his hair drew attention away from the rest of him.
“Nature got a way of evening things out, babe,” his mother had often crooned to him when he was small, running her fingers through his locks as he lay his head in her lap. “You’ll find you some woman who loves your hair as much as I do, my baby boy. You’ll see.”
He was about 10 before he finally realized that she hadn’t said, ‘…some woman who loves you,’ but rather, ‘…some woman who loves your hair…’