The New York Times Book Review.
Bluebottle: A Lew Griffin Mysteryby James Sallis, G. Valmont Thomas
As Lew Griffin leaves a New Orleans music club with an older white woman he's just met, someone fires a shot and Lew goes down. When he comes fully to, Griffin discovers that most of a year has gone by since that night. What happened? Who was the woman? Which of them was the target? Who was the sniper? Somewhere in the Crescent City - and in the white supremacist… See more details below
As Lew Griffin leaves a New Orleans music club with an older white woman he's just met, someone fires a shot and Lew goes down. When he comes fully to, Griffin discovers that most of a year has gone by since that night. What happened? Who was the woman? Which of them was the target? Who was the sniper? Somewhere in the Crescent City - and in the white supremacist movement crawling through it - there's an answer to the questions left by that shot that echoed through the night. But to get it, Griffin is going to have to work with the only people offering help, people he knows he should avoid: allies if he can trust them, and worse trouble for him if he can't.
The New York Times Book Review.
Read an Excerpt
Be still, sir--" Her head turned away. "Anyone get his name?"
From across the room: "Lewis Griffin."
"Be still, Mr. Griffin. Please. Work with us here. We know the pain's bad."
I formed a slurry of words that failed to make it from mind to tongue, then tried again, something simpler: "Yes." When I was a kid we'd practice doo-wop songs in the tile bathroom at school. That's what my voice sounded like.
"I can give you something to help." She spoke across me, someone at the other side of the gurney. Gobbledy, gobbledy, fifty milligobbles.
"There. Should start easing off pretty quickly.... Better?"
"Mmm." Was it? My voice feathery now, floating. Not that the pain had gone away or diminished, but I didn't care anymore. I turned my head. Sideways room the size of a dancehall. Glare everywhere. Someone on the next stretcher was dying with great ceremony and clamor, half a dozen staff in attendance. I saw tears running down one nurse's face. She looked to be in her early twenties.
"You've been shot, Mr. Griffin. We can't be sure just how serious it is, not yet. Bear with us. Can you feel this?"
Something ran up the sole of my right foot, then the left.
Pinpricks on both hands. First one, a pause, then two, like Morse. A tattoo, drummers would call it. Tattoo needles. Queequeg. Fiji islanders. Gauguin in Tahiti, those brown bodies. Tattoo of rain on the roof.
"I asked could you feel that."
"Yes ma'am." But I felt a tug towards something else, something other--body and mind borne on separate tides, about to wash up on separate shores.
"Super. Okay, Jody, let's get blood work. ABG, SMAC, type and crossmatch from the way it's looking. X-ray's on the way, right?"
"So they tell us."
Meanwhile connections between myself and the world were faltering, as though tiny men with hatchets hacked away at cables linking us, cables that carried information, images, energy, power. The world, what I could see of it, had contracted to a round tunnel, through which I sighted. On the rim, just out of sight, images sparked and fell away into darkness. Beautiful in the way only lost things can be. Then darkness closed its hand.
She leaned close.
"Music. There, behind all the rest." Like the sound of your body coming up around you deep in the night, creaking floorboards, snap and buzz of current within walls, this singing in wires a house, a body, requires.
Nietzsche said that without music life would be a mistake. Danny Barker breathed it in and out like air. Or Buddy Bolden: carried through slaughter to cut hair at the state hospital, remembering all his life how once he'd banged the bell of his horn on the floor and got the whole town's attention. Walter Pater.
"He's hearing the Muzak overhead," someone said.
What all art aspires to, the condition of.
"That's an old Lonnie Johnson tune," I told them.
"I can't see," I said.
Suddenly she was close again and I smelled her breath, tatters of perfume and sweat, suggestion of menstrual blood, as she leaned above me.
"Tell me when you see the light, when it goes away." As the world has done. "Mr. Griffin?"
I shook my head. "Sorry."
"Jody, I want a CAT scan. Now. Radiology tries stalling, anyone up there even clears his throat, you let me know."
World rendered down to sound, sensation. Rebuild it from this, what will I get? Fine word, render, bursting at the seams. Render unto Caesar. A court chef reports: forty choice hams for rendering to stock. Deliver, give up, hand down judgment, restore. Reproduce or represent by artistic or verbal means.
A Cajun waltz with seesaw accordion replaced Lonnie Johnson overhead. Tug of the stretcher's plastic against my skin, slow burn at the back of my hand where there's a needle and drugs course in. Coppery smell of fresh blood. Layers of voices trailing off into the distance. New horizons everywhere.
Now with a lurch brakes are kicked off and we're barreling headfirst, headlong. Past patchworks of conversations, faces above, curious sounds. Through automatic doors that snap open like a soldier's salute, along hallways smelling of disinfectant, onto an elevator.
I think of Emily Dickinson's "Before I had my eye put out." Remember both Blind Willies, Blind Lemon, Riley Puckett. Maybe they'll teach me to play.
Wonder if Milton's waiting down there to give me a few tips. Friends call him Jack, wife and daughters attend his every need.
I was trying to read a book but the damned thing kept talking to me, interrupting. Don't turn this page, it would say. Or: You don't have any idea what this is all about, where I'm going with this, do you. Gotcha. You don't know the real me at all. Look, no hands!
One hand, at least.
It rested lightly on my shoulder.
"Just like home, huh, Lew. Sound asleep at three in the afternoon."
I started to grunt, but it hurt so much I didn't carry through. Those same little men who'd hacked through the cables connecting world and self had sneaked in while I slept and glued my tongue to the top of my mouth. It came loose, finally, with a tearing sound.
"You started smoking again. Pizza for lunch. Laundry's piling up."
Holmes had nothing on me. Other senses more acute and all that.
"Amazing. Absolutely amazing."
I knew he'd be shaking his head.
"Only the smell's soaked up from the department, which you'll remember is pretty much an ashtray fitted with desks and file cabinets. Pizza, right--but for breakfast, not lunch. Been in the fridge awhile. I think the green was peppers."
"Keep the faith."
"Not to mention the leftovers. Exactly. And I'm wearing new pants because my old ones don't fit anymore. I finally broke down, bought new ones."
Four or five pair all the same, if I knew Don. He shopped (an event taking place every decade or so) the way frontiersmen laid in provisions. Staples. In quantity.
"They've got that smell they always have. Cleaning fluids or whatever."
"Yeah, guess they do."
"You could always wash them first."
"Before I wear them?" His tone sprinkled salts of incredulity over the concept. File with Flat Earth, maybe. Or the wit and wisdom of Richard Nixon. "I don't know, Lew. Way too much time sitting behind a desk filling out paperwork, humping the phone. Ever since I came off patrol and started wearing these monkey suits. I see the street, it's out the window, like some painting, you know? Hanging on the wall. Hung up there myself."
I heard him sink into the chair alongside. One chair leg was short. He eased his weight off and moved the chair around, trying for better topography.
"So how you doing?"
"Hell if I know. Have to ask the experts."
"I did. Just came from a long talk with Dr. Shih. She's pretty sure the blindness is temporary. Happens sometimes with major trauma, she says. They don't know why."
She proved to be right. In following weeks sight returned by increments. Veil after veil fell away. Light swelled slowly till I was aware of its presence. Then light became motion, mass, outline, form--at last shaped itself again into the world I knew, or something close enough.
"You remember my being here before?"
I shook my head.
"I've been by every day. It's Thursday. You were brought in over a week ago. We've had conversations, some of them truly strange. One time you went on for better than an hour about Roshomon and Ahab's gold sovereign. Then you had to tell me about some book called Skull Meat. Plot, characters, what the neighborhood looked like. Set over in Algiers. Couldn't tell whether you were supposed to have read it or written it, that kind of wobbled back and forth. Told me the book's hero finally got fed up with the whole thing and walked out--right off the page. Now that's a real hero, you said."
"Must be the drugs they were giving me."
"Yeah. Must be."
"The part about the character stalking off's stolen from Queneau, of course."
Don shifted again in his chair. Any moment, things can fall on you, disappear from under you. What you hope, all you hope, is that the seat you're on just now's a safe one.
"Shih asked me about your drinking, Lew. Halfway through the operation you started waking up from the anesthetic. Shih says people only do that when their bodies are accustomed to high levels of depressives."
A bird alit (I guessed from the sound) on the sill outside, then with a sudden whir of wings was gone. Shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure of the windowpane.
"I know it's been bad. Maybe some of it has to do with what happened up there in Baton Rouge. God knows what else. Maybe it's worse than either of us thought. Maybe someday we oughta sit down and talk about it."
We were quiet for a time then.
"LaVerne's been here too, you know, two, three times a day."
Sudden aromatic assault as he took the lid off a cup of cafe au lait.
"One for you," holding it out, waiting as my hand groped and made contact. I pushed up in bed, against the headboard. Heard him peel the lid off another cup. He blew across its mouth. The smell grew stronger.
"Shih says you shouldn't worry over the gaps for now. That some memories may come back in distorted form or not at all, but that most will come back, and for the most part whole."
There were memories, parts of my life, I wouldn't have minded losing, even back then. Don knew that's what I was thinking.
"Sure she is. Worried about you, like the rest of us."
We were quiet again. I imagined Don looking off the way he did, watching nothing in particular.
"You remember what happened, Lew?"
I shook my head. "Pieces. Fragments that don't fit together. Images. Some of what I do remember seems more like a dream than anything real."
"You met a woman in a bar downtown, said she was a journalist."
Random moments surfaced. Denim skirt, silk jacket. One eye peering at me through a glass of Scotch. Glass none too clean and Scotch raw as rubbing alcohol: that kind of bar.
"You stayed there just over three hours. Buster Robinson was playing. Lady's got a taste for the music, it seems. Taste for something, anyway. Last month or so, she'd made herself a regular down there along Poydras."
"But not before."
"So far as we can tell, nobody ever saw her before that. Nor will any newspaper for a hundred miles around lay claim to her."
We sipped cafe au lait.
"Between you you threw back close to thirty dollars' worth. She tried to put it on American Express and they just looked at her. Get serious, you know? Wound up giving them a fifty and said keep the change."
"Wanted to make sure she was remembered."
"As though a white woman down there wouldn't be already, yeah. The two of you left together then, most likely to get something to eat. Barmaid heard you talking about Ye Olde College Inn and Dunbar's. The name Eddie B. also came up a couple of times, she says. You told this Esmay woman you had to make one quick stop first."
"I was meeting Eddie Bone."
"That's how we figure it."
"Why would I do that? No one looks for Eddie Bone."
"Yeah, people've been known to leave town to avoid looking for him."
Holding the cup two-handed, I dropped an index finger to measure liquid level, brought the cup to my face, cautiously sipped.
"Give it time, Lew. You're just gonna have to pull back here all around, give things room to happen."
"And hope they do."
He must have nodded, then caught himself. "Yeah," he said.
"You'd barely stepped outside when the shots came. Couple of kids from the cleaners next door were in the alley out back on a break, passing joints and a bottle of George Dickel back and forth. They tell us you two came out the front door and stood there a minute talking, then you stepped around and embraced her. One of them remembers saying Now that's something you ain't gonna see uptown and handing the bottle over. Then the shots came. Guy reaching for the bottle dropped it."
I sipped coffee again. Sartre's got this long rap in Being and Nothingness about smoking in the dark, how different the experience becomes. In my own dark now, I was forced to admit this was one time he seemed to be onto something. Ordinary coffee, the drinking of it, had become a kind of sacrament. Visual clues missing, true. Sartre pointed out one's inability to see the smoke, to observe one's own breath course in and out. But whatever the loss, there was greater gain: the physical world, its smells, its heats and anticipations, fell upon you with unsuspected intensity.
"The shots were meant for her," I said.
Don's chair creaked.
"It's a possibility we've considered."
Finishing my coffee, I set the cup on the bedside table and heard Don's empty cup click down beside it. A group of visitors or new employees passed as though on tour at a museum in the hall outside. A young man with a voice like a rapidly dripping faucet guided them, pointing out the hospital's various departments and unique services.
"We haven't had any luck tracking her down. Maybe she's gone to ground, scared of what almost happened." Don shifted again in his chair. "For all we know, maybe it was just coincidence."
"Or a setup."
"Yeah. Have to tell you the thought crossed my mind. Mine and some others' as well. Then, the morning after this shooter takes you down, Eddie Bone himself turns up dead. He's got this room all set up at home, must be eight, ten thousand dollars' worth of gym equipment in there. Squad responding to an anonymous call finds him slumped over the handlebars of his exercise bike, naked. They figure at first it's a heart attack, something like that, but then they see something hanging out of his mouth. When they raise his head they find a dead rat crammed in his mouth."
"You bet. One tiring these guys have, it's a sense of humor. We didn't wonder what the connection was before, how Bone and this woman fit, where it all came from, now we have to."
With a sketchy knock the door eased open to concatenations of horns, whistles and buzzers from the lounge TV, someone winning a load on a game show. No music up here. Just this gabble of America's threadbare culture.
"Mr. Griffin. You've a visitor. From New York, he says."
My visitor from New York came in limping. Maybe he'd walked all the way. The side of one shoe dragged as he approached.
A year and spare change later, four A.M. on a Sunday, my phone would ring for Lee's wife to tell me that, waking and turning Leewards that morning, she'd found him dead. Lee's diabetes had been out of control for some time, she said--remember how his feet always hurt? I hung up the phone, lay back down alongside LaVerne and held her close.
"Mr. Griffin? Thanks for seeing me."
A longer pause. I realized that he'd put his hand out, reached till I found it, and shook.
"Poor choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstance. I had no idea of your situation, of course. No, wait. I need to back up here, don't I? Marvelous thing, time's elasticity. Though I suppose it always slaps into you on the snapback. Like Thurber's claw of the seapuss, gets us all in the end. I've just come from the police. A detective there gave me your name. But that's still not the place to start, is it. Sorry. And it's all mutable. Once an editor ... I've already told you my name. I come from Maine. Taking care of all that David Copperfield business, right?
"I'm an editor at Icarus Books. Editor-publisher, actually. One of our authors, R. Amano--you may know of his work, his novel about Gilles de Rais started at the top of the best-seller list and sank slowly through it a few years back--lives here in the city. In, if you can believe it, a house trailer that once belonged to his parents. Says there's nothing he treasures more than that view of the woods on one side and, on the other, the gravel parking lot of a country-music juke joint.
"Now Hollywood wants to buy one of his books, not the Gilles de Rais, the one we thought would be a sure shot, Bury All Towers, but another one, this tiny little novel about a man on death row awaiting execution and another who comes out of a ten-year coma, been out of print twelve years at least. Ray doesn't have an agent and asked me to negotiate the contract for him, which I did. But then all of a sudden Ray stopped answering his mail. We call, this man who seldom steps outside the trailer, rolls from bed to the kitchen counter where he works and back to bed, with time out maybe for a sandwich and three pots of coffee, he's never home. I send telegrams--no response. Meanwhile the producer's calling us up two, three times a week. We tell him we're on top of it, naturally.
"Sorry. I've rather torn into it here, haven't I? Forever leaping into things. Always saying sorry too, come to think of it. Mother was an actress. Grand entrances all her life. And spent most of her life apologizing, trying to explain away her regrets.
"What she really was was one of the first rock-and-rollers, sang background for an awful lot of those late-Fifties, Dell Shannon, Dion, Brian Hyland things. But all her life she insisted on actress, which was the way she'd started out."
Don and I waited. New York seemed to have run down.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Gardner," I said.
Don grunted. I could have told you within inches, just from the sound, where he was. "Guess I better get on downtown. Shift changes in a couple hours and we're half a dozen men short as usual." He'd been put on the desk while recuperating from a near-fatal gunshot, kept there because with him at the helm, for the first time in years the ship failed to run aground. He hated it. "Later, Lew."
The door fanned open and shut to the sound of recycling laughter.
"You're not up to this, I need to leave, just tell me," Gardner said.
"Company's appreciated. No extra points for distance, though."
"Distance is easy. A thing I'm good at."
"We all have our strengths."
Was there, then, another rustle of wings at the window? A sound like LaVerne's satin dresses or gown.
"People out there in the lobby watching, whatsit, Days of Our Lives," Gardner said. "Doctors playing back tapes they'd made secretly months ago when everyone believed Sylvia was dying and husband Dean sat there day after day telling her `all the things I've never told anyone.' Now Sylvia's made this miraculous recovery and it's--organ chord--Truth Time. My mother used to watch that show."
"Lots did. And still do."
"Not exactly Dostoevski or Dickens."
"Not even Irwin Shaw."
"But it's all we have. What we live with."
I listened to my visitor's foot drag towards the window. He pulled the window open. I was surprised this proved possible in such a building. But yes, there were sudden new tides of air, smell, sound.
"Maybe what people are starting to say, is true. Maybe what those like myself do, everything we believe in--literature, fine music, fine writing, the arts generally--maybe none of that matters anymore. We're digging up ruins. Quaint as archaeologists."
"I assume your Mr. Amano doesn't write soap operas."
Gardner laughed. "Actually, now that you mention it, he did for a while a few years back. Paid the rent, bought groceries, kept (as he said) slim body and slimmer soul together. Not something he wants remembered. And they were exceedingly strange soap operas.
"But I've gotten astray of any point, haven't I? Sorry.
"There's that word again.
"Mountain and Mohammed time, I finally decided. Flew in from New York, picked up a rental car and drove out to Kingfisher Mobile Home Park. The door to fourteen-D was open, naturally. Ray told me he had no idea where the key was. TV on inside, sound turned down, some old movie, flickers of light. Four plates, rinsed but far from clean, stacked by the side of the sink. Carry-out cartons in the trash, also a package of chicken awrithe with maggots beneath the wrapping. Dozen or so empty beer bottles lined against the back wall by the sink. Books everywhere."
"And no writer."
"No writer." For some reason I imagined Gardner's fingers moving about independently as he spoke, seeking phones to dial, yet-unbreached manuscripts, a desktop with objects wanting rearrangement, and thought of Nerval's disembodied hand, Cendrars's main coupee, Beast with Five Fingers. "I went immediately to the police, of course. They didn't want to hear about it. When I insisted, they filled out report forms. Told me there wasn't much they'd be able to do beyond getting this information out. I sat there drinking bad coffee and not doing the one thing they most wanted me to do, which was to go away. So finally they offered a private detective's number, said maybe I'd want to get in touch with him."
"A. C. Boudleaux." Achilles. Ah-sheel.
"The same. I finally track him down to this cafe the size of a railroad car on the edge of town, built out over water like steaming green soup. Looks like the place's been around long enough for Longfellow to have sat in there writing Evangeline. Boudleaux listens, then tells me `No pun intended, but I'm swamped.' Gives me your number. `Missing persons, you won't find anyone better.' When I call the number Boudleaux gave me, a young lady answers, tells me you're here."
"Given the circumstances, I don't see how I can help you, Mr. Gardner."
"Of course. But the circumstances were exactly what I didn't know. Now I don't know why I've gone on so about all this."
When he stood I sensed a change in light. Something moved towards me. His hand again. I found it, shook.
"Good luck to you, Mr. Griffin."
"And to you."
He went out the door. Not much by way of sound out there now. Hall lights bright like a sea around the dark, dark island of his form.
* * *
That night Laverne stopped by on her way to work with a cassette player and a recording of black poets reading their work.
"Something I thought you might like, Lew."
I did. And must have listened to it thirty or forty times over the next several days. Something about being cut off from the visual world made that tape so much more real to me, so much more substantial. I began living in those words and voices--living through them.
LaVerne had heard the album, from a New York label that put out a steady stream of Southern field recordings, folk music by aging Trotskyites and suburban youngsters, klezmer, polka, at a client's home.
My arms went out and she was there, in them.
"You smell good."
"I won't for long. Seven at night and it still has to be a hundred degrees out there."
"You could take the night off."
"And do what? You just get yourself well and come home. Then I'll take the night off. Maybe several nights."
"You mean like a date?"
"Yeah." Whenever she focused on something close, her eyes seemed to cross. It gave her face a vulnerable, softly sexy look. Broke my heart every time. I couldn't see her then, but I knew she was doing it. "Yeah, like a date, Lewis."
She stretched out on the bed beside me, smoothed her dress back under her. Neither of us spoke for a while.
I don't remember this, of course. Verne told me about it later, some of it. The rest, I imagined into place.
"It's been a while since we did this, Verne."
Turning, she tucked her head against my arm. I felt the warmth of her breath on my chest as she spoke.
"I miss you, Lew. Miss you sometimes even when you're there. But I miss you a whole lot more when you're gone."
I don't know how long we lay like that. Once a nurse started peremptorily into the room, fetched up stock-still just inside the door and backed out without a word.
When LaVerne sat up, the fabric of her satin dress crackled. She wore her hair long then, cut straight across front and back.
"Maybe this is different from most of life, Lewis. Maybe this is something we can fix."
I put my hand on her waist.
After a moment she stood. Began tucking things in. Breast, hair, slip. Her sadness.
"Have to go, Lew. Late enough start as it is."
"If it's as hot as you say it is, things'll be slow on the street."
"You never know. Sometimes heat just brings the beast out."
"Take care...." She was almost to the door. "Verne?"
A pause. "Yeah, Lew."
"Is it dark outside?"
That's what bothered me most. Where things were, the shapes of rooms, finding my way to toilet and lavatory--all minor problems. But being suspended in time, out of the gather and release of the day, was something else entirely, an immeasurable loss.
"Almost," she said.
"A clear night?"
"Pinpricks of stars in the upper window. Moon will be full in another day or two."
"And city lights stretched out below us."
"Diminutive fires of the planet, Neruda called them."
"Sure he did. See you tomorrow, hon."
I remembered lines from a Langston Hughes poem: Night comes slowly, black like me. Once LaVerne was gone, I nudged tape into player. Sure enough, Hughes's poem was there, right after one about a lynching. Further along was another, by LeRoi Jones/Amira Baraka, that would haunt me for years.
in that other
talkin bout "bay
bee, why you
here," talkin bout
"up under de sun
cotton in my hand." Son
singing, think he bad
they language, talkin bout
"dark was the night
the ocean deep
white eyes cut through me
made me weep."
fount some words. Think
he bad. Speak
yeh, we gon be here
I think that may have been the first time I thought about all these different languages we use. Danny Barker used to talk about that, how with this group of musicians he'd talk one way, that way with another one, uptown and downtown talk, and still he'd have this private language he'd use at home, among friends. We all do that. To survive, our forebears learned dissimulation and mimickry, learned never to say what they truly thought. They knew they were gon be here a taste. That same masking remains in many of us, in their children's blood, a slow poison. So many of us no longer know who, or what, we are.
Meet the Author
A writer of varied talents, James Sallis is a published poet, critic, translator, and novelist. He has been praised as "a fine talent, introspective, sardonic, a master of quick characterization and narrative compression" (Buffalo News) and as "a rare find…a fine prose stylist with an interest in moral struggle and a gift for the lacerating evocation of loss" (Newsday).
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