As Lew Griffin leaves a New Orleans music club with an older white woman he has just met, someone fires a shot and Lew goes down. When he comes to, he discovers that most of a year has gone by since that night. Who was the woman? Which of them was the target? Who was the shooter? Somewhere in the Crescent City—and in the white supremacist movement crawling through it—there's an answer. But to get to it, he is going to have to work with the only people offering help, people he knows he should avoid.
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“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 m’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 view, 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 a while. 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 Rashomon 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 café 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.”