On the morning after Halloween Candy went down to the restaurant in the St. Vincent’s Guest House for breakfast and when I joined her she introduced me to someone she had met at the counter. It was Brant Osborn, an English Teacher from Slidell.
He was at St. Vincent’s for a Writing Marathon organized and sponsored by the Southeastern Louisiana Writing Project. The idea was that a group of about twenty writers would break into groups, either stay at the guest house or walk around the Lower Garden District for the day, stopping and writing as the mood struck them. Periodically, folks would read what they had written – hopefully providing ideas, inspiration and motivation for each other.
He asked me if I wanted to go.
I ran up to my room and grabbed my Moleskine and Varsity Disposable Fountain Pen.
The entire group (mostly English teachers and a few intruders like myself) started in the common room at the guest house, wrote a little and then we took off. There were five of us in my group, myself, Richard Louth (the organizer of the writing marathons), George, and Roman.
We walked down Magazine street, hitting a coffee shop, then po-boys for lunch, a side trip to a park, and then a beer at a table outside a neighborhood bar. We’d write and read at each stop. At the end we met back at St. Vincent’s for a celebration and reading, until darkness fell completely.
Most folks wrote little essays or short works inspired by St. Vincent’s, the history of New Orleans, or the other folks in the writing group. I, as is my wont, struggled to squeeze out some fiction. I didn’t have any of my writing prompt or idea collections with me. The only things I had was the inspiration of the St. Vincent’s hostel, some bits of story the other guys would tell, and a quote from a singer on Frenchman Street the night before, “Folks from small towns get arrested in the big city, folks from the big city get arrested in small towns.”
So I spent a whole day walking around Magazine Street in New Orleans with a group of like-minded folks, writing and reading. It was, for me, a perfect day. I want to publicly thank Richard Louth for putting together this program and for Brant Osborn for inviting me.
It was so much fun that now I want to do a writing marathon in Dallas. I’ve been thinking about it and am putting together a page on my blog to organize my thoughts. Go over to that page and take a look, feel free to leave comments or suggestions. The more the merrier.
So what did I write? Here it is, copied pretty much verbatim from my Moleskine. It’s about a third of a short story… and I’m working on where to take it from here.
Chapter 1 Svetlana (I)
Svetlana dragged her backpack up the rickety wooden stairs through a heavy wrought iron gate. A fat man with an eyepatch sat behind a tall desk with paint peeling off the front.
She worried about her English – she had studied for over a decade and always dreamed of this – but now was the first time she actually spoke a complete sentence. She could feel her accent rolling in her mouth like a hot walnut.
The man with the eyepatch didn’t even look up. He flipped a set of keys in front of Svetlana and handed her a half-sheet of paper – cut unevenly with a set of numbered rules. It was handtyped and xeroxed, with a tattoo of hand-written corrections. The top line said, “Rules are non-negotiable – you will be thrown out of the hostel.
The one-eyed man finally spoke, still without looking up. “Down that hall – men on the left, you are on the right.”
Svetlana dragged her pack down the hall. The thin, worn carpet and painted walls were stained with water leaking from somewhere above. Strangely, the passage was lined with fine bronze sculptures of nude men and women – out of place in the worn and tattered building.
She reached the women’s dormitory and pushed the door open.
A quick feeling of panic rose in her throat as she looked down the center of a double row of bunk beds constructed of two by four beams nailed in a grid. In the Ukraine, she had her own wing with a personal servant. She had never slept in a room shared with strangers.
Chapter 2, Russell (I)
Russell never thought, never in a million years, that he could be thrown in jail for pissing on the side of a building. At home, you can pee wherever you want – it is a God-given right. He was no more than a block down the street from the bar when he realized he had forgotten to use the bathroom before he left. There was an unlit alley and he ducked in. He was admiring the patterns of oblique shadow the streetlights made on the rough brick when he noticed the blue and red flashing lights mixed in with the yellowish streetlight.
Just when he broke out into a grin at the interplay of colors and shapes he felt a rough hand on his shoulder.
Russell jumped a bit at the voice yelling in his ear, “Well, now, look who’s going to jail tonight.”
His arms were pulled back and he felt the cold steel click around his wrists.
“Shit, son, you ain’t even zipped up,” the unseen voice said. “Now, don’t you piss on me or I’ll crack your damn head.”
He felt his hands released and as soon as he brought them forward and fixed his pants he was shoved forward. His hand came up to catch himself from falling, his palms against the uneven wall. Boots pushed his feet apart.
Strong hands moved down his sides and between his legs, and finally slid his wallet out of his back pocket.
Chapter 3 Svetlana (II)
She looked down the room and saw a woman with spiked hair and a piercing through the side of her nose rummaging through a pile of plastic grocery sacks. She looked up. Svetlana thought she saw a tiny colorful flickering on the woman’s face.
“Which bed should I take?” Svetlana asked. The woman looked at her for what seemed like a long time then gestured at a lower bunk three beds down from where she was crouched.
“This one honey, it’s right under mine. Throw your pack on the bunk, but don’t leave it there when you’re gone. They got too many thieves ’round here.”
The woman glanced down at the bags at her feet and Svetlana saw a guilty look flash over her face. It didn’t stay there long. Svetlana threw her pack onto the lower bunk the woman had gestured at and then stood at the foot of the bed, stiffly, waiting to see what would happen next.
For most of her life Svetlana had dreamed of this moment – she had escaped. She was halfway around the world, but this was no dream. She realized, for the first time, that she had not actually thought past this very second, and was at a complete loss of what to do now. The panic rose and settled like a hard knot in her chest. She felt paralyzed – her mind blank. She stared at the woman, afraid the two of them would be standing like that forever.
The woman broke the impasse by moving quickly toward her – almost at a run – turning at the last instant in front of the flinching Svetlana and jumping up onto the top bunk. The woman was so close to Svetlana that she could see that her nose piercing was a tiny skull. Inside, a small LED was blinking – making the skull’s eyes flash bright red.
“You’re not from around here, are ya,” the woman said.
“No, the Ukraine. Is my accent that bad?”
“Nah, everybody’s got an accent here.”
“Your nose piercing?”
“Oh yeah, cool, huh. I make these and sell ’em on the corner. People love ’em. Changing the battery’s a bitch though. You want one? I’ll give you a discount.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have a piercing there.”
“Oh, no problema,” the woman said, fingering a large safety pin laced into a leather bracelet on her wrist. “Don’t have to go through your nose anyway. I’ve got a double skull – red and blue – can put that one through a nipple.”
Svetlana started to shake a little, and the knot under her breastbone grew and hardened.
“Not now, I’m sorry. Just off the plane and I’m still,… what do you say? Still on Ukraine time?”
“Jet – Lagged,” Svetlana repeated slowly.
“Shit Ukraine,” the woman said, “I’m Joanna.”
“OK Ukraine, whatever. You look like you need a beer. Grab your bag, let’s go.”
Chapter 4 Russell (II)
The concrete pallet had no mattress and the jailhouse orange coveralls were thin so Russell wasn’t really asleep when the noise outside the cell snapped his eyes open. Two huge deputies were dragging a man down the corridor towards the cell. He was wearing a once-whitish suite, covered in thin blue lines – now stained with blood and at least one other substance. The man looked exhausted and one eye was swollen almost shut but he still heaved and wiggled against the thick arms that restrained him.
The two deputies tossed him against a wall where he gathered himself erect and began the useless task of trying to smooth the countless deep wrinkles out of his suit. One deputy turned and began to work the lock on the cell door while the other kept facing the man in the suit.
“Gentlemen, “ the man in the suit began to talk in a surprisingly clear, steady, and controlled voice. “I do not stand to be treated like this. You should know that, not only am I an attorney, I am a member of the New York bar.”
The guard facing the man did not say a thing but gave a sharp shrug of his shoulder and a heavy telescoping rod shot down from his hand about the length of his forearm. At the end of the rod was a small but mean looking black sphere.
The man in the suit said, “Ahhhh,” but before a complete word could form the guard raised the extended truncheon and began wailing away at the man in the suit. His arm moved like a piston while the rod whistled through the air landing on the man with a sickening wet thud. Russell noticed the man had the presence of mind to cover his good eye with both hands and to turn and curl to present the smallest target. Russell had the feeling that this wasn’t the first time he had been beaten.
Russell guessed than swinging a heavy club like that was hard work and within a minute the guard stopped, bent over with his hands on his knees and breathing hard. He caught his breath and asked his partner, “Do you want a go at him, Hubert?”
“Naw, I got my licks in when we picked him up. I got a bottle in my locker, lets drop him here and grab a quick snort.”
They grabbed the man and attempted to throw him into the cell but somehow, he resisted enough to stand and walk through the cell door on his own volition. It shut with a metal clang and the two guards left without a backwards glance.
“They didn’t put you in a jail jumpsuit,” Russell said.
“No they did not,” the man said with a bit of pride in his voice, “That, my friend, is the source of the disagreement I had with those two apes back there. As you see, I’m still wearing my seersucker, and that I won that argument.”
Russell thought that was a definition of the word, “won,” that he had not ever heard before.
“How did you get here from New York?”
“Oh, I’m not really from New York. I was born and raised less than three miles from this very hoosegow. I only said I was from New York to impress those dimwitted thugs back there.”
“Now,” Russell said, “I’m just a country kid, but if I sat up all night thinking of saying something that would guarantee I got a bad beating in here, I don’t think I could do any better than telling them I was a New York lawyer.”
The man went on as if Russell hadn’t said a thing. “Now friend, I am an attorney… or at least I was. The state bar did not take too kindly… and over-reacted to – a trivial incident involving a real estate loan and the District Attorney’s niece. My present plans, however, do include, when they come to fruition, the reinstatement of my lawyerly license.”
“I don’t see how getting beat up in jail is going to help you get your license back,” Russell said. “Oh, and I’m Russell and I guess I’m pleased to meet you.”
The man seemed to think for a minute before giving up his name. “Jameson P. Samuel, at your service, but you can call me Jim.”
Chapter 5 Svetlana (III)
Joana ordered, “Two beers, whatever IPA you’ve got on tap please, and a coffee.”
“”What coffee you want?” the Bartender/Barista asked.
“I like my coffee like I like my women, dark, bitter, and Nicaraguan.” Joana turned to Svetlana, “No offense intended, Ukraine.”
Svetlana had no idea how to react to this but luckily one of her English lessons had covered what to say when someone said, “No offense.”
“None taken,” she replied.
The two women grabbed their drinks and settled into a booth at the end of the bar. Svetlana noticed everyone staring at someone in the booth across from them. She followed their gaze and saw a man in a stained white suit that looked like it had been slept in for a week. Half his face was swollen terribly. He was sipping a Bloody Mary with the paper umbrella stills ticking out of it and was talking loudly to a young man with ruffled hair – nursing a coffee in a foam cup.