Two young women from California travel to New Orleans in search of redemption after the death of their mother. Carolee thinks she will show her little sister the world, but what they find in the barrooms of the French Quarter at Mardi Gras is more than she knows how to handle, or could have imagined back home. This is the sixteenth chapter of the novel Thirsty Work.
When we got back to Doug’s flat, Howard greeted us excitedly. “Oh, you’re here! Just in time — we’re getting ready to go out to the lake.”
“Lake Pontchartrain! We’re gonna have a crawfish feed under the full moon.” His eyes sparkled. “Sally is meeting us out there with some friends of hers. You guys gonna come?”
I felt my cheeks warm at his invitation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him yet, but I was flattered that he seemed to like me. I turned to ask Cathy what she thought, but she’d already gone, making a beeline from the door to Carl in the corner, where the two of them stood entwined like a strand of braided hair.
The flat all around was buzzing with people getting ready for the evening. Tessa posed in front of the big, round mirror on the dilapidated vanity in the next room, sensuously brushing her hair. Sharon sat on the edge of the bed behind Tessa and leaned over to tie her shoes. But her eyes weren’t on the laces; she focused on Tessa in front of the mirror — the tender, white underarm exposed when she raised her elbow, the slow stroke of the stiff bristles over the pronounced curve of the back of her head. Doug walked into the room behind them both, shirtless, and the sight of his bare chest, feathered with soft black hair parting off a straight line up the center of his belly, made my own chest tight. I had a sharp vision of Stockton and the party at Stiff and Budgey’s when Doug invited me to come to New Orleans — the way his touch had made the little hairs rise on my forearm; the dreams I had harbored about what might happen here.
As if my thoughts reached him, Doug looked up at that moment and walked over to me. Howard moved off politely to root through his backpack. “Hey, you’re back. That’s good news. You’ll be able to come to the lake with us,” Doug said as he put a casual arm around my waist.
His bare skin against my side made me want to pull him in closer, but I pulled away from him instead. I hoped he wouldn’t notice my discomfort as I nodded and mumbled “Um hmm.”
“Look, Carolee,” he said quietly, glancing over his shoulder to make sure his two women weren’t listening. They weren’t — engrossed in their own private conversation, made up of brush strokes and mirrored glances and slowly laced shoes. “I know things aren’t turning out the way we thought they would…”
I looked up with surprise. Was I that obvious?
“And I’m sorry, Carolee.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Because I want you.” I felt all the little hairs on my forearm rising again. And on the back of my neck. Behind my knees. The outside of my shoulders. “But I thought about it — a lot. And in the end I realized that I couldn’t do that to Johnny.”
Each small hair laid flat. “Oh.”
I hadn’t given Johnny a single thought since arriving in New Orleans, and Doug’s mention of my long-standing boyfriend back in Stockton made me feel like a heartless thug. Doug honored his friendship with Johnny more than I honored my so-called love. “That’s okay,” I fumbled. “I feel that way too.” I gave a weak smile. Doug beamed like a beneficent cult leader and sauntered back to his harem.
When everyone was ready we crowded into Stan and Peter’s Volkswagon van. I got in first, squeezing way to the back, and noticed with pleasure that Howard maneuvered a seat next to me. Stan drove, his long fingers wrapping elegantly around the steering wheel, the ceiling barely clearing his big, blonde hair. Doug sat in the passenger seat next to Stan, with Tessa fitting neatly on his lap. Peter was in the middle seat, behind Stan, with Sharon and Carl next to him. Cathy sat next to Howard and me in back.
The ride to Lake Pontchartrain was raucous and smoky. Tessa amused us all by yelling alarming things out the window. “Honk if you love Jesus!” she shouted to a bleached blonde woman in a tight red dress and gaudy jewelry behind the wheel of a convertible. “Honk if you love oral sex!” to a mousy-looking older man in a station wagon.
I waited for Stan to tell her to be quiet and settle down. I didn’t want to be pulled over by the police. But no one else in the crowded van seemed worried. Cathy and Carl were doing their best to caress each other from two different rows. Sharon had her eyes glued to Tessa and Doug. Stan turned up the radio and sang along with the music. Howard was drinking a beer beside me and Peter was rolling a joint from an open bag of marijuana on his lap.
“I guess that’s safe,” I thought nervously. “Everyone else seems to think so.”
When we got out to the lakeside I relaxed a little. There was no way we would stick out in this crowd. A long line of cars slowly cruised the broad avenue next to the huge lake, each car stuffed full of young people, each young person waving a beer, or a joint, or a cigarette.
We crawled along in a slow parade for a quarter of a mile or so, until Stan pulled into a little drive-in with a tall neon sign on a pole that said “Crawdaddy’s.” Beneath the big cursive writing a little lobster-like character with glasses beckoned us to come in and eat.
“I didn’t know we were going to a drive-in,” I said as Stan turned off the engine. “I thought this was going to be a picnic.” But nobody paid me any mind.
Stan unfolded himself from beneath the steering wheel; Tessa slid off of Doug’s lap and onto the asphalt; Peter pulled open the sliding door in the middle of the van and released the rest of us into the night.
It wasn’t cold, but I felt a chill breeze off the lake, whose black water made a gentle lapping sound I could barely discern beneath the noise of the traffic. I put my arms around myself and suppressed a shiver. Howard was standing next to me, and I saw him struggle with an impulse to put his arm around me. That was the script, right? Girl shivers. Boy puts his coat around her — or his arm. I’d seen it play out in countless movies; I’d performed it myself a half dozen times. But tonight the senseless push of it made me suddenly nauseous. I moved a step off to the side.
Up in the sky, there were more stars than I’d ever seen — sharp, sparkling stars strewn across a black carpet like tacks. I didn’t recognize a single constellation. It seemed as if this wasn’t the same sky that blanketed my home in Stockton —as if we were on another world. The huge gravel parking lot was dotted with picnic tables. Groups stood around most of the tables drinking beer. Some tables had big, silver bowls in the center that people would dip their hands into, pulling out what looked like little lobsters. I watched closely as one woman turned a bright red shellfish over in her palm, twisted off the tail and tossed the upper body onto the asphalt. She worked her finger up and down beneath the armor plated tail, pulling free a chunk of pale meat which she put whole and dripping into her mouth.
The whole parking lot was littered with what looked to me like menacing people, big burly men with full beards and small, smooth women in halter tops and bellbottoms, their soft underbellies exposed. I searched each group for Sally, but couldn’t find her. Our little party was uncertain about what to do next. Should we order a big silver bowl of crawfish for ourselves? Or wait for Sally? Doug and Stan were debating when the noise level in the parking lot suddenly swelled. I felt alarmed —what was happening? — then relieved as the noise faded back down.
“Are you cold?” Howard asked, finally slipping his arm around me. I knew he would say that. As soon as my feet hit the gravel parking lot, I knew. Even sooner, in the van, when he pressed his thigh against mine in the crowded back seat, which wasn’t quite as crowded as he made it seem; in the flat, when he asked if we were coming; even yesterday, when he was annoyed by my ignorance about the Seven Sisters, I knew what was coming: My bare shoulder. His heavy arm. It didn’t matter if he liked me, or if I liked him. The scene had already been written. Isn’t this what was supposed to happen next?
Our group moved en masse toward the restaurant that stood at the center of the parking lot like a shiny glass jewel casting off fluorescent light. Doug and Peter took charge and ordered two big bowls of crawfish and several loaves of french of bread from the young woman behind the counter, who was outfitted in a blue and white striped apron and a silly cardboard cap. We all dug in our pockets and purses and pulled out money to contribute to the bill, then milled together on the dirty tile floor while she got our order ready. I felt vulnerable in the bright light, aware that we stood out like slides on a screen to the people outside in the dark parking lot. “Want to wait outside?” Howard asked, touching my fingers.
Once outside, we found a table and waited for the rest to come. There was a moment of silence before Peter and Doug brought the mob and the big bowls heaping with crawfish. “It’s a nice night,” I ventured. Howard nodded his head. Minutes later we were surrounded by people. Two big, silver bowls sat in the center of the table. Some of the crawfish peeped coyly over the edge of the bowl, as if they wanted a better view of our party.
I dipped my hand in, pulled out a little, hard, red body and tried to mimic the woman I’d watched earlier. But I didn’t have the knack. It took three squishy twists to pull off the head with the long, wise, whiskers — the empty, black, pinpoint eyes. And when I finally managed it, and went to toss it over my shoulder like I’d seen others do, a big dollop of red, greasy liquid fell onto my back. I would have stopped then if it weren’t for the euphoric looks of the people feasting beside me. It seemed crawfish was a morsel not to be missed. So I worked my finger beneath the tail plates to extract the meat. I put the flesh in my mouth. It was buttery rich and tartly sweet and deliciously spicy. I reached back in the big bowl for more.
We were working on our second bowl and our fourth six pack when a half dozen motorcycles pulled noisily into the lot. The men driving them had long, stringy hair and thick, tattooed arms. Some had young women riding behind them. I watched with apprehension as they pulled their heavy bikes up on kickstands and swung their legs over their seats. What do they want here? I wondered. Do they mean trouble? Then I watched in amazement as one of them slowly pulled off a cloth helmet — a funny-looking headpiece that looked like an old aviator’s hat — and turned to wave to us.
“Omigod. It’s Sally!” I roused the others at my table.
“Jesus Christ. On that big motorcycle?” Sharon said.
“I thought she was a man!”
“Nope. Not a man. Just one helluva ballsy woman.”
“I’m not sure I like her friends.”
Sally strode over to our table, with a few of her entourage straggling behind. “Hi guys! I see you started without me. Hey, no problem! I’m not hurt!” She stuck her chin up and everyone laughed.
“These are my friends Mickey, Tiny, and Kenmore,” Sally gestured to the three bulky men who had followed her to our table. “And this here is my friend Carolee from California…” I was honored that she started with me.
“Her sister Cathy, their friend Doug….” she continued around the table.
“Well this won’t be enough crawfish for US, that’s one thing certain,” Sally said when she finished. She pulled a bill out of her pocket and pushed it into Peter’s hand. “Here you go, Sonny, why dontcha go get us another bowl?” Peter smiled a little awkwardly but turned to go.
“Now, whatcha got going here? Why are all these heads strewn around on the ground? You guys aren’t neglecting to suck the heads, are ya?”
We looked at each other and shrugged.
“Here, let an expert show you how to eat crawfish. If you really want a true Cajun experience, you got to suck the heads.” Sally picked out a crawfish, twisted off the tail and tossed it back in the bowl, then dug her finger around in the cavity of the head. She pulled out a fingerful of something mushy and green and without hesitation put it into her mouth. Then she smacked her lips, cracked the shell of the head between her fingers and held it to her lips like a tankard, noisily slurping everything out. She tossed the empty head over her shoulder and smiled mischievously at us. “Now you try it.”
It’s a credit to Sally’s charisma that every single person at that table tried sucking crawfish heads that night, despite the disgusting way it looked and the gross sound it made and the unpleasant flavor it put in your mouth. The texture was runny and the taste too strong, especially when compared to the perfect pleasure of the tail meat. But I was so glad to be sitting with Sally; so pleased to know a woman who rode a big, 850 Norton (which she identified for me); so flattered that she counted me as a friend; and so relieved that we weren’t going to be threatened by the motorcycle gang that I sucked every single crawfish head that Sally handed me that night.
Howard sucked heads too, and I smiled at him with admiration, every bit as flattered as if he had performed a death defying feat in my honor, though he told me later it had nothing to do with impressing me, that he really did like the taste.
After Sally rode up on her big, noisy motorcycle to teach us how to eat crawfish that night, the stars lost their sharpness and began to shimmer; the cars quieted to a steady hum; and I found the comfort hidden in Howard’s shoulder, breathing in the salty smell of his sweat, the narcotic aroma of his desire for me. Once my nose caught that scent I followed it blindly, back to the van, back to the flat, all the way back to his sleeping bag, where the two of us slip-slided together like two slender salamanders in one new skin.
© Patsy Fergusson. All rights reserved.