Brigette Piotolly the crumpled note card tacked to the plywood partition between two beds reads. Gold wire rims eyeglasses rest in the shriveled skin of a baked potato. Boxer shorts half stand next to the wastebasket. “Hello,” I say to the sleeping bag curled into a fetal position. A chunky green-eyed blond pops up. “Hey, I’m a head banger,” she says. My roommate here at law school is a New Orleans East girl, a certifiable genius too intelligent to drive. A note card flutters from her pink fist. “And, yeah,” she says, “I collect recipes.” 12 frog legs/eggs/oil for frying garnish with slice of lemon
Palace Turtle Soup
I’m envious of her lush Catholic faith, the All Saint’s Days’ candle burning, celebrating the beheading of St. John the Baptist. I’m jealous of the opulence of her blond hair, the corn silk crinkling her arms and legs, the fireflies sparking her upper lip. “I don’t like having a mustache,” she says, peering at herself in a shaving mirror. “But we Corsican-Italian girls are very hairy.” On her desk are the hair removers, pink depilatories, bleaches, tweezers, honey waxes, and pine resins. She tongues the space between her front teeth. “By the way, I don’t like air conditioning or fans. I prefer heat.” Like Marilyn Monroe she speaks in a humid kittenish whisper. I unpack my one suitcase and hatbox. Nothing in the hatbox except almost empty pill bottles, and an exquisite cough syrup. I take a sip as soon as she isn’t looking. Furry. It goes down like ermine.
The first week of law school passes like the worst flu I ever had. Vomiting, dizziness, vertigo, headache, sensitivity to light. I sit in a tier of gladiators while Father Moore intones the roll call. Mr. Wolfe, Ms. West, Mr. Mountain, Ms. Manacuso. The priest’s eyes glow behind bottle glasses. For an hour and forty-five minutes he enthuses about service of summons—pleadings, claims and counterclaims, as if they are positions of lovemaking. Our first case is called International Shoe v. State of Washington. I forget each sentence even before it is read. In my notebook one of Brigette’s cards is stuck. I find myself admiring the edible words. 1 pound turtle meat cut into ½ inch cubes teaspoons dry sherry
“This dorm used to be a convent,” Brigette mentions, hidden by the mound of clothes that rise like dirty flood waters. “The nuns have stolen my sleep.” Her tee-shirt that reads Abortion—An American Holocaust is smeared with refried beans. She hasn’t left the room for days, plops on my bed. She’s seen nuns in their habits wiggling their clammy haunches, rummaging in my footlocker. I peer where a feather of dust tickles a nail. I imagine the lace-up boots. For the Brides of Christ, the Church painted the lockers and closets the red-hot of Satan’s groin. I am in denial that I have only six pills left. I wrap up in my sheet and try to sleep. Clump goes her head against the bedboard. Bang. Like she’s nailing pictures up with her skull. Bang. Her body bounces. Bang. I breathe in the buried bowls of dirty rice and chicken bones. My last blue Valium dissolves on my tongue.
I push myself through another week. Professor Rault’s blue eyes leer from his coppery skin. His hair, a pompadour, the color of a badly dyed davenport tilts over his prominent forehead. He’s putting a check beside the name of each goodlooking first year female law student. His mulberry colored lips in love with the words perpetrator and heinous. I feel torpor, crumbs of mealy apples collect in my throat.
I study the New Orleans phone book. Find PHYSICIANS. GENERAL Chalfoun, Ricketts, Parsons, Day. Hamby, Hebert. I study them like Dead Sea hieroglyphics but addicts aren’t picky. Dr. Ricketts offices in a strip shopping center. I beg him for codeine and explain I’m a law student with legitimate nerve damage. He shrugs, and suggests Rehab. Parsons, Chalfoun, Hamby and Hebert do too.
My fingers disappear into the carpet where the nap separates. I’m in the closet gazing at my pinkie, and licking. Dust. Again I dig under the sulky rug, past my elbow, fishing for the mullet’s creamy mouth. I’ve found something that might be a pill. Brigette stomps in, throws down the Louisiana Property Code. I have it. Pop it into my mouth, uuggh. A mouse turd. “Has my brother Arthur come with my burritos?” she asks. No sooner are her words out of her mouth when there’s a door knock. It’s Arthur. He wears a black matador’s cape. HIV positive, overweight, at twenty-he looks forty. “Queen B,” he bows to Brigette. Today he’s brought her tacos el carbon, dirty rice and charbroiled red beans. “By the way, Shawn is here to trim your hair. He’s very cheap, but cuts wonderfully,” Arthur informs. His eyes fasten on me. “Shawn was born with a thing. Then he got his period at twelve. His mother threw him out. A true hermaphrodite.”
Shawn doesn’t stand, he sways. Blond braids reach to his knees like a palm reader’s beaded curtains. He offers me his hand that looks made out of tallow. Raw ingredients not yet stirred—joints, flanges, one or two knuckles. His pale fingers are cold. Boneless, jellylike. I squish them through my own. When he finishes the scissors drip out of his fingers. An underwater fish flower, a bleemie, a brittlestar.
Professor Germaine teaches foreseeability. Dog bites, hair dyes that burn off eyebrows, flammable synthetic polyesters and flannel tottler suits. Egg salmonella, LSD-doctored Caesar salads, foreseeable potholes, motel peep holes, crawfish bloated with cyanine, poisonous steamed crabs, murderous mayonnaise. Her own emaciation is extreme. A man’s watch on her bird arm, the weight of it about to break her wrist. All the female professors weigh 89 pounds. The law is starving them.
No pills for two days. I swallow Vitamin D just to feel them go down. My heart clatters. I sit on the toilet to pee, I am vibrating, my knees knocking, and I have to hold on until it comes, falling out of my body in an unstoppable flood. I shred my red suitcase that once rattled with Talwin, Vicodan, Empirin #3. Sun hangs in sleepy pieces as I pat down the mattress, crawl into the footlocker.
Classic Nawlins Hurricane
On the third day the water in my mouth hurts. My hand shakes to write. I’ve decided to type my law exams, to borrow money from my mother. Into the room of withdrawal my mother calls, her voice comes up from a cistern. “I’ve gotten a typewriter for you. I’ll mail it.” I shout no at her voice. “I found it at Sears. You know they don’t make many typewriters anymore. Everything is computer. It has correct ribbon with automatic erase.” I snarl to let her know I’ve seen a better one in New Orleans, cheaper, but she keeps going. “It has page end indicator, word underline, proportional spacing.” I spit no, reach for my Diet Coke, the swallow hot as Tabasco sauce. Money, money, money. “Send money!” I yell until she whimpers, “I’m human, I’m human too.”
Inside the Maple Leaf, Marsha Ball’s fingers caress and stomp the piano. The bar is a good place to hurt. I need to drink. I want to sit on the rickety cane chair forever, watch mirrors ooze from the wall, my face hidden in a forest of bottles, listening to nicotine-stained conversation. I order a margarita, blue-green rock salt on the lip, I shake out a cigarette, and hope someone treacherous will sit down. Someone does. A black turtleneck, a slit-lip carnation in his lapel, his hand cradles a pool cue. His hair a page of the Round Table, a smirking face. I think of caterpillars who have caught insectpox, how they liquefy into entrails with crystals of pox virus. He tells me his name is Trick or Treat. “What do you want to drink, lady?” Seafood bisque clings to his chin—a Jovan cologne. He taps his wedding ring on the bar. It’s the finger he tries to work under my pantyhose. His hands on my outer thighs are rooms on Dante Street, his half-closed eyes, a sex club on Royal. I laugh at his dungeons and shackles and cattle drive whips. The virus moves on.
This is the part of New Orleans you don’t see. Meat shops where chickens
are displayed hanging from a single foot. I touch the pig heads and carvings
of intestine and tongue, tripe and taste buds. I wander among grape leaves
flat as pancakes and Peruvian coffee beans, lose myself between barrels
of cumin and sweet paprika. I don’t want to lawyer, I want to become a
fish market, buckets of burning ice and ropy tentacles, lavender freckles,
the white fish and grouper, I want to be huge pectorals with bulging eyes.
From an ancient radio Fats Waller’s—Let’s Be Fair and Square in Love—hovers.