Excerpt from Skid by Roland Watson-Grant (Alma Books - June 2014)
Well, lemme tell you somethin’ else. If they want pocket lint, I got lots of it. Yup. This must be a case of mistaken identity, cos, in these clothes, I only look like a guy with money. The only thing jinglin’ in my pocket right now is a set of keys to our house on Hayne Boulevard. But here I am, Uptown New O’lins, miles from home, after dark, with four thugs tryin’ to mug me and throw me into the Mississippi. Now, if you had told me that less than a year after we escaped from that swamp I’d be here runnin’ for my life again – well, I woulda called you crazy. But that’s the truth. I’m being chased by shadows. They’re moving real fast, runnin’ close to the ground, no sound coming from their tennis shoes. Meanwhile you should hear my clunky church loafers hittin’ Washington Avenue like I’m a tap-dancer late for practice. It’s real life that feels like one of those nightmares: you got nowhere to hide, but you can’t keep runnin’, and there’s not a soul around except for the ones that are huntin’ ya. You’re on your own when you’re in trouble, believe that.
Wait. A gate. Hell no – that’s the cemetery. Keep going Skid. Glancing back I see the chained gates of Lafayette No. 1 disappearing in the dark – and believe me, that graveyard starts lookin’ more welcoming than the dead stretch of road in front of me right now. I’m wishing that I had somehow busted those gates open, snuck in there and hidden real quick. Too late now. I dash left, onto a side street – don’t know the name of it – you don’t care when you’re about to die. I have no experience of this part of the city anyway, even with my backing and forthing to Peter Grant’s house and all that. Good thing these dudes don’t have a ride, cos they’d have caught me already. My heels are diggin’ into the asphalt and sending shocks up my spine. Might as well be wearing a pair of pumps for God’s sake. Now there’s an old man watering plants behind a cast-iron fence. He doesn’t even look up when I blow past his pretty little birthday-cake house in full Sunday best, gasping like a catfish and tearing up the pavement. Prob’ly seen weirder things in his life, living so close to a boneyard, the poor old guy. I’m clocking at least fifteen miles an hour I’m sure, but I slow down to dash left again. Now I know I’m on Sixth Street, cos, right quick, two high beams come on ahead of me, lighting up a street sign. Well, I’m thinkin’: Thank God, this might be my saving grace. But the vehicle takes off, swings into the left lane and it’s heading straight towards me. Dammit. There are more of them and they do have a car. Man, I’m done running and I’ve been out of luck for a long time. So I stand still, dip into my back pocket and hold my hands up as the headlights close in. Maybe I can throw my empty wallet to these hyenas and buy myself some time, even though this ol’ thing is not so easy to part with. I’m sentimentally attached to it. Long story.
Thugs on foot to my left, car off to my right. I’m hollerin’: “Awright! Awright!” so they don’t ride the kerb and run me over.
Then I see another entrance to the cemetery. A back gate, similar to the one I bolted past earlier like a damn fool. So this time I decide to take my chances with the dead. I thought my hair would stand straight up as soon as I leapt into this burial ground, but it feels really peaceful. There are some old trees lined up along the concrete walkway, bowing down to graves on the other side. If the circumstances were different this would be a pleasant walk. Matter of fact the only strange thing I see is that the iron gates aren’t just open: they’re torn clean off the hinges and lying flat on the ground. As you can imagine, hours ago this place was crawling with tourists, posing beside burial vaults and smiling. Now there’s nothing but Skid Beaumont dodging the blazin’ beams of the car that just swung into the gateway behind me, making the graves grow long shadows and the trees look wicked.
I’m duckin’ between mausoleums just far apart enough for me to squeeze in, with my chest heaving. Hold your breath, Skid. Impossible. Their own lights must have scared them too, cos those bastards they stop the car once they get inside the gate. An old Chevy – I hear the thing throttling. They’re so close gas fumes are up my nose and hot headlights bounce off everything. Check the surroundings. I’m like a giant trying to fit into a small city. Four inches from my nose black mould is clinging to whitewash and rain stains are streaking off it all the way down the side of a burial vault. Pieces of marble tumble out the side of a tomb, and some ancient red bricks are peepin’ through the cracks. Under every fresh coat there’s something crumbling. The whitewash never wins.
Car doors open and close. Tennis shoes crunch dried leaves on the walkway. There’s a low rumble. One of them has a pair of those new Rollerblades on. Prob’ly stole it off some dead guy.
“Yow, don’t move, man.”
The voice is above my head. One of the shadows climbed up on the vault behind me and tried to drop in, but the space wouldn’t allow him. Right away a metal baseball bat comes down between the burial vaults and cracks open the plaster crust of a tomb right by my ear. Insects scramble out, surprised at the raid on their horrible little house. I take off again, and those punks, all half a dozen of them now, they scurry up behind me like cockroaches.
I’m tryin’ to stay out of the headlights, so I crouch down and crawl into a space among a few smaller box tombs. They can’t possibly find me here. And I hope they don’t, cos this part of the cemetery is a dead end: up against a wall, one way in and no way out if they block me. Well, forget hoping – cos the bastards just found me. I’m in the corner with my knees right up under my chin and my head pushing so hard against a marble plaque I can make out the poor soul’s name with the back of my scalp.
One of the thugs starts whistlin’ and draggin’ the metal baseball bat on the concrete like a real jerk who watches too many gangster movies. A leather belt is wrapped around a fist and the buckle is dangling. As they come in close, I grope around and grab a shoe-size piece of marble off the grass and chuck the thing in their direction. Pow. Baseball Bat Guy suddenly grabs his face and goes down. But he’s not staying there. He sails it back in my direction. I duck, but not quick enough. Instant head throb and a warm trickle is crossing my eyebrow. My eyes slam shut. I’m so mad and scared I swear my bones are rattlin’. Burnt onto the back of my eyelids are the white graves: a photo negative of prob’ly the last thing I’ll see.
Now look. I don’t know – I must have thought about it, I guess. You know, one o’ those crazy thoughts that crosses your mind when you’re at the end of your rope? Or one o’ those desperate things you do, like promise God a million things if he could help you make it from the bus stop to the bathroom? Yeah. But as those boys come charging in with the baseball bat in the air, I’m fixin’ to fling the wallet to them again when the craziest thing pops into my head: if only my guardian angel would stop makin’ herself so scarce – that’d be great right now.
Well, look. Right away I hear stone crumbling, and one of those tall marble monuments on top of a tomb, it just leans over and comes tumbling down right in the middle of the manhunt. Brack. Boom. The thing hits the rounded top of an oven tomb, sends plaster flyin’, slides sideways and sets my teeth on edge. Whoa. What the hell. Stone splinters off in every direction. Those boys swear under their breath and pull back. Way back. Dust is in the air. I’m coughing. And that monument, it just settles in and sits there across the concrete path like the finger of God showing those punks the way out of the cemetery. So we’re there, staring at each other over the massive piece of marble for a quiet minute before they curse some more and call me a ghost, and I holler back some horrible stuff about their parents. Tennis shoes shuffle out through dead leaves. High beams swing away, the Chevy engine roars off and fades to nothing, and I’m left sitting on a cold gravestone in my best clothes, with a terrible silence hanging between this twelve-foot monument and me. That’s when I see that there’s a statue attached to the very top of it: a mossy old marble angel. Down on her face, still holding a broken sword. Now I’m scared shitless.
I really should leave, but my knees are not in the mood. I reckon those boys must have got their balls back by now and are prob’ly waiting for me out on Sixth Street, mad as hell. Truth is, I don’t blame ’em for hightailing it out of this boneyard. A ton of marble just took a nosedive inches in front of us for no practical reason.
Anyway, I’m finally up off the ground with my bones still shivering, but I’m heading south with my handkerchief over my eye. My head hurts like hell, but I reckon I can find that exit on Washington Avenue and avoid those punks. Keep off the main walkway. Walk over some low graves if you have to, Skid. Dead ahead is the iron sign that curves over the front gate with the words reversed in an arch like a bad spell. So I walk in a straight line with a slice of moon left over from last week following me through the trees. It’s enough to help me see where I’m goin’.
The whole graveyard is a maze of cages and iron fences, rows and rows of spearheads gettin’ red with rust. Someone left a string of party beads and cigarettes as an offering at a grave: prob’ly some poor fool prayin’ to fix a mistake made on Mardi Gras night. I’m bobbin’ and weavin’ and brushin’ away low branches while dead leaves shuffle in front of a breeze. You can smell the wax from the candles. I hold my nose. Then something makes me stop: a stone wall stacked to form an alcove. It’s got this little garden, a well-kept lawn, and a tomb sits in the middle of it. No, not just a tomb, a small castle really: a beautiful thing, with shining marble columns and stained-glass windows behind a fancy fleur-de-lis fence. Fresh flowers are on the stone steps. Above it, a magnolia tree is sighin’ and weepin’ white flowers all over the green. Moonlight breaks through branches and tinsels down the front of the tomb. You can tell that this family didn’t have to scrimp on the money to give their loved one a decent resting place. When the shadows move away, I see why:
I step up and, sure enough, carved into the marble are some names I recognize: “Orville Jacque Benet”, “Herbert Francis Benet”. Below that, their birthdays and a dash, followed by the date they got swallowed up by that sinkhole in the swamp.
So this is where Backhoe Benet laid his boys to rest. All the way out here, the legendary Broadway and Squash, the baddest bastards in the swamp. The tomb is brand-new too. For a second I miss them, no lie. But then… I get to thinkin’ that that little dash between birth and death stands for all the years they did some real jacked-up things to people in the swamp, including us. One little dash full of so much damn trouble from these two hell-raisers. And here they are buried like royalty after all that. Matter of fact somebody even offered coins in front of the tomb, as if these two were dead saints or something. Well, look: I know a guy who could use the bus fare. So I’m just gonna go ahead and collect all the damn quarters I can find on the ground and even stick that one-dollar note in my wallet real quick. Don’t feel bad. Trust me, these dudes don’t deserve this money one bit.
Now, I’m trying not to get riled up, but right now I can’t help picturing their big ol’ fancy mausoleum all busted up. Yes, there I said it. I can’t wait for it to crumble into one big mess. Let’s see how many tourists ooh and ahh over a heap of marble. Well, right quick the wind comes up and washes through the trees and howls like hell and I start runnin’ again, this time from about a dozen security guards. They’re rushing through the cemetery with flashlights and nightsticks. Just before I slip under the arch and out onto Washington, I hear them hollerin’ into walkie-talkies that seven grave-robbers just tore down both gates and busted open a brand-new tomb.