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The Rat Nest
fiction and photo by Robert Rossetti

Part I. "A Night on the Town"

The existence of voodoo and witchcraft in New Orleans today is questionable. Experts say the effects of Black Magic are only a state of mind-Mind over Matter. It is presumed that if a person believes in voodoo, then it will work for him, but supposedly if one is a non-believer, the assumption is that voodoo will have no effect on their life. Until recently, I have been a non-believer of the Black Arts, however a recent chain of events has caused me to scrutinize these beliefs. This is my account of the turn of events that happened one hot New Orleans night.

The miserable steamy evening began in a glaring brightly lit restaurant on Saint Charles Avenue, near Canal Street. A friend and I dined on oysters on the half shell. We washed the oysters down with whiskey and we washed the whiskey down with beer. After dinner Oliver revealed a small but elaborate tin of chocolate covered grasshoppers. Because I had never seen chocolate covered bugs before, I thought they were only a joke, something bought out of a trinket shop on Bourbon Street. However, after the tin's lid had been popped off, we insipidly ate the little black carcasses as though they were a new form of nihilistic dessert reserved only for this posh occasion. The crunchy bodies tasted delightful after the fifth shot of Jack Daniels. Our conversation was as inconsistent as our diet---lethargic oysters; loud, harmonious babble mixed with grasshoppers and beer, full of suds and dirty jokes. While still sober enough to appreciate the air-conditioning we left Pearl's Restaurant and headed for the French Quarter in search of life, liberty and the pursuit of more alcohol.

As we approached the Quarter, blue notes from a saxophone fell upon my head like the acid rains in Canada, caused by the industrial smoke stacks in Gary, Indiana. Like rats following the Pied Piper, the mystical, burning, baritone, floating musical notes led us to a doorway in the one hundred block of Bourbon Street. In the doorway stood a short balding jazzman with a gold saxophone case lined with blue felt and discarded coins. The jazzman's fingers danced up and own the tommy gun sounding sax, like John Dillinger dancing with Ginger Rogers in the alley behind the Biograph Theatre. The jazzman blew hard on his screaming saxophone, but he never opened his eyes. I danced to his music, but I never tapped my feet. Oliver uttered obscene remarks for no reason, but he never opened his fly.

We entered the French Quarter with visions of grandeur, like two brave adventurers in search of gold for their king. That illusion only lasted for three fourths of one city block, for a new reality hopped forth in the form of a multi-colored jacket. On the corner of Iberville and Bourbon stood three black prostitutes; transvestites, none of them shorter than six foot four and all wearing matted rabbit fur jackets and brightly colored afro style wigs---the type that sell at Woolworth's for $19.99. The lack of electrolysis treatment was obvious as sweat and whiskers protruded from large pores on their upper lips and chins. The 100 degree heat and the many layers of clothing caused their lips to expand and turn suffocation blue.

The scantily populated streets were spotted with fast city people dancing to slow drags (and also a few whited sepulchers--a Southern form of hypocrite generally found in the New Orleans area and the surrounding suburbs). Almost everyone on the street looked like a hustler of some sort and those that didn't seemed in no position to be hustled. The pimps, prostitutes, pick-pockets, street musicians, strip-tease dancers, cab drivers, panhandlers, and bar and shop owners on Bourbon Street all heavily depend on the tourist trade. However, on this summer night tourists were far and few between and all businesses were empty. The Bourbon Pub was closed. At the Paddock Lounge, James Davis was blowing his horn full blast into a microphone, but the only things moved by the music were the many photographs of race horses as they vibrated against the walls. Rick Hardeman and his band at the Famous Door may as well have been playing at a funeral--then more people would have shown up. The Blue Angel, the Hotsy Totsy, and the 500 Club all looked like part of the same ghost town. Three tourists stood giggling in front of Big Daddy's as the tuxedo-clad doorman, with matching slicked-back hair, swung one of the swinging doors open and closed and routinely barked, "Boys and girls naked together, no cover charge, always a continuous show." Big Daddy's plastic mannequin, whose internal swinging legs have delighted tourists for years, as they popped out a curtained window, was not working this night. The swing was broken and the fake girl's legs were paralyzed between the dirty, tattered red curtains.

This night, the city did not resemble a romantic French Impressionist painting, as depicted on most postcards, but rather it was twisted and suspended as part of a dream sequence like Salvador Dali' s version of "The Anthropomorphic Cabinet. The architecture had lost its majestic aura as the haunted buildings leaned, smeared, cracked and crumbled apart. The lonely tourist traps, and jazz bars, were silently filled with empty chairs like a Baptist mission in a rich Jewish suburb. The rawboned musicians resembled characters that had risen from the grave, as portrayed in the film classic, "Night of the Living Dead." They stared at the floor and played, "When the Saints go Marching In", while coughing and reminiscing about the great days on 42nd Street.

Like tourists with "go" cups in hand, we stood in front of Crazy Shirleys' and watched the band play inconsonant jazz with the absence of intellect. With no motivation for music, the piano players' hand crept toward a drink sitting at the far right edge of the piano. His left hand shook at the ivory keys, not really creating any sound, just going through the motions. Without emotion, the bass players' fingers fell off his hand and rolled off the stage. The clarinetist was blind and the trumpet player had lost his lip. The trombonist had no nose and no spit valve on his trombone. The drummer had no skin. He had shed it years ago like a rattlesnake in spring and now he sat on stage like exposed meat at a Mexican open market. I lost interest in the music and focused my attention on the beautiful blond waitress; she drank chocolate flavored coffee in between serving Hurricanes, while wearing her autographed Shirley Temple dancing shoes which were too small.

The street stank of booze, urine and Parish paid bug spray. The insecticide didn't kill the vicious tiger mosquitos with their orange and black bodies, it only caused their wings to turn blue. The mosquitos mixed well and added color and flavor to any Pat O'Briens' Hurricane when they fell into the souvenir go cups. It's easy to get confused in a city like New Orleans with its blinking lights, cheap neons, old street lamps, loud music, brassy strip shows and ancient architecture. It's surrounded by dangerous housing projects and modern suburbs, and filled with cheap, readily available alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. It all adds up to an adult Disneyland, and like children, it can give adults an animated false sense of reality with its historical and sexual parallels to an amusement park. At Disneyland all is make-believe, but in the French Quarter people never know what is fantasy and what is reality. At Disneyland, a walking tree, a witch, or a zombie from the grave are only people dressed up in costume, but in New Orleans they could be and probably are for real. It's a city with mystique. Often it's a commercial mystique where Bourbon Street is the epitome of commercialism. None the less, the mystique of wild bacchanals, sex orgies, and voodoo rituals are frequent and real. That blending of myth, commercial illusions, and historical romanticism have caused New Orleans to become a natural Disneyland.

Out of the bowels of the back of the French Quarter came just such a fantasy creature--"The Bead Lady." She is known by that name because she sells lucky beads. Tourists think that she is the river witch placed in the Quarter by the Chamber of Commerce to amuse them and to protect the city from another invasion of Spanish pirates. Children cringe with fear, while adults, convinced she is only a harmless side show, paid for by the Better Business Bureau of Greater New Orleans, squeal with delight when they see her dressed in her full length red silk dress, dirty green sweater and snaggly wig.

Peeking out from under her sleazy dress were two ragged, electric blue jogging shoes that curled upward at the tips, while dirty-caked toes broke out of various holes. Around her neck hung a large, blue crystal ball, about the size of a baseball. Her jaded, pale, decomposed looking face is always caked with cheap make-up and on her head sits a matted rat-nest wig that slightly resembles the old bee-hive hair-do of the late fifties. Her beads are supposed to be lucky, but most locals have only had bad luck after purchasing one of them. Her chant,"You want Lucky Bead? You need Lucky Bead!" is heard late at night above the sound of ten thousand air- conditioners in the back streets of the Quarter, where the most prevalent sight is the bored male prostitute leaning against a prehistoric light pole, waiting for his twenty dollar trick.

Before she was in sight I heard her muffled chant above the drudgery of proletarian jazz and the vibrant sound of automobiles. She was trying to sell her lucky beads as she slowly sauntered into sight. Nobody seemed interested in her beads so she started talking to a wall. After a few moments of conversation with the wall, the Bead Lady spun around delivering her incoherent babble to nobody in particular. She then picked up the receiver of a pay phone and started ranting in her unknown foreign tongues. The fragmented words ricocheted off the wall and struck pedestrians as they passed by in awe. Her sales technique was not great, but her mysterious vocabulary was outstanding, enough that she could capture the most elusive of audiences.

That was about the time I decided I wanted that old witch's rat-nest wig for a souvenir, so I dared the inebriated good old boy Oliver to make a wager. I proposed that if he would bet me five dollars, I would steal the Bead Lady's wig.

He drunkenly accepted the offer, gave me the cash in advance, and without further thought, I walked right up to the Bead Lady and snatched that old infested wig from her head. It came off easily, her real hair was too short to attach it with bobby pins. I intended to run and listen to her sick cackle chase me down the street, but to my amazement, I was stopped in my tracks by a strong vibration of some kind. It wasn't a physical vibration, but rather, an irregularity of thought. Osiris and other demonic images wavered past my face in an oscillating manner. Perhaps I was hypnotized, but for a few moments the Bead Ladys' green gray eyes turned bright red and burst into flames like the fire that burned down the old Duvic Hardware store that once stood at Algiers Point.

It seemed like an eternity while standing in the middle of deserted Bourbon Street with the wig in my hand, however, I physically couldn't flee until the flames burnt out and her eyes turned from red to green. I ran toward my friend, but he was gone, I didn't know what happened to him or to me. I scurried down the street, like a cockroach when the lights have been turned on, looking for Oliver. I didn't want to run for I already felt like an obvious criminal with the old woman's wig in my hand. I didn't expect an arm to grab me from behind, but suddenly, I was spun around and pushed up against the wall by a grody looking hippie. The hippie pulled out a badge and a pair of hand-cuffs. I handed him the wig. He looked at it with disgust, then he looked at me with even more disgust.

Part II: A Night In Hell

As I stood in line with seven hookers, the three hundred pound, fifty-plus year old sheriff with knots and bright red protruding veins on his nose belted out, "NO TALKING." I continued to whisper into the ear of the blonde lady who stood in front of me, however, the sheriff didn't take kindly to my mischievous decadence and his action should have been predictable. The veins and broken blood vessels from many years of hard drinking stood out on the back of his neck as he glared at me with cold steel gray eyes. His hand rested listlessly on his hips in the same manner as that of a discontent drill sergeant. And like a sergeant he didn't give me a second warning, for without notice, other than his mannerisms and the increasing blood flow to his neck and face, he quickly and effortlessly raised his large freckled hand and slapped me along the side of my head and said, "That means you, ASS-HOLE!"

He didn't hit me hard enough to fall down or even out of the line formed in front of the fingerprint desk I was standing in. However, my head stung and I felt like a naughty school boy who had been caught disrupting the class. The question I was asking wasn't worth the embarrassment and pain, especially since I could guess the answer. I was inquiring as to where she had been picked up. I learned later, which coincided with my previous beliefs, that she had been captured for doing her disarticulating deed in the French Quarter, but that's another story.

The jovial atmosphere of the incident was quickly waning when the sheriff insisted I follow him through a cell block consisting of dim, barren, gray, metallic cages filled with souls allegedly guilty of offending society. I wasn't expecting ornate grating lavishly placed on an intricate erection of sophisticated engineering but this was a landmark of desolation.

Home is where the heart is they say and "Home Sweet Home" for me that night was a hot cell about eight feet long by six feet wide. It's formal name was Central Lock-up and it was completely constructed of steel; even the two planks used for sitting or sleeping that ran the length of the wall were cold steel. The cage was at one time painted gray but now, after years of continuous residency, most of the gray had been chipped away and only the bare steel and graffiti artwork of the bored tenants remained. Packed in the cell with me like a can of sardines were five young black men and one old white wino, whose favorite recreation was regurgitating next to the cracked leaky porcelain toilet. He did this every five minutes and caused the overcrowded cell to reek with the foul odor of recycled wine and red beans and rice. Nobody seemed to know why he did this on the floor and not in the toilet he was clutching, but after an hour of this ritual two of the fellow lodgers grew testy with the heat, the stench and the wino choking on his vomit, and proceeded to kick in the old souse's ribs. This was done very informally with one man standing to the left of the drunk and the other to the right, each ritualistically waiting until the other finished his kick before proceeding with another of his own. The beating caused the tattered drunk to lapse into a convulsion of exaggerated spasms. Like a punctured aerosol can, he flopped around the floor and sprayed everyone with a protein-enhanced alcoholic foam that shot from his mouth. The kicking resumed at a faster pace along with an increase of name calling. Soon,"Old Faithful" stiffened and stopped his spasms and his spraying. The swearing and name calling ceased, allowing only the thumping sound of a boot hitting dead weight to echo throughout the desolate hallway of cages. When the thumping stopped not a single word was uttered by anyone in our cell, only occasional coughing, spitting and toilet flushing broke the silence of the night.

There was no reason for feeling rage, no sense in feeling pain and no possibility of falling asleep. As difficult as it must have been to sleep, my cellmates were all curled up on the two benches, each giving the other just enough room to lay his head down. Some had shirts under their heads while others lay with their faces on the base metal or in their arms. I sat on the floor with my back against the bars, for there was no room anywhere else. The glaring lights in the cages had been off for hours so the only existing light was the bare lightbulb in the hallway which cast various blue reflections across the dark cage. The steel bars allowed for black striped shadows but all other forms consisted of various tones of blue. The porcelain toilet was a vivid reflective blue while the walls were a flat matte chilly blue. The dead, beaten, grisly figure on the floor was shades of orchid with black embellishments to enhance the tribulations and to coincide with the blue black faces of the men crumpled up on the benches.

There was nothing to do except wait in silence and count each hour as the guard made his rounds. For lack of imagination and fear of it, I tried to keep my mind occupied and stabilized by counting inanimate objects. I counted each cough and choke that came from the other cells. I counted sounds that couldn't be identified. Sometimes the sound of traffic could be heard. I counted those sounds also. The more sober I became the more my vision seemed to waver as I stared at the starkness of my filled cage. I watched with intensity as the vertical black shadows of the bars would occasionally jerk or flutter.

I was afraid to close my eyes for I might envision even worse than what lay in front of me, but my eyelids grew heavy as fatigue approached. A dreamlike peace came over me after I closed my eyes and concentrated on the criss-cross of their indigo blue eyelid veins. The veins wavered and cracked and split apart until they weren't veins anymore. Maybe they were bars, bars inside my head, I don't know, I let my mind drift. I drifted into childhood and remembered my youthful fascination with shampoo bottles. I don't know what brand it was, but at the grocery store I remembered becoming enthralled with a bottle of aquamarine blue shampoo which had one pearl-sized bubble imprisoned within the thick soapy liquid. I felt sorry for the lonely bubble and wanted it to pop or escape. In a gallant effort to free the little bubble from its confining liquid mass I proceeded to tip the bottle upside down then back up again but nothing happened, the bubble would not pop, it only floated from one end of the bottle to the other. I shook the bottle violently but still the perpetual bubble was unbroken. In a last ditch effort I opened the plastic bottle and stuck my finger into the moist shampoo but the perturbed bubbled dodged my finger as if it had a brain. Like a fish in a fishbowl, the evasive bubble swam away. I believed I was cursed, the Bead Lady cursed me, and now I let madness take a new twist. I let my mind untangle an old knot, I let my fallacious thoughts follow a new illusional wrinkle of anxiety. With my eyelids locked shut my impetuous imagination envisioned that my face was on that unbreakable bubble floating in dense shampoo. My face was hideous. My deepest eye-sockets were greenish black causing my face to have a grim forbidding death-like appearance. The black eyes were shining like a rodent in the dark. The rodent's body can't be seen but his eyes can. My thin sallow cheeks were pale blue with streaks of sickly green to allow for envy. My penetrating forehead swam with silty wrinkles. My lips; just a gaping dark hole for a mouth; no teeth, no lips, just a dark hole called Sleep. The final sleep I was afraid of never came and now sleep seems like a ludicrous thing to fear. The change of sleep brought a new day and a different setting. When I woke I found my situation to be the same, I was still in jail, however many things had changed and I began to wonder how much of the last night was an illusion. The dead drunk was sitting up and talking to the very men that had killed him the night before. Within moments, before I could grasp what had happened, the cell door opened and I was led to a crowded courtroom w

here I waited until my case was called.. I was charged with disorderly conduct but the charged was dismissed when neither the arresting officer nor the Bead Lady showed up to press charges. I was cut loose.

Of course I'll always wonder if the Bead Lady's eyes really did turn red, or if it was just a hallucination of my distorted mind. I may have been hypnotized, but the incident seemed real enough to convince my that the Bead Lady is a real Halloween type witch. Incidently, the next day I shaved my beloved pet poodle Pierre because his fur continually reminded me of the Bead Lady's rat-nest wig. And I never did find Oliver.

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