An excerpt of
Pretty Broken Things
By Melissa Marr
Chapter 1: Juliana
The dead girl is in a grave so shallow it wasn't hard to find her. That’s all I know.
Dispatch doesn’t add that it’s awful, not directly. All she says is, “This is one for you, Juliana.”
There’s an unpleasant familiarity to this moment. I’ve only worked at my uncle’s funeral home for a few years, but I apparently have the stomach for the sorts of cases that he can’t handle. He’s not great with brutal death--like the bodies the Carolina Creeper has left behind.
“Is it . . .”
The woman on the phone doesn’t reply. “What’s your ETA?”
I glance at my watch. “Twenty. Thirty if there’s traffic.”
“At this hour?”
“So, thirty then.” I disconnect and take a moment to find a quiet place in my head.
My uncle used to do this part on his own, but the last few years, Uncle Micky hits the bottle every time he ends up at the scene of an ugly death.
Some of the worst ones come back to me when I close my eyes at night. It’s like having a photographic memory—but only for the things I’d rather never have seen.
Such is the fate of those of us who work as ferrymen for the dead. Morticians have a very high rate of alcoholism, divorce, and suicide.
I don’t drink much. I find my solace in other things.
I worry about Uncle Micky, and can’t help but wonder if that’s my future, too. Did he used to be more or less okay? Is his reaction to the work where I’ll end up if I stay in this business? Morticians have a high rate of alcoholism—and an equally dismal divorce rate.
Today, though, a dead woman needs me. Protecting Uncle Micky from more nightmares and retrieving the dead, those are my priorities today. I’ll deal with the rest another day.
I poke my head into the preparation room. “Is there gas in the bus? I’m headed out to Umstead.”
"Filled it this morning."
"I'll need to drop the client at the M.E.'s office," I add, clarifying without details that it’s very much not a natural causes run.
In this part of North Carolina, the medical examiner’s office is supported by a network of professionals. I often do transport. I do a number of preparations, and if I need to, I could do autopsy. It's not unusual. Plenty of states subcontract their work. It's cheaper for them than hiring full-time, and it's extra money for morticians who sign on.
After a longer than usual pause, Micky looks up from the body he’s preparing for viewing. He hears the parts I don't say.
"Are you good?"
I nod, even though I'm not. Seeing the dead who've been mistreated is never easy—and there's more likelihood of violent death than a heart attack today. I worry most about the dead who seem to show up in my jurisdiction more than anywhere else. His victims.
I whisper a prayer that today will not be another victim of the Creeper.
During my retreat to my own thoughts, Micky's attention returns to the woman on the table. Comforting the grieving and preparation are the parts of the job where my uncle excels. He can reconstruct expressions, apply make-up, and by the time he’s done, the mourners will see their loved one. It’s an art. No one ever suggests that the people he prepares look “wrong.”
I don’t have the patience for the make-up. Restoration and embalming, those are fine. Retrieval runs, paperwork, and marketing—because, yes, this is still a business and marketing matters—those are all fine, too. Make-up perplexes me; it always has. I can manage it, but not like him. Not on the bodies we prepare, and not on my own face.
Uncle Micky holds my gaze just long enough to make me want to tell him it’s okay. We both know he realizes that there’s a rough call. Uncle Micky might not offer to go in my place, but he would go if I asked. He’s good people. That’s a tried and true fact.
“Can you handle everything here while I’m out?” It’s not exactly saying that I’m okay or that I can handle it, but we aren’t direct like that.
He nods. “You’re a good kid, Jules.”
“I’m thirty-two,” I remind him.
He smiles. “I swear you were twenty-five last time I checked.”
I snort. “And this is why I do the books. You’re lousy with math.”
I walk outside, and feel like a wet blanket hit me. Carolina weather. It’s always humid, or at least it feels that way.
Murder smells worse in humidity. The scent of things best never smelled gets caught in the wet of the air, and I swear it clings. To my clothes. My hair. My skin.
I drive out to the park. I’ve hiked here. It’s almost six thousand acres of land with trails, campsites, and lakes. A part of me wants to believe this was a shooting or an accidental death. The logical part of my mind can’t quite do that. The park is well traveled enough that there is little chance of death by exposure or animal. A shooting here is likely to have drawn attention, but it’s not impossible to stealthily shoot or stab someone in the park.
The worst possibilities play in my mind: a child, sexual assault, murder suicide, group suicide, multiple graves. Sometimes, my mind wanders down paths I wish it wouldn’t. It’s a consequence of my job: I see the unvarnished truth, the details that are half-hidden or soft-focused before the family or friends hear about it. The truth is that people are cruel. It’s why Uncle Micky drinks. It’s why I check my locks more than once at night. It’s also on the long list of reasons I’m lousy at dating. Better to be single and haunted by my nightmares than to raise a child in this world.
I park at Umstead in the lot closest to the crime, and get out.
I force my steps to be even, my expression neutral, as I walk over to the taped off area of the park. My part-time function with the medical examiner’s office means that I have credentials to get past the police tape—not that I need them today. The officers here all know me.
“Jules.” Henry nods to me. His eyes take me in like he can read things in my skin and stance. He probably can.
I nod back, and for just a moment, I let myself look at him.
Henry’s young for a detective, the sort of man who has the indeterminate age that could be anywhere from early thirties to late forties. Ex-Army. Descended from freed slaves. One tattoo. Proud nose. Military haircut. No glasses. He’s born Southern, raised Southern, and undoubtedly will die here, too.
He also kisses like a man who enjoys desserts and fine whiskey, slowly savoring each moment. That particular detail is one I shove back into the box where I prefer to keep it. Late night mistakes are best forgotten, even when they’re rich with promise . . . perhaps especially when they are.
“Male or female?” I ask, silently hoping it’s a man. The Creeper doesn’t kill men.
“Woman.” Henry’s expression is unreadable, even to me. That’s not an accident. Even that single words feels heavier in his rich deep bass voice, though.
I’m not going to think about his voice or any other aspect of the mystery that is Henry Revill. Henry and I are just colleagues these days. When we were younger, we were something else. A few times, I’ve slipped up and fallen into his bed after deciding we were done with that part of our history. Right now, though, our past means we know each other too well to be standing over a body together without stealthily checking in on the other one's well-being.
I slip on my gear. My gloves are purple. Uncle Micky thought I’d like them better, but they stand out too much, too bright at the edge of death. The only thing keeping me from ordering a box of the black ones is fiscal responsibility. I focus on retrieving my coveralls, glasses, and gloves.
It’s too damn hot to want to wear any of it longer than necessary, but contaminating the scene forensically is not an option.
Henry looks away as I shimmy into my coveralls. There’s nothing improper about it. My clothes stay on under them, but to a lot of Southern men, modesty matters. Respect matters, especially respect toward women. And as much as we are in a modern part of the South, there are still those who look at a Black man with a different level of scrutiny. Henry and I having a past doesn’t erase that reality either.
From behind me, I hear, “We aren’t making any statements.”
Officer McAllister glares at the reporter who’s craning his neck as if seeing what’s behind the black tarps would be wise.
Those hanging tarps aren’t erected just for the deceased’s privacy. The tarp hides the sight of what’s sure to be awful, yet do nothing for the scent of death.
It takes a certain sort of mindset to bury a body here. It means that he—and yes, most serial killers are men—managed to take his victim into a well-trafficked area. She was either alive and killed on-site, or he carried a dead body into the woods. Both scenarios tell us something about him. I'm only contracted to transport bodies, but after a few years doing so, I couldn't help but learn more than a little about investigations.
People talk. Morticians listen better than most folks realize.
“You ought to send the old man out on these,” Mac mutters just loud enough that I can’t miss it, but low enough that he can pretend I wasn’t supposed to.
Maybe he’s trying to piss me off so I can better face the dead girl. Maybe he’s just more of an asshole than I realized. Either way, I don’t reply. I might be a woman, but I’m stronger than my uncle when it comes to this. Hell, according to my mother, it’s because I’m a woman. A Southern woman. No wilting lilies here.
I glance at Henry. His expression has grown even sterner. “Detective?”
Henry nods, and we step behind the make-shift curtain.
These days, I’ve had far too much familiarity with violent death. I’ve been the caretaker for five of the Creeper’s victims.
“It’s him, isn't it?”
Henry doesn’t reply. He’s behind me, but he says nothing.
For a moment, I need to go through my checklist again to settle my nerves: My feet are covered in booties, and my clothes are under coveralls.
The only excuse I have to pause is to straighten the goggles on my face.
Finally, I look at her: The dead woman is covered in blood-stained clothes, leaves, and dirt.
Brown hair. Caucasian. Late twenties.
I squat so I’m crouched beside her. The smell makes me glad I hadn’t eaten.
I catalogue her injuries. Broken radius and ulna. Six stab wounds. Bruising from restraints. I don’t need to see the crude tattoo on her wrist to know it’s there. The Creeper. She was killed by him.
Still, I brush away the dirt gently until I see it: Flower buds. It’s new. The ink doesn’t have that washed out tone that older tattoos have. He marks them.
“He sent a letter this time, Jules.”
I look up at Henry.
“Chief says you ought to be kept away from this.” He glances at the girl. “But . . . I convinced him that you’d be safer around us, so we ought to make use of you.”
I laugh. Henry’s not enough of an asshole to really think that, but he knows how to keep me from the panic that is already starting to fill me. There’s an art to managing people, whether it’s at the police station or a funeral home. It's one of too many things Henry and I share.
“What did the letter say?”
After a pause, Henry says, “’Thank Juliana for looking after all of my pretty things.’”
“They’re not things, and they’re not his.”
I look at her, the nameless dead girl in front of me. I can’t erase the last days she’s suffered, but I will give her the respect he hasn’t. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I face my nightmares. It’s the same thing that drives Henry: we are their last resort, the ones who protect the dead after they are no longer able to be saved.
“He sent a message to you, Jules.”
“My name’s in the paper.” I bite out the words. The truth, though, I know it’s not because he’s read my name. This was personal before I was in the paper. I’m not sure why, but I think the Creeper has targeted me. Henry thinks it, too. Still, I lie. I pretend I think it’s not personal because if it is . . . I’m not sure how I’ll sleep at night.
“Jules . . .”
I look at Henry and carry on with my illusions. “My identity is not exactly a secret. I work for the county, so he knows my name. It's not a crisis.”
“You know it’s not that simple.”
We both know. My Uncle Micky will know it too. Someone will leak the note, and the newspapers will examine it to the point of absurdity. People will speculate again. There’s nothing I can say or do to prevent any of that from happening.
None of it means I know what to do about the larger situation. What’s the right thing to do when a killer knows your name? They don’t cover that in any of the various classes I’ve taken, not mortuary science classes or my assorted college courses or even the floral arranging ones at the community college. I collect classes and facts the way most people collect shoes. It’s never enough. Sorting out facts helps keep me from sinking into depression. It's a far sight better than some of the things morticians do to keep it together.
“I can’t, Henry. Just . . . help me get the stretcher.” I stand. “She doesn’t need to stay here any longer than she already has.”
“Fine.” Henry follows me to what I privately call "the body bus." He’s almost casual in tone, then, as he warns me, “You know we’re going to have to talk.”
“I’ll have the paperwork—”
“Don’t be difficult, Jules. If he really is leaving victims for you. . . if he’s fixated on you . . . ”
“Sure.” I try to match his tone, aiming to sound casual even though I feel anything but calm. “But I live at the funeral home, Henry. My home? It’s safe, and I’m not careless. There’s nothing to discuss.”
He shakes his head, but he lets it go for now. That’s all I can hope for. Later, when I’ve done my job and I’m in the privacy of my home, I’ll face the realization that a serial killer is paying attention to me. Later, Henry will force me to discuss the unpleasant realities of the police department knowing that one of their own—because whether I wear a badge or not, I am theirs—is in danger. Later, Southern tradition will insist that I am in need of extra defense because I am a woman. Somewhere in there, Henry will pretend it's not personal for him. Even though we both know that it is.
But right now? I’m going to do my job.
Chapter 2: Tess
It’s a Wednesday when I meet John Michael Anderson. He doesn’t use his first name in person, and both of his book covers list him as J. Michael Anderson. The extra initial may be pretension, but he’s earned a few pretensions. His debut was the sort of book that’s nearly impossible to follow. It’s rare to have more than one such book in you. I think he knows that; the critics certainly pointed it out often enough the past few years.
He's older than I remember him being.
Reid would be too. I think it before I can stop myself. Even after six years, I still think about Reid. What he liked. What he wanted. Where I still fail. He made me who I am. Even without the scars, I can still see the proof of it. There's a kind of thinness that comes from soul-deep hunger, a kind of lost look, a kind of desperation. Sometimes I still see it when I stare into a mirror. Six years, almost a thousand miles, and more than thirty hours of tattoos, and I still see the woman Reid made.
I hate her. I hate the parts of me that still sound like his Tess.
But that’s who Michael wants, too. I know why he's in my city. I know what he's seeking here. The oh-so-successful author wants a story, and Tess? The me that used to be? The survivor? She’s a hell of a story.
There was a time I’d have done just about anything to have him look at me with interest. I did him back then, although I doubt Michael remembers me. I was just another fan on the road, and I didn’t have the maze of ink on my skin that I do now. I hadn’t started to find myself or draw the map.
These days, the edge of a tattoo somewhere can be seen no matter what I wear, but when I took a tumble with Michael, I was unmarked aside from my scars. I’ve been adding tattoos since I moved to New Orleans, alternating between two different shops in the Marigny depending on my mood. When I have the cash and the stability to sit still, I write my history, etching it in my skin when I remember the forgotten bits and pieces of my past that might one day make me whole.
Someday, I’ll either run out of skin or of memories. Either way, I’ll be whole then.
Today, I’m at Mardi Gras Memories, the absurd little shop where I’ve been working.
Michael walks in like it’s casual. “Tess, right?”
I ignore him. I’m not going to make this easy for either of us. There are moments in life when we know we are at the edge of a mistake. J. Michael Anderson is a celebrity. Celebrities draw attention. Attention is bad.
“You are Tess, aren’t you?” He’s wearing the same thing I’ve seen in plenty of photos, the same thing he once stripped off in front of me: jeans, faded enough to look like they’re older than they truly are, a casual shirt, dark leather shoes.
“I hated your last book.”
He stills at that, laughs awkwardly. “You’ve read my books?”
I debate kindness. I remember the peace I found in his touch when I needed it. Kindness won’t make him leave though, and I need him to leave.
Michael steps closer to me. “Tess . . . You are Tess, aren’t you? I thought you were. They said—”
“Obviously,” I cut him off before he can lie. I try to be truthful when I can, even when it’s ugly, even when it hurts.
“I am Tess.” I clench my hand against the urge to scrape my nails across my palm. I want to stay in the now without tricks or pills. Truth helps. I meet his eyes and repeat, “I am Tess.”
I am not Tessie. I am no longer the woman who did bad things I can’t always remember. I am not the same person as the one who made those choices. Now, I tell the truth, as much truth as I can. It doesn’t undo the past, but it helps me be in the present.
“I thought so.” Michael smiles. His attention is all the more focused now that I’ve confirmed what he already knew.
“Are you buying something or leaving?” I keep my tone meaner than I feel, but talking to him, seeing him, everything about this is a bad idea.
Michael opens his mouth, but instead of speaking, he closes it again and picks up a few strands of beads. In February, they’re tossed from floats or strung out like decorations. When they hang like tinsel in the trees or balconies or are passed out like rarities from floats, they seem valuable. They glimmer in street lights and headlights. Here, on the counter, they’re worthless. Sometimes people are like that, too.
I ring up the beads.
“You know, I saw you in Jackson Square,” he half-lies.
He keeps going: “I asked one of the fortune tellers down there, and she said you worked here.”
"I do." Talking is hard. I often feel like there are things I ought to say or not say. The rules confuse me—worse when I know that there are lies in the words.
Michael hands me a credit card. It seems odd to charge such a small amount, or really, any amount. I am strictly cash and carry whenever possible. Credit cards leave a trail, and I don’t want to be found.
Michael looks at me expectantly, and I realize that he didn’t think he’d have to have to work so hard for my attention.
“What do you want?”
He glances to the side, not meeting my gaze. It’s an obvious tell. “I’ve only been here a couple weeks, and I could use an insider’s perspective.”
“I want to learn about the city.” He offers me a full-out charming smile, as if I’m stupid.
He could find plenty of tours. The Crescent City is a tour mecca. Guides share accurate (or not) tales on everything from voodoo and prostitution to murder and plantations. The tour guides are so numerous that they must adhere to a minimum distance law to keep from interfering with other folks’ tours—and thus their livelihood.
I shrug. “I can recommend some people.”
“What I really want is the insider view.”
“I’m not a native or insider.”
He gives me puppy dog eyes. “Come to dinner, at least.”
This is a mistake. I want it not to be, but I can’t pretend I don’t realize that I’m on the precipice of a disaster. People do that. They say they don’t know how they ended up in the depths of self-destruction. That’s a lie. We make a thousand small choices that lead to our demise.
“A drink then?”
"It's a bad idea," I tell us both.
I know better. Really, I do. Breaking rules is why I'm here in New Orleans. It's why the pretty things died. It's why I still look into shadows.
Michael's not the sort of person who goes about unnoticed. Neither am I if the right people see me. I know I look different these days, but under all the changes, I suspect I still look like who I am. Someone could recognize me. I've seen my picture on television. I'm a missing woman. Everything I've done, every choice I've made for years, it's all been about being safe. Safe means hidden.
Reid can't kill me if he can't find me.
And despite all of the reasons not to, I nod. Maybe I just want to be found, for it to be over.
Michael talks. Making plans. I know I reply, but I can’t be sure what I say.
Maybe it’s not self-destruction. Maybe I’m lonely for someone who knows me. Michael met me when I was Tessie, and he still fucked me. That means I wasn’t all bad, right?
Or maybe I’m overthinking it. One date shouldn't change everything—but I still take another pill when he walks away. Rules let me survive. Rules keep me safe.
Michael has already enticed me to break one of them.
* * *
A few hours later, Michael takes me to dinner at Antoine’s, the oldest French-Creole restaurant in the city. It’s far more upscale than I find comfortable these days. It makes me remember a life I won’t ever live again. But this is about Michael. He’s trying his best to figure out how to charm me.
It’s working despite his efforts, not because of them.
I shake my head at how silly it all is. It’s quite possibly the least honest date I’ve ever been on. He shoves his real motives aside and flirts with me. I hide my awareness of why he’s sought me out and my memories of being naked with him. It’s possibly the least honest date I’ve ever been on.
I stare at my dish, weighing words as I study my pommes de terre soufflées.
Part of me wants to tell him that he’s trying to buy me with a high priced meal instead of just giving me the cash, but I settle on a softer truth than the raw words I would usually use: “Dinner and stories of your movie, your tours, your carefully dropped hints about your success . . . most women probably say yes before the main course, don’t they?”
“Maybe I don’t want sex.”
He’s not lying, but like most good mistruths, there is a lie and a truth all twisted up together in his words. Someone told him about my episodes, and he is intrigued. If you ask him, press him hard enough, I suspect he’ll claim that the curiosity is simply part of his avocation.
That, too, is not a lie.
It is, also, not the truth.
He wants to know, wants to collect stories and characters because it gives him power, but I’m not easy about parting with my truths. Some truths lead to blood. Reid taught me that, too.
I’m done bleeding for anyone.
I finish my wine, and then I lean closer. “It is a shame that you’re not interested. I had every intention of fucking you.”
He grabs my wrist, and I see a hint of darkness, telling me that he’s not as polished and civilized as he tries to be. That does more for me than any meal or story of his travels ever could. Maybe because it’s familiar, but I like that threat the way a junkie likes a fix.
This is why we break the rules, this rush, this easing up on the precipice. I can see disasters looming if I stay on the path I'm approaching.
Outside, Michael shoves me against a wall and kisses me. Crudely, carelessly, like I mean nothing and everything in that moment.
It is exactly what I need.
Chapter 3: Juliana
I never wanted to be in a house that smells like death—and there is a smell. I know it. I'm proud of the work I do, but I can't ever escape the feeling that I smell like a mix of bitter coffee and too sweet flowers. Not every death is that. Sometimes, there's cologne. Sometimes, there's the bite of cigarettes from the grieving who quit years ago, but couldn’t resist the calm of nicotine during the pre-funeral days. No matter what else, though, the ceremony around death smells like flowers and coffee to me.
When I was a kid, my uncle was actually the fun one in the family. He told the silliest jokes, and he was the first to go play in the rain with me and my sister—and the last one to add new rules to our lives. Uncle Micky was happy to have a tea party with us, but when he did so, we had proper tea and scones. My sister and I loved him, but as an adult I realize that his need to play was a result of the things he saw in his job.
My job, too, these days.
I guess I realized that Uncle Micky was lonely. It was just him in his big house in Durham, and sometimes when we visited, plans changed last minute because someone had died.
When something bad happened, he was the only one who ever knew what to say. Maybe that's the truth of why I do what I do. I want to be like Uncle Micky because he was the only one who could help me when I thought I'd rather crawl in a hole and give up on living. I wanted to be that person for someone else.
When my sister died, Uncle Mickey was one of the only two people who wanted to talk. No one else seemed to get beyond "I'm sorry to hear about Sophie" or "Sophie and Tommy are with God now." And maybe they are. I want to believe that.
"He's going to go too far one of these days," Sophie says.
"Should I ask?" I don't like Darren, but I'm cautious. Everyone who says anything negative about Darren gets kicked out of Sophie's life when she takes him back. My hand tightens on the phone. I want her here where I can see her and protect her.
"I love him."
"We just fight so much . . ."
"Sophie? Did something happen?"
My sister pauses long enough that I open my mouth, but then she says, "No. It's okay. He's just . . . upset a lot."
I have come to realize that I couldn’t save her. Sometimes people are beyond our reach. I think about the things I could've done, the things I could've said. Maybe there was nothing. Logic says nothing I do today will bring her back, but every so often, I can't stop thinking about her voice. I hear her voice, and I think about the women the Creeper kills. Did they have sisters they'd call? Do they have kids at home?
Tommy is harder to think about than my sister. My nephew was the only person Darren treated like he was fragile. For all my issues with my brother-in-law, I never doubted that he loved his son. He claims he still does. Hell, he claims he still loves my sister. He writes to me sometimes, long rambling letters that remind me that the human capacity for self-delusion is incredible.
And every once in a while, I am terrified that he's not completely wrong. Some of them I've read and re-read:
Sophie would forgive me. I know she would. Someday I'll be with her again, and she'll tell me. With God's grace, we'll live together in his kingdom with our son. I can't be angry with you, Juliana. Sophie would disapprove. I wish you could understand what happened.
But after a certain point, I asked not to receive them. They are turned over to the police, to Henry. I can't read them anymore. It makes me feel weak to admit that—so only Henry and Uncle Micky know.
I'm not sure why I can handle the grief of mourners or the heartbreak over the women the Creeper has killed, but my own grief is too much to unpack even now. I haven't seen or spoken to my sister's killer since the trial. Sophie’s husband. Tommy’s dad. How do men kill their children? Their partners? How do they do the things that I see written on bodies?
Uncle Micky is in the room. The little girl in me still looks at him and sees home. My parents are good people, but my uncle's the one who kept me safe.
“Rumors are already starting.” Uncle Micky stands far enough away that I don’t feel crowded.
“The body you and the Revill boy—”
I shake my head. “He’s thirty-eight.”
Uncle Micky ignores my attempt to redirect. “Are there things you aren’t telling me, Jules?”
If I listed all the things I hid, we’d be in this stand-off a while. I walk over and wrap my arms around my uncle. It’s not exactly an answer, but for a moment, I want to be a small child, safe from the monsters in the world. I used to think that the bad things were the stuff of stories, and I believed that things that go bump in the night skittered away when the lights cut on.
Then my brother-in-law murdered my sister and my nephew.
Then a killer started leaving bodies at my doorstep.
The world is full of monsters, not make-believe ones, but flesh and blood men who target women. The two men are not connected. They aren’t connected to other men like them either. I’m well aware that there is no great conspiracy. It’s not that complicated.
Some men simply like the power they can have over others.
At the end of the day, that’s why Darren writes to me from his cell. It’s why the Creeper sent a letter. And it’s why I’m not going to allow fear to reign over me. My fear—any woman or child’s fear—gives men like that power. I won’t do it.
Chapter 4: Michael
Despite my inquiries about Tess, I hadn’t been prepared for the woman herself. Nothing had prepared me for her brashness. Above all, the stories I’d collected hadn’t prepared me for the way she seemed to study me.
Tess judged me. Not just that, she saw me in a way I wasn’t sure I liked. I’ve never felt as replaceable as I felt when she disrobed and looked back at me like I’d missed a cue along the way. Sex with Tess felt vaguely like a doctor’s exam. I’m not sure it was an exam I passed.
She was satisfied. Her orgasms weren’t faked. Yet I was dismissed like hired help. There were no invitations for future dinners or desserts, not even a vague suggestion that we ought to “get together some time.” She simply sent me on my way with a little wave and a kiss on the cheek.
I don’t know if she plans to see me again, but I will see her. Whether she wants to or not, Tess will save my career.
“Think of it as a storyteller’s journey.” That was the excuse my agent, Elizabeth, offered when she told me to “take some time” before writing my next contracted book.
I’ve never failed at anything, not until the release of The Ruins of a Carriage House. To say failure was unexpected is such a mild explanation. To say I’m desperate to restore my reputation is even less accurate. The pressure to deliver the next promised manuscript has become a nonstop murmur in the back of my mind as I wander cities. It’s become the proverbial devil on my shoulder.
I could buy out my contract, pay out the signing advance and end the whole thing. Sometimes I think about it. I don’t need the money, but quitting is a level of failure I’m unwilling to accept. It means the end of a writing career the New York Times once heralded. I won’t quit.
I just need to find the right story, the right character, and then everything will be golden again.
A Solitary Grave was the start of what critics agreed would be a remarkable career. The prose was nuanced. The story was both heart-breaking and terrifying. The protagonist was the sort of broken man who overcame his own foibles and the world’s weight. It was, in sum, well-received and exceptionally lucrative—even more so after the film.
My sophomore effort, on the other hand, was soundly dismissed. “Maudlin and disjointed,” pronounced one the industry reviews. The critical reception from every outlet was either scathing or, at best, vaguely kind. The consensus, however, was that perhaps my first book was the anomaly.
The next book will be the deciding factor. It will tip the scales in one direction or the other.
I’m on a “post-modern experiment in storytelling.” I need a compelling character. I’ve considered a few: a red-nosed man who talked about working in a steel town, an angry vagrant in the Pacific Northwest, a bankrupt tobacco farmer in the American South. They were all interesting in that way of strangers in transit, but theirs weren’t stories that I wanted to continue to spin out. That was my goal—find the germ of a story as I had with Jorge, and then run with it until it became more. With Jorge, I took far more of his tale than anyone knew, but Jorge died not long before A Solitary Grave came out, and his daughter was content to sign a non-disclosure agreement with a generous check attached.
New Orleans is the first city where I think I might have found the start of a story. I’m not sure I’ll even need to offer a check for this one. In a city of broken souls, artists, and madmen, it takes a truly spectacular person to stand out.
Tess stands out.
“Back again?” Molly, the bartender, asks when I walk into May Bailey’s. The bar, on Dauphine Street in a little boutique hotel, is tucked away. It feels like so many things in this city: hidden in plain sight.
“Nowhere else is quite as irresistible.”
It’s not a lie. There’s a lot of loud bars in the city. Bourbon Street is a mass of tourists, cheap drinks, and nearly naked women. There are other bars, catering to a different sort of tourist. New Orleans is a city founded on sin and illusions. The very land was stolen from the swamp—there is nothing substantial supporting it.
I like that, the idea that this is a city resting on something far from solid. It feels right that this city is where I'll find what I need. It stretches along a tempestuous river, giving life and taking it in equal measure over the years. It is, in sum, everything a writer could want. If I were capable of love, I'd fall in love with New Orleans.
And even within such a place, there are pockets that are odder than what passes for normal here. May Bailey’s Place is unlike every other place I’ve tried. From the faded elegance of the bar to the jaded history of the location, it is remarkable.
Molly, however, smiles in the way hundreds of other bartenders across the country as she pours me a drink. The seating area is mostly deserted, and I wonder—not for the first time—how it stays in business.
It has a very intentional charm, calling back to its history as a brothel. Photographs and assorted memorabilia hang on the wall, and every so often a tour group or a lone tourist clutching a book will wander in and stare at the vestiges of the past on display here. A few take pictures; others buy a drink or two. The bar seems to lack regulars, which is part of its appeal. A changing clientele means an endless buffet of stories. Maybe it’s only because of the tours or the hotel that the doors remain open.
Molly’s mention of a former bartender, of Tess, was ultimately what caught me. I spent days asking questions before finally approaching Tess. I asked the fortune teller about her. I saw her in Jackson Square.
I wasn’t stalking her; I was researching.
Molly had described Tess as a fragile creature, prone to flights and fights in equal measure. I knew I’d found my new Jorge when Molly had added that Tess was running from something so awful that she rarely spoke of it even when she was so far gone on pills and liquor that she would wander into cemeteries, parks, and alcoves to sleep.
“I met Tess.”
Molly scans the room. “Everyone does if they stay around long enough.”
“She seemed pretty together. I expected her to be a little more disorganized.” I swirl the cubes in my glass, not looking at Molly in case she can see the hope in my eyes. Sometimes I think bartenders, the good ones at least, have a preternatural gift at reading people. I don’t want to be read.
“Tess has good spells and bad spells.” Molly shrugs. “When she’s having a good one, I always hope it’ll stick, but sooner or later, it ends. Poor thing never gets too far away from what’s been chasing her all this time.”
“Did she ever hint at what it was?”
Molly stares at me. “Don‘t go thinking I’m unaware of who you are, Mr. Anderson.”
I put my hands up in surrender. “I’m curious. That’s all.”
“Uh huh.” Molly’s stare feels unending, and I know that I’m being weighed and measured. Whatever she sees is enough for her to add, “And don’t you go asking her questions about the past. Sometimes sleeping dogs bite when you disturb them.”
“I didn’t ask anything.”
It’s true, too. I was very careful not to ask about Tess’ past, her secrets, her tattoos, or anything that would make her run. Even when I saw the scars hidden under her clothes, I didn’t ask questions.
I want her to tell me her story of her own volition. I’m letting her direct our contact. I held out my hand to Tess like I would with a feral thing. Now, I’ll wait.
“I’m not cruel,” I tell Molly.
I’m not sure the same can be said of Tess. There’s something about her that’s not as sweet as Molly led me to believe. I don’t know if I should hide it or accent that trait in the book.
“Leave the girl alone,” Molly says before she walks away.
I settle into the odd little bar and muse over the possibilities. Maybe it’s where I am; maybe it’s Tess’ comments about prostitution. Is that why tonight was so peculiar? Is that why Tess has such scars? I imagine stories: Tess as an entrapped prostitute, sold by an alcoholic mother or abusive father; Tess as a run-away, mentally compromised by the horrors of a human trafficking ring. In my book, The Story of A Sparrow, Tess will be younger, of course, but I think she’ll still have some of the tattoos that spiral across her skin. Perhaps, I’ll make her a single mother who had a schizophrenic break when her whole family died. The possibilities roll out as they haven’t since the days when I met with Jorge. Unlike him, Tess is reticent to share her past, but I can be patient. I know in my bones that she’s worth it.
“I like her, you know,” I tell Molly when she comes to bring me a new drink. “She’s a sweet girl. Maybe she just needs a friend, someone to accept her as she is, a girl with no past.”
Molly shakes her head and takes my empty glass.
A Girl With No Past might be a better title. I send myself an email with the two title possibilities and a note that my heroine needs a supportive friend who helps her open up about her tragic past. I think I’ll keep her first name though. Naming her Tess will be a nice allusion to Thomas Hardy’s novel. It’ll evoke sympathy for her, remind readers that she’s a victim. I like that. My protagonist, the victim of a violent teen life, taken in by a seemingly kindly woman who forces her into a life of prostitution so deviant that Tess changes her name to that of Hardy’s character when she flees to safety. I think I’ll make her an English major, too. That feels right for a girl who reads Hardy for pleasure.
She needs a nemesis, though. The person who gave her the scars. I think I’ll call him Edward. It brings to mind all sorts of allusions—Rochester.
Once I hit send on the emailed notes, I tuck my phone in my jacket pocket and enjoy my drink. I’ve got a good feeling about A Girl With No Past.