Fiction by Madison Smartt Bell

Fleur Carnivore

A Novel Excerpt

Madison Smartt Bell

Light through the bar window caught the liquid in her glass: clear… just a little syrupy. She herself sat clear of the ray, leaning back into the corner. Sundown. She looked toward the light. In the window above the door the beam had picked out a spider web, mostly round and almost perfect, its lower filaments attached to the neon tubing. Amanda had forgotten to turn on the sign; Fleur turned and opened her mouth to tell her and then didn’t. She looked at the spider web again, reddish crystal in the fading light. Its fragile balance between symmetry and chaos.

The bar was quiet, except for a thread of music from Amanda’s iPod, rat-tailed into the system. Fleur had a flicker of fretfulness; the ASCAP rep would be by to hassle them again. Money. Well, what did it matter? She didn’t own the place.

There was one customer, a middle-aged guy, who’d come in and ordered a vodka on the rocks and asked Amanda a couple of questions about a bar that used to exist nearby, where apparently he’d used to go to hear music, probably twenty years ago. Amanda, who would have been three at the time, had obviously never heard of the place. Fleur watched her field the guy. She was good: keeping him just barely magnetized with her charm, but not really giving him any traction.

The guy didn’t push it. He stopped talking and nursed his drink. Maybe he was still watching Amanda, moving attractively about her business behind the bar, like an exotic fish in an aquarium. Amanda was an Asian-fusion product. Lot of that going around these days, but she did look good.

You couldn’t tell where the guy was looking because he had on a pair of black Ray Bans, dim as it was in the bar, like he thought he was Stevie Wonder or something, although he was stone white. Two stools away, he smelled, though not unpleasantly, of sweat. Fleur pulled herself up for noticing that. The guy was looking at her shoes, she thought, which were intended to be looked at. Her street flats were already in her cubby behind the bar. Nobody would see them while she was working, or once in a while if she came out to serve the four tiny tables on the wall opposite the bar—but they made all the difference anyway. They changed her carriage. They gave her a feeling, and it came out in her tips. The shoes were only knock-offs but the soles were a deep throbbing red and now she felt sure: the guy had not made even a quarter turn toward her but out of the corner of the stupid sunglasses he was looking at the sole of the shoe she’d raised with her crossed leg, the long tapered heel and the straps clasping the curve of calf muscle that showed beneath the hem of her blue pedal pushers.

Between her purse and glass, her phone twitched on the countertop. She picked it up, forcing her eyes wide so she wouldn’t seem to squint. A text from Claire.

“Ma-may’s goofy.”

Fleur felt a pulse of bottomless fear. But her thumbs already flicked over the buttons. “Three times. Look like you’re listening. Then TV. Not something she hates.”

She put down the phone and finished her drink. Amanda made a good dirty martini. She popped the olive into her mouth, and glanced up at the spider web; it was still there. It might stay there, invisible except in certain light, and nobody looked that high when they cleaned the front.

“The Holmes Brothers played there, every Saturday night. No cover! You just walked in free…” The guy had translated himself a stool closer to her and was talking as easily as if they’d been in the middle of a conversation. Like one of those schizos that talked to himself in the days before people who talked like that were assumed to be using hands-free cell phones. Except his manner wasn’t crazy, but how could it not be? He seemed completely unaware of the invisible force field that was supposed to hold him at the distance from her he had been eleven seconds ago. He was holding up a thick forefinger, as if it was some kind of code, and Amanda was serving Fleur another drink. Her shift started in ten minutes and she didn’t need another drink.

Automatically she registered the grooved callus on the fingertip he’d raised. He was a musician, then. A wannabe.

A young couple came in, both oddly tentative, considering how surreally good-looking they both were. Amanda conferred with them, her elbows resting softly on the bar. She handed them a menu and made a half turn to point out the row of beer bottles on the high shelf just below the ceiling. The Holmes Brothers! “They’re still making records, you know? And one time I heard Champion Jack Dupree. I mean, you just walk in off the street and it’s Champion Jack Dupree.”

Fleur trembled inwardly. She had to stop it before it started. Her glass was in her hand like a weapon. As she drank she flashed on another bar that used to be down the street, even smaller than this place, if you could believe it. She’d never worked there. Plastic ivy grew densely from the ceiling; that was the signature. In the center of the bar mirror, festooned in New Orleans carnival beads, was a small photo of Marilyn Monroe curled on flocked velvet, succulent as a peeled shrimp afloat in cocktail sauce.

There. The thought was gone. Or rather it was still cascading but now part of some faraway waterfall she couldn’t see and could barely hear. She looked up toward the spider web again but couldn’t find it; it had disappeared into blue dusk beyond the window. Amanda had turned on the sign: a red martini glass roughly the shape of the one Fleur had mysteriously almost already emptied, tilted to spill blue neon droplets toward the door frame.

“What a beautiful thing.”

But there was no way the guy could see the spider web, which was invisible now, except to her inner eye. Maybe he was still on about that music. Only, when she turned back toward him he had pierced another invisible membrane and was kissing her, dipping her slightly from the stool, so that her throat for a moment opened juicily and the feeling thrummed up from the arches of her feet. She was acutely aware of the hair on his forearm, coarse against the palms of her hand.

He was gone before she could push him away. Really gone; she could see his back receding through the plate glass window. Heavy shoulders a little stooped, the hair on his neck just long enough to make her want to gather it with something.

“What the—” Without thinking, she dragged the back of her wrist across her mouth, then began to fix her lipstick, using the back of her phone for a mirror. The customers hadn’t noticed anything, apparently; they’d taken the far corner table and buried their neat little noses in the screens of their separate cell phones.

“Freaking Rip van Winkle!” Fleur said. “Thinks he can just walk in and…”

She shook her head briskly, touched her glass, decided she wouldn’t finish this drink. Amanda had cocked an eyebrow at her, then turned away to close out her cash drawer.

“I dunno,” she said, “I think…”

What? Fleur watched Amanda’s back, the fall of black hair on her dark t-shirt. That I encouraged it somehow? In the mirror she could see the hint of Amanda’s smile.

Amanda said, “I think he likes you.”


MADISON SMARTT BELL is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997) and Soldier's Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989. Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990). In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson. Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes,was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell's eighth novel, All Soul's Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007. Devil's Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Powerade Coupons