Set in New Orleans “The Filthiest of Shiny Things” is a gorgeous excerpt from a novel-in-progress by Carrie Cogan who lives on Salt Spring Island, off the coast of British Columbia, with her husband and two small sons. Carrie earlier contributed a “What It’s Like Living Here” essay to Numéro Cinq. The two photos of New Orleans architectural details were snapped by Sarah Gadola Campbell, her old friend and long ago co-worker at Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop in Jackson Square. Everything Carrie writes is a treat. “The Filthiest of Shiny Things” is also a bit of a tease, not only because of the amazing title, but also because after reading this bit, you’ll want to read the whole thing.
AS ROSE GETS OLDER she gets more stunted. Shorter, and skittish. Her eyes dart around so much that by afternoon a blink will feel so good she’ll draw it out, stop short on a sidewalk or halfway across the kitchen floor with her lids down, settling into the dark. If pressed–and she moves around enough no one knows what she started as, to ask how she slipped–she’ll trace her deterioration to the years she spent living alone on dry, deserted land, in a shed just bigger than a closet. But she knows she probably wouldn’t have chosen to live there, if she wasn’t stunted already. In that parched isolation she followed lots of bugs, and unlearned some grammar.
Now she’s in a city–the one they call The Crescent City, The City that Never Sleeps–and she speaks properly. She hardly speaks. But when she watches people, she can tell the ones who are chasing or being chased from the ones who are just sitting peacefully inside themselves, settled to the ground like musk beetles to a leaf. Some people, they are flat on their backs flailing in panic, and she can spot this even as they glide along fine.
She tries tricks–the little ones she can manage–to give her appearance the illusion of moisture. Something called Face Dew, with a bright pink applicator brush. As she spreads the shiny, heavy blots of Face Dew into her cheeks, she envisions a snail inching forward and recoiling across her face. She buys hand cream made for horse hooves, and lip gloss infused with silver glitter.
Down at the Walgreen’s on Canal Street, Rose watches a young black girl reach for a hair gel on the shelves while a kinky strand of her hair, seemingly electric, crackles free from a barrette. Now Rose uses the same product–it is thick as shellac, and smells like a stick of clove doused in gasoline. When she works it through her hair the strands fall heavy and damp, like drenched wool socks dipping a clothesline. She has noticed more than once, upon walking into a store, the way people glance worriedly from her gelled hair to the windowpane, expecting splatters of raindrops on the glass.
All these efforts to look moist–in the city with the wettest air. But Rose still appears on the outside how she feels underneath. Something like rust on a corroded battery. She suspects the landscape where she’d isolated herself–cacti, bones, flint and rusty barbed-wire–was the one that marked her.
People always look surprised when she says her name is Rose.
Rose has washed dishes all over the country. It whets her appetite. The plates here get filthier than any she’s seen–tourists like their creme brulees creamy and their jambalayas thick. She doesn’t make friends with the cooks, because it feels like she’s changing their diapers. Rose once caught a waitress named Junie picking at a piece of cornbread on a plate waiting to be washed. She’ll say say Hi to Junie. Otherwise she keeps her eyes on the dishes, or–while in transit to the sink–on the water and bits of food speckling the rubber tips of her sneakers into an abstract painting.
A large man, so black he sometimes looks purple, shucks oysters on Sundays, and Rose will step away from the sink to watch that. It’s no safer than juggling swords. His hand never slips and he lays the shells apart as smooth and easy as stepping one leg away from another. Sometimes when she’s watching him she pictures him shucking oysters inside a giant oyster, the shells parted just a slit. In that dark only his eyes, teeth, and the diamond shooting off the knife blade show. He whistles through his teeth and the whistle ricochets off the walls of the shell, becoming in its pearly hollows a cold, spinning wind.
After work her old red motorcycle boots, scuffed grey in places, hit the pavement chuck chuck chuck. And as she tromps she schemes, arranging and re-arranging the delicate details of abduction. But it’s easy to be distracted. Whole blocks go by with her half-drugged on the sights and smells. The wavering flames of gas-lamps, snapping without sound. A carriage horse’s hoof thudding softly into the shit left by some other carriage horse. The beads and vomit decorating naked chests; the unreachable gardens and fountains, framed in wrought iron shadows.
Some people paint their bodies silver, even their eyelashes, and stand comatose on pedestals. For that stillness Rose gives up her coins. One girl is solid white with golden hair and wings, an angel. And when she breaks her perfect freeze to bow she manages to make the bow look stiller than her stillness. People set flowers and 20 dollar bills at her feet. Rose bets she’s an old lady under all that. Still, she drops what change she has. She doesn’t give to the stilted Uncle Sam, or to the escape artist with a megaphone, or to the man who walks barefoot across broken glass, hefting the biggest person from the crowd on his shoulders.
She wasn’t completely isolated back in the desert. And it wasn’t just the landscape that dried her up into nothing. She blames a boy. He wasn’t technically a boy but he had giant dark eyes that never seemed to blink and a fresh take on things, like he had just arrived in the world. He drove a truck with a bullet-hole in the hub-cap, and tore open her bra with his teeth. So, man. Boy, man. Ghost. When one day his truck wheels failed to crackle the gravel leading to her shed, when one day the silence hollered and kept on getting louder, Rose became one of those people haunted by a living ghost. She despises such people. Crying into their drinks, re-playing the same moldy scenes on an endless loop. Pitiful people, pinned by cobweb shackles. For fifteen years she’s been mute, rather than talk the lovesick crap screaming inside her.
Now her ghost resides seven miles south-west of her apartment, and the air is full of music. Some guy in a red lumber-jack coat sitting on the corner of Dauphine and Ursulines wails a blues song like he’s sliding a knife from his wool picket, setting a heart out on the curb, and stabbing it ruthlessly. He’s just singing. But Rose, she doesn’t collapse. She doesn’t think of the way that boy made perfect sprinkler sounds beside her ear, to cool her off. Or the bits of smashed orange bicycle reflector he stuffed into his pocket. Grubby treasure, he called it, and strung some of it into a mobile he tied above her bed. Rose doesn’t care. I’ve been places way over the sea, the musician cries. She doesn’t falter or flinch. That’s how I know you’ve done forgotten about me. If anything, Rose’s step quickens. The blues pulse her forward with the force of a battle hymn.
If not for the constant machine sounds and traffic barreling by, Rose might think–by the smell of her apartment–that she lives beside the ocean. She rents a second story in the Bywater, beside a fish factory. The toilet is broken, and that constant gushing inside the bowl could be shoreline. Also the floorboards are rotting, and they give under her feet like sand. One of the workers at the fish factory sings, but the machinery there is so loud it took Rose two weeks to figure out he was singing in French. When she walks out her door each morning, she stops short with her face tilted down, admiring how the pavement sparkles with scales and guts.
She has a time-tested theory about moving into an apartment: unless you drag in a good piece of furniture that first day, or have a good meal, good drug trip, or good fuck in it within that first twenty-four hours, it’s destined to be a miserable space. When she got the keys to this one, she shook all the clothes out of her pack, into the middle of the empty floor, and fell asleep on them. It was light when she went to sleep and light when she awoke, but a day had passed. So she knows there’s no hope for this place.
In the first weeks she draped some of the beads she’d found along the gutters–dice, camels and fleur-de-lis–around the nails in the walls. But they looked too pathetically hopeful–like lawn ornaments in dead grass. She is grateful to whoever left the nails behind, because depending on the light they flash or give a dot of tar black in the familiar places and her eyes automatically travel to them, as they would to paintings.
Inside the Quarter, behind a fence of wire diamonds, looms a large brick elementary school: Bishop Acadamy. If she’s in the area Rose consults her watch–an old Mickey Mouse one repaired, in the split leather strap, with silver duct tape. The children spill out into the schoolyard for recess at 12:20. If she arrives even a minute early, she gets to witness the transformation of the absolutely still asphalt bombarded by flailing limbs and screeches. The students remind Rose of ocean: they spill out the door fast and roaring, then seem to slow and murmur as they spread out to the far reaches of the yard. They sizzle quietly in the peripheries, like sea-foam. She lifts one hand above her eyes against the glare, scanning through the heads of hair, searching.
After passing so many half-naked people in the Quarter, the student uniform of plaid skirts or shorts, white shirts, and black neckties lend a surreal feel to the scene, like Rose has stumbled into an Opera.
One afternoon a short man with bleached hair and mirrored sunglasses sidles up to her. An undercover cop? A parent? Or a plotting child-snatcher, like her? He curls one hand around the fence, the other around a go-cup.
“Which one is yours?” she says curtly. When he turns to her she spots a shrunken image of herself in his lenses. Leering at him with her frazzled hair. A wolf.
“None,” he says. It takes just one word to reveal a southern drawl. His lips stretch out, impossibly slowly, into a smile. “I was just trying to remember what that was like.”
“Oh,” says Rose. “Recess, you mean?”
“Yes Ma’am,” he says. He takes a sip from his cup, which could be water but for the swizzle stick and lime wedge floating in it. “I figure it’s something you either like or don’t, and I was just trying to remember if I did.”
“My son doesn’t, usually,” Rose says. “Or he doesn’t like the idea of it. I think he actually has a good time during recess.”
The man takes his hand from the fence and pushes his sunglasses to the top of his head. Rose takes this to be a gallant and old-fashioned gesture, this show of eyes to prove that he’s listening. They gleam blue, a little wetter than they should, which makes Rose wonder if he’s lying and does remember his childhood after all. The possibility makes her like him ferociously.
“He’s kind of a loner, see, so he stresses over group games.” She gushes. “But on the other hand, once he’s out there’s much more space between him and other people.”
“Which one is he?”
Rose was hoping he would ask.
“Just there,” she says. He’s the whitest in the crowd–almost pale-blue. He’s over in the corner on one knee, sorting through gravel. They can’t see his freckles from here. His hair is sticking up where it shouldn’t, styled like only the wind would’ve done it. Alexander, he’s called. She’s pretty sure never Alex or Zander. If he got glasses, Rose thinks, by the next day the kids wouldn’t be able to remember him without glasses. He would be difficult to lure away. Harder than Ryder, the one Rose is going to take. Rose hasn’t seen Ryder in his schoolyard yet, but she assumes he talks to all sorts of people. Still, she suspects she’d have a better time with Alexander. She’d want to keep a tally of what he said.
“He looks like you.” The stranger, her new best friend, the confidant she’ll never see again, says.
“Really?” Rose is smiling, her lips up close to the fence.
“Yeah. You’ve both got that really smart look, like you just woke up.”
Rose remembers all kinds of crazy things from her childhood as she’s washing dishes. It’s not like tea leaf readings, not that the soap suds drift and bond into visible images. Maybe it’s the sloshing of her hands repeatedly into the warm water, dipping her right back into the womb, into baby baths. Or the flashes hypnotize her–the light bouncing off of soap suds, silverware, spanning bellies of plates in the drying rack. As a toddler she hoarded the filthiest of shiny things, mistaking them for treasure. She remembers her mother feeding this fervor, carefully twisting off the tabs from her beer cans or gingerly handing over the cellophane from inside her cigarette packs. You be very, very careful with this. On the other hand, her mother once handed Rose a thick envelope with a small sparkling seal embedded into it. The square flashed silver from a distance, but up close revealed a spectrum of colors, pale blue green yellow and pink–all those you’d see in a dragonfly wing. It’s a hollowgram, Rose murmured. Her mother laughed and said sweepstakes were for suckers.
A few times weekly Rose takes the streetcar uptown, and walks two blocks to her ghost’s house. A towering three-story white house beside a cemetery that would stand out as monstrous were it not sandwiched between similar houses. It has gables and wrought iron balconies–and from the faint, constant whirring she suspects it also has an elevator, or a pool.
The boy Rose loved lived in a trailer and tacked polaroid photographs to the walls with chewing gum. Now he’s married to a famous pop star: skinny, with long shiny yellow hair and a white smile. Rose isn’t sure the radio would play her if she were homely. She’s right in tune, but her songs repeat the chorus at least three more times than they should, and always end on it. Her lyrics sometimes allude to being haunted, but her voice stays smooth and so never seems to agree.
The lyrics in his wife’s songs are nothing like the perfect sentences the boy had scrawled in his letters. Now those were songs. Astounding details of the every day noted in a crazy mix of capital and little letters Most of the pages he sent were penciled faintly, so that even as she clutched them, freshly-salvaged from the tin jaws of the mailbox, Rose would sense her letters–they were hers! They had her name at the top of them!–disappearing. Reading those letters felt like looking into a mirror and seeing, beyond your face, a faraway bird dipping and soaring and somersaulting end over end through gaudy blue sky. There is so much beauty in the world, his letters said without saying. And you’re facing it. You’re it the most. Because you see it.
Rose perches in the cemetery, at the fence-line, where she can see his house from a part in the hedges. The hedges are otherwise packed tightly together; just this one break, where a child or a spirit or a mourner mad with grief broke through. No one ever sits on the front porch chairs, or on the ones on the higher balcony. They’re just there for parades, Rose supposes. All the empty porches and balconies in the neighborhood seem strange coming from the Bywater, where bodies lounges on every stoop, stair, or plot of sidewalk.
The house is so still. Rose has no way of knowing, by staring at the house, if anyone is inside. They might have been out of town for weeks. How boring is architecture? She thinks. So private and unmoving. So unlike the human face that has me standing here, staring at a house. Even the memory of a face is like dancing, dancing on fire, compared to this line of still white houses. Rose sighs, and turns around. The tombs too are massive, impenetrable. The head of a flower–pink, with crispy brown edges, as though it has been set in an oven and timed just so–lies quivering atop one, impossibly fragile.
Sundays, the restaurant spills outside to a patio with tower-high bloody marys and oysters on the half-shell. Rose is on her break, sipping the dregs of the kitchen coffee. Chewing on the grinds. And watching the oyster shells fly. She knows customers don’t like seeing the person who has to wash up after them–it’s like being told goodbye before they’ve even ordered. So she stays over to the side, in the shadows.
The oyster shucker pauses, raises a bottle of orange pop to his lips. The lump in his neck bounces five times on one sip. Crush, the bottle says. In big puffy letters, more inflated than crushed.
“Hey,” says a voice beside her, “You don’t have a light, do you?” Rose is dismayed she didn’t see Junie coming, in her bright green-and-white checkered waitress uniform with the starched white half apron in the middle. She shakes her head.
Junie sighs. “I guess it’d be bad policy to ask him,” she says, nodding towards the oyster shucker. “Seeing as his hands are busy.”
She slouches back against the wall and holds the cigarette up, squinting at the tip of it. Rose can’t tell if Junie’s honey-colored hair is dry or greasy because she always has it in braids. Today the braids are pinned up into curls on either side of her head, Princess Leia style. Her lips are pillows of bright red, the kind of brightest red that makes you think before she approached you were watching a black-and-white world without knowing it. She probably puts powder on her lips first, so the lipstick will stay. Rose read about that in a magazine.
“Those bloody marys have whole salad bars in them,” Junie says. “But I guess you know that.”
Rose shakes her head again. “Most of the bloody mary glasses come back empty.” They are slippery to wash: long diamonds with many sides and thin bases.
“Well, let’s see. They have olives, and celery, and artichoke hearts, and marinated mushrooms, and dilly beans, and those tiny corn-on the-cobs that don’t taste like corn.”
“All that?” Rose says.
Junie nods. “I have to constantly reassure people they’re not lacking vodka.”
Junie lifts the cigarette to her mouth, inhales as though it were lit. When she pulls it away the end blazes crimson. She is pretty, Rose realizes suddenly. If you look past the plaid uniform, past the clumsy and distracted way Junie moves. She remembers thinking once, as she saw Junie stepping across the restaurant with a tray of dishes, in that jerky and spacey way: She looks like someone who is bird-watching. Someone who might trip over her own feet and bust the binoculars around her neck. But now, up close, Junie looks regal, like someone who should glide. She has good cheekbones–twin diagonal pillows that add gleam and shadow and dale, a whole landscape, to her face. And perfect skin, like she drinks twelve cups of water every day. If this were the movies, Rose thinks. Junie would pull out a cigarette and five different men would appear out of nowhere to light it. Why are you working here, she wonders. But it’s not a question Rose would ask, since it’s a question she would hate to be asked.
“So ends my break,” Junie says. She reaches into a pocket beneath her apron and pulls out a cigarette box, carefully feeding in this one with the stained tip. “I’m trying to quit anyway.”
“Good luck there,” Rose says. She saw how delicately Junie treated that unlit cigarette.
“New Orleans is the shits for trying to quit things. Do you find that?”
Rose gulps, and looks down. Beside her shoe is a stray oyster, naked and leaking. So much of the litter on these streets looks like it’s alive, she thinks. Alive, or newly dissected out of someone.
“I do,” she manages.
Rose knows if she spends a couple hours with his son–the youngest one, who looked almost Three in the internet photo–she will get over her ghost. The boy has his father’s huge dark eyes and his mother’s silk-yellow hair. They will eat sundaes at the ice cream parlor she passes on her way to work, their long spoons clinking against the deep tear-drop dishes she sees dangling in a long line above the counter (sparkling, because all dishes look well-washed if you hang them high). Dada this, he will say, between mouthfuls of ice cream, Mama this. Dada Mama do this, Dada Mama say this. Brother Other Brother Sister Dada Mama Doggie together in House. Rose feels certain, hearing this toddler talk about his family, that she will get it then. She will suddenly and thoroughly understand, in a way she can’t seem to otherwise, that the boy from her past is gone from her. She can finally put the past in the past.
If only his family lived in the suburbs somewhere, in a simple house without a fence or alarms. Maybe she wouldn’t have to borrow the boy. She could peek into their yellow-lit windows one dinner hour, watching them all interact around a table, and have the same yearned-for epiphany. Your locks and alarms, your shutters and massive square footage, she whispers. They’ve made your house dangerous.
The daiquiri shops are a skewed sort of laundry-mat. Pitch dark laundry-mats, so you can never see if your clothes got clean. Laundry-mats with frozen drinks instead of clothes spinning in the line of silver dryers. And the background radio music suddenly shifts to loud metal in the later hours, to distract potential re-orderers within from the fact that they’re drunk.
Rose wouldn’t mind working in one. The new people, the tourists–some from places where you have to drive a long ways to get bottles of alcohol you can’t open in public–they can’t hide their glee. They think they’re dreaming. Here you go, she might shout, over the music, and wave her hand down the line of whirring colors. Dispensing the dream. Here is a 180 proof drink resembling the Icee of your childhood, as big around as a trash can, in so many more flavors than cherry and cola. Take it out into the heat with you. Walk with it. Meet the cop’s eyes as you take a long draw on the straw.
Initially Rose tried all the flavors, but she found the High-Octane made stuff that wasn’t moving dance real pretty, and froze all the pretty people she saw dancing to slow-mo. So she sticks with that. As a bonus it gives her lips a nice application of dark red.
Junie orders the Blue Hawaiian. She turns at the register and says something Rose can’t hear, smiles. She reminds Rose of Day of the Dead decor: big white skeletal teeth sandwiched between cheekbones, which are sandwiched between braids.
“You got the small,” Junie says, when they are back on the street.
Rose has to be careful. She wouldn’t want to moan heartbreak. Or boast revenge. She doesn’t want Junie to have a single glimpse into her. And yet, and yet. She wouldn’t mind a friend like Junie. Junie’s the kind of bug who could lug an entire dead rat away, millimeter by millimeter.
“I’ve broken my wrist a few times,” she lies. She nods at Junie’s cup. “That size could snap it.”
When Rose collapses down on her single mattress, in the triangle of floor cast white by street-light, she weakens. Her mother made her pray before she fell asleep, and Rose still hears her voice, prompting. What are you thankful for? What did you do that you’re sorry for? The mere memory of her mother’s voice dissolves her plotting warrior and she writhes, flopping, twisting the tail of her long white undershirt. It was her ghost’s shirt once, so it almost reaches her knees. The hole just beneath the left armpit has spread enough she sometimes wakes up with her elbow, caught inside it.
She worries into the dark that when she snatches his son after school, and takes him for ice cream, he’ll order pistachio. And just because his dad always did, as stupid as that–Rose will fall in love with him. She worries time will go all funny when they’re together, the way it had when she was with his dad, so that the minutes won’t slide into each other but stand apart in magical chunks, unrelated. She worries this boy will already have the same slanted take on things his dad did, which made everyone afterwards sound so sickeningly predictably. Then she’ll have to keep him. Just to stop his beautiful observations from that day repeating in She’ll have to keep him so her ghost can know what it is to be haunted.
And what if? Humans walk by her window all night, laughing and singing, cursing or vomiting, and Rose begs silently for their sounds to carry her firmly into the present, into this room in this city. She focuses sharply on the geometry of the window-frame, then of the perfect shadow it casts, but her worry seeps everything blurry and yanks her backwards through time into this one what if.
What if this boy is somehow the living re-incarnation of the child she aborted when they were together?
(The baby-that-never-was is sleeping deeply, drawing her down with it. She closes her eyes to better see it. Tiny, damp and stunned, snatching breaths so big they make its translucent red chest bubble out and in, out and in, like the throat of a frog.)
With her eyelids lowered Rose practices saying the name out-loud, so it will sound casual. It has to sound like she just now heard it. Ryder, she says. Hi Ryder, she says. I’m Rose.