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November Road


Behold! The Big Easy in all its wicked splendor!

Frank Guidry paused at the corner of Toulouse to bask in the neon furnace glow. He’d lived in New Orleans the better part of his thirty-seven years on earth, but the dirty glitter and sizzle of the French Quarter still hit his bloodstream like a drug. Yokels and locals, muggers and hustlers, fire-eaters and magicians. A go-go girl was draped over the wrought-iron rail of a second-floor balcony, one boob sprung free from her sequined negligee and swaying like a metronome to the beat of the jazz trio inside. Bass, drums, piano, tearing through “Night and Day.” But that was New Orleans for you. Even the worst band in the crummiest clip joint in the city could swing, man, swing.

A guy came whipping up the street, screaming bloody murder. Hot on his heels—a woman waving a butcher knife, screaming, too. Guidry soft-shoed out of their way. The beat cop on the corner yawned. The juggler outside the 500 Club didn’t drop a ball. Just another Wednesday night on Bourbon Street.

“Come on, fellas!” The go-go girl on the balcony wagged her boob at a pair of drunken sailors. They stood swaying on the curb, watching their pal puke into the gutter. “Be a gent and buy a lady a drink!”

The sailors leered up at her. “How much?”

“How much you got?” Guidry smiled. And so the world spins round. The go-go girl had black velvet kitten ears pinned to her bouffant and false eyelashes so long that Guidry didn’t know how she could see through them. Maybe that was the point.

He turned onto Bienville, easing through the crowd. He wore a gray-on-gray nailhead suit the color of wet asphalt, cut from a lightweight wool-silk blend that his tailor ordered in special from Italy. White shirt, crimson tie. No hat. If the president of the United States didn’t need a hat, then neither did Guidry.

A right on Royal. The bellhop at the Monteleone scrambled to open the door for him. “How’s tricks, Mr. Guidry?”

“Well, Tommy, I’ll tell you,” Guidry said. “I’m too old to learn any new ones, but the old ones still work just fine.”

The Carousel Bar was popping, as usual. Guidry said hello hello hello how’re you how’re you as he worked his way across the room. He shook hands and slapped backs and asked Fat Phil Lorenzo if he’d eaten dinner or just the waiter who brought it. That got a laugh. One of the boys who worked for Sam Saia hooked an arm around Guidry’s neck and whispered in his ear.

“I need to talk to you.”

“Then talk we shall,” Guidry said.

The table in the back corner. Guidry liked the view. One of life’s enduring truths: If something was after you, you wanted to see it coming first.

A waitress brought him a double Macallan, rocks on the side. Sam Saia’s boy started talking. Guidry sipped his drink and watched the action in the room. The men working the girls, the girls working the men. Smiles and lies and glances veiled by smoke. A hand sliding up under the hem of a dress, lips brushing against an ear. Guidry loved it. Everyone here looking for an angle to work, a tender spot. “We already have the place, Frank, it’s perfect. The guy owns the building, the bar downstairs, he’ll front for peanuts. He might as well be giving it to us for free.”

 “Table games,” Guidry said.

“High class all the way. A real carpet joint. But the cops won’t talk to us. We need you to smooth the way with that asshole cop Dorsey. You know how he likes his coffee.”

The art of the payoff. Guidry understood each man’s price, the right kicker to close the deal. A girl? A boy? A girl and a boy? Lieutenant Dorsey of the Eighth District, as Guidry recalled, had a wife who would appreciate a pair of diamond pendant earrings from Adler’s.

“You understand that Carlos will have to go along with it,” Guidry said.

“Carlos will go along with it if you tell him it’s a good play, Frank. We’ll give you five points for your piece.”

A redhead at the bar had her eye on Guidry. She liked his dark hair and olive skin, his lean build and dimpled chin, the Cajun slant to his green eyes. The slant was how the guineas could tell that Guidry wasn’t one of them.

“Five?” Guidry said.

“C’mon, Frank. We’re doing all the work here.”

“Then you don’t need me, do you?”

“Be reasonable.”

Guidry could see the redhead working up her nerve with every slow revolution of the merry-go-round. Her girlfriend egged her on. The padded silk back of each seat at the Carousel Bar featured a hand-painted jungle beast. Tiger, elephant, hyena.

“Oh, ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw,’” Guidry said.

“What?” Saia’s boy said.

“That’s Lord Tennyson I’m quoting, you uncultured barbarian.”

“Ten points, Frank. Best we can do.”

“Fifteen. And a look at the books whenever the mood strikes. Now, skedaddle.”

Saia’s boy glowered and seethed, but such were the rude realities of supply and demand. Lieutenant Dorsey was the hardest-headed cop in New Orleans. Only Guidry had the skill to soften him up.

He ordered another scotch. The redhead crushed out her cigarette and strolled over. She had Cleopatra eyes—the latest look— and a golden tan. She was a stewardess, maybe, home from a layover in Miami or Vegas. She sat down without asking, impressed with her own boldness.

“My girlfriend over there told me to stay away from you,” she said.

Guidry wondered how many openers she’d rehearsed in her mind before she picked the winner. “But here you are.”

“My girlfriend says you have some very interesting friends.”

“Well, I’ve plenty of dull ones, too,” Guidry said.

“She says you work for you-know-who,” she said. “The notorious Carlos Marcello?”

“Is it true?”

“Never heard of him.”

She toyed with the cherry in her drink, making a show of it. She was nineteen, twenty years old. In a couple of years, she’d marry the biggest Uptown bank account she could find and settle down. Now, though, she wanted an adventure. Guidry was delighted to oblige.

“So aren’t you curious?” the redhead said. “Why I didn’t listen to my girlfriend and stay away from you?”

“Because you don’t like it when people tell you that you can’t have something you want,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes, as if he’d snuck a peek in her purse while she wasn’t looking. “I don’t.”

“Neither do I,” Guidry said. “We only get one ride in this life, one time around. If we don’t enjoy every minute of it, if we don’t embrace pleasure with open arms, who’s to blame for that?”

“I like to enjoy life,” she said.

“I like to hear that.”

“My name is Eileen.”

Guidry saw that Mackey Pagano had entered the bar. Gaunt and gray and unshaven, Mackey looked like he’d been living under a rock. He spotted Guidry and jerked his chin at him.

Oh, Mackey. His timing was poor. But he had an eye for opportunity and never brought in a deal that didn’t pay.

Guidry stood. “Wait here, Eileen.”

“Where are you going?” she said, surprised.

He crossed the room and gave Mackey a hug. Ye gods. Mackey smelled as bad he looked. He needed a shower and a fresh suit, without delay.

“Must have been one helluva party, Mack,” Guidry said. “Regale me.”

“I’ve got a proposition for you,” Mackey said. “I thought you might.”

“Let’s take a walk.”

He grabbed Guidry’s elbow and steered him back out into the lobby. Past the cigar stand, down a deserted corridor, down another one.

“Are we going all the way to Cuba, Mack?” Guidry said. “I won’t look as good with a beard.”

They finally stopped, in front of the doors to the back service entrance.

“So what do you have for me?” Guidry said. “I don’t have anything,” Mackey said. “What?”

“I just needed to talk to you.”

“You’ve noted that I have better things to do at the moment,” Guidry said.

“I’m sorry. I’m in a bind, Frankie. I might be in a real bind.”

Guidry had a smile for every occasion. This occasion: to hide the uneasiness that began to creep over him. He gave Mackey’s shoulder a squeeze. You’ll be all right, old buddy, old pal. How bad can it be? But Guidry didn’t like the shake in Mackey’s voice, the way Mackey kept his grip tight on the sleeve of Guidry’s suit coat.

Had anyone noticed the two of them leaving the Carousel together? What if someone happened to come round that corner right now and caught them skulking? Trouble in this business had a way of spreading, just like a cold or the clap. Guidry knew you could catch it from the wrong handshake, an unlucky glance.

“I’ll come by your pad this weekend,” Guidry said. “I’ll help you sort it out.”

“I need to get it sorted out now.”

Guidry tried to ease away. “I’ve got to split. Tomorrow, Mack. Cross my heart.”

“I haven’t been back to my place in a week,” Mackey said.

“Name the spot. I’ll meet you wherever you want.”

Mackey watched him. Those hooded eyes, they seemed almost gentle in a certain light. Mackey knew that Guidry was lying about meeting tomorrow. Of course he did. Guidry came by his talent for deception naturally, but Mackey had taught him the nuances, had helped him hone and perfect his craft.

“How long have we known each other, Frankie?” Mackey said.

“I see,” Guidry said. “The sentimental approach.”

“You were sixteen years old.”

Fifteen. Guidry just off the turnip truck from Ascension Parish, Louisiana, and tumbling around the Faubourg Marigny. Living hand to mouth, stealing cans of pork and beans off the shelves of the A&P. Mackey saw promise in him and gave Guidry his first real job. Every morning for a year, Guidry had picked up the cut from the girls on St. Peter and hurried it over to Snake Gonzalez, the legendary pimp. Five dollars a day and the quick end to any romantic notions Guidry might have still had about the human species.

“Please, Frankie,” Mackey said.

“What do you want?”

 “Talk to Seraphine. Get the lay of the land for me. Maybe I’m crazy.”

“What happened? Never mind. I don’t care.” Guidry wasn’t interested in the details of Mackey’s predicament. He was only interested in the details of his predicament, the one that Mackey had just created for him.

“You remember about a year ago,” Mackey said, “when I went out to ’Frisco to talk to a guy about that thing with the judge. Carlos called it all off, you remember, but—”

“Stop,” Guidry said. “I don’t care. Damn it, Mack.”

“I’m sorry, Frankie. You’re the only one I can trust. I wouldn’t ask otherwise.”

Mackey waited. Guidry tugged the knot of his tie loose. What was life but this? A series of rapid calculations: the shifting of weights, the balancing of scales. The only poor decision was a decision you allowed someone else to make for you.

“All right, all right,” Guidry said. “But I can’t put a word in for you, Mack. It’s my hide then, too. You understand that?”

“I understand,” Mackey said. “Just find out if I need to blow town. I’ll blow tonight.”

“Stay put till you hear from me.”

“I’m over on Frenchmen Street, at Darlene Monette’s place. Come by afterward. Don’t leave a message.”

“Darlene Monette?”

“She owes me one,” Mackey said. He watched Guidry with those hooded eyes. Begging. Telling Guidry, You owe me one.

“Stay put until you hear from me,” Guidry said. “Thank you, Frankie.”

Guidry called Seraphine from a pay phone in the lobby. She didn’t answer at home, so he tried Carlos’s private office out on Airline Highway in Metairie. How many people had that number? It couldn’t have been more than a dozen. Look at me now, Ma!

“Are we not still meeting Friday, mon cher?” Seraphine said.

“We are,” Guidry said. “Can’t a fella just call to shoot the breeze?”

“My favorite pastime.”

“I caught a rumor that Uncle Carlos is looking for a penny he dropped. Our friend Mackey. Or do I have that wrong?”

Guidry heard a silky rustle. When Seraphine stretched, she arched her back like a cat. He heard the tink of a single ice cube in a glass.

“You don’t have that wrong,” she said.

Goddamn it. So Mackey’s fears were not unfounded. Carlos wanted him dead.

“Are you still there, mon cher?”

Goddamn it. Mackey had cooked Guidry dinner a thousand times. He’d introduced Guidry to the Marcello brothers. He’d vouched for Guidry when no one else in the world knew that Guidry existed.

But all that was yesterday. Guidry cared only about today, about tomorrow.

“Tell Carlos to have a look on Frenchmen Street,” Guidry said. “There’s a house with green shutters on the corner of Rampart. Darlene Monette’s place. Top floor, the flat in back.”

“Thank you, mon cher,” Seraphine said.

Guidry strolled back to the Carousel. The redhead had waited for him. He watched her for a minute from the doorway. Yea or nay, ladies and gentlemen of the jury? He liked how she’d started to wilt a bit, her Cleopatra eyeliner blurring and the flip in her hair going flat. She shook off a mope who tried to make time with her and ran a finger along the rim of her empty highball glass. Deciding to give Guidry five more minutes, that was it, no more, and this time she meant it.

He wished that it had played out differently with Mackey. He wished that Seraphine had said, You’ve heard wrong, mon cher, Carlos has no quarrel with Mackey. But now all Guidry could do was shrug. Weights and measures, simple arithmetic. Someone might have seen him with Mackey tonight. Guidry couldn’t risk it. Why would he want to?

He took the redhead back to his place. He lived fifteen floors above Canal Street, in a modern high-rise that was a sleek spike of steel and concrete, sealed off and cooled from the inside out. In the summer, when the rest of the city sweltered, Guidry didn’t break a sweat.

“Ooh,” the redhead said, “I dig it.”

The floor-to-ceiling view, the black leather sofa, the glass-and chromium bar cart, the expensive hi-fi. She positioned herself by the window, a hand on her hip, weight on one leg to show off her curves, glancing over her shoulder the way she’d seen the models in magazines do it.

“I’m wild to live high up like this someday,” she said. “All the lights. All the stars. It’s like being in a rocket ship.”

Guidry didn’t want her to get the wrong idea, that he intended to have a conversation, so he pushed her up against the window. The glass flexed and the stars shimmied. He kissed her. The neck, the tender joint between her jaw and ear. She smelled like a cigarette butt floating in a puddle of Lanvin perfume.

Her fingers raked his hair. He grabbed her hand and pinned it behind her. With his other hand, he reached up under her skirt.

“Oh,” she said.

Satin panties. He left them on her for now and lightly, lightly traced the contours beneath, two fingers gliding over every subtle swell and crease. At the same time kissing her neck harder, letting her feel his teeth.

“Oh.” She meant it this time.

He pushed the elastic band out of the way and slid his fingers inside her. In and out, the pad of his thumb on her clit, searching for the rhythm she liked, the right amount of pressure. When he felt her breathing shift, her hips rotate, he eased off. The muscles in her neck tightened with surprise. He waited for a few seconds and then started again. Her relief was a shiver of electricity running through her body. When he eased off a second time, she gasped like she’d been kicked.

“Don’t stop,” she said.

He leaned back so he could look at her. Her eyes were glazed, her face a smear of bliss and need. “Say please.”

“Please,” she said.

“Say pretty please.”


He finished her. Every woman came in a different way. Eyes slitted or chin thrust out, lips parted or nostrils flared, a sigh or a snarl. Always, though, there was that one instant when the world around her ceased to exist, a white atomic flash.

“Oh, my God.” The redhead’s world pieced itself back together. “My legs are shaking.”

Weights and measures, simple arithmetic. Mackey would have made the same calculation if his and Guidry’s roles had been reversed. Mackey would have picked up the phone and made the same call that Guidry made, without question. And Guidry would have respected him for it. C’est la vie. Such was this particular life, at least.

He flipped the redhead around, hiked up her skirt, yanked down her panties. The glass flexed again when he thrust into her. Guidry’s landlord claimed the windows in the building could withstand a hurricane, but that remained to be seen.

November Road
by by Lou Berney