Bitter Grounds
Sep 13 2010 10:01am

Bitter Grounds

illustration by rick berry and neil gaiman and ekaterina slepicka

We hope you enjoy this reprint, which first appeared in the Mojo: Conjure Stories anthology and subsequently in the collection Fragile Things.


1. “Come back early or never come”

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving. If I could have physically passed away, just let it all go, like that, without doing anything, stepped out of life as easily as walking through a door, I would have done. But I was going to sleep at night and waking in the morning, disappointed to be there and resigned to existence.

Sometimes I telephoned her. I let the phone ring once, maybe even twice, before I hung up.

The me who was screaming was so far inside that nobody knew he was even there at all. Even I forgot that was there, until one day I got into the car―I had to go to the store, I had decided, to bring back some apples―and I went past the store that sold apples and I kept driving, and driving. I was going south, and west, because if I went north or east I would run out of world too soon.

A couple of hours down the highway my cell phone started to ring. I wound down the window and threw the cell phone out. I wondered who would find it, whether they would answer the phone and find themselves gifted with my life.

When I stopped for gas I took all the cash I could on every card I had. I did the same for the next couple of days, ATM by ATM, until the cards stopped working.

The first two nights I slept in the car.

I was halfway through Tennessee when I realized I needed a bath badly enough to pay for it. I checked into a motel, stretched out in the bath and slept in it until the water got cold and woke me. I shaved with a motel courtesy kit plastic razor and a sachet of foam. Then I stumbled to the bed, and I slept.

Awoke at 4:00 AM, and knew it was time to get back on the road.

I went down to the lobby.

There was a man standing at the front desk when I got there: silver-gray hair although I guessed he was still in his thirties, if only just, thin lips, good suit rumpled, saying “I ordered that cab an hour ago. One hour ago.” He tapped the desk with his wallet as he spoke, the beats emphasizing the words.

The night manager shrugged. “I’ll call again,” he said. “But if they don’t have a car, they can’t send it.” He dialed a phone number, said “This is the Night’s Out Inn front desk again. . . . Yeah, I told. . . . Yeah, I told him.”

“Hey,” I said “I’m not a cab, but I’m in no hurry. You need a ride somewhere?”

For a moment the man looked at me like I was crazy, and for a moment there was fear in his eyes. Then he looked at me like I’d been sent from Heaven. “You know, by God, I do,” he said.

“You tell me where to go,” I said. “I’ll take you there. Like I said, I’m in no hurry.”

“Give me that phone,” said the silver-gray man to the night clerk. He took a handset and said, “You can cancel your cab, because God just sent me a Good Samaritan. People come into your life for a reason. That’s right. And I want you to think about that.”

He picked up his briefcase―like me he had no luggage―and together we went out to the parking lot.

We drove through the dark. He’d check a hand-drawn map on his lap, with a flashlight attached to his key ring, then he’d say, left here, or this way.

“It’s good of you,” he said.

“No problem. I have time.”

“I appreciate it. You know, this has that pristine urban legend quality, driving down country roads with a mysterious Samaritan. A Phantom Hitchhiker story. After I get to my destination, I’ll describe you to a friend, and they’ll tell me you died ten years ago, and still go round giving people rides.”

“Be a good way to meet people.”

He chuckled. “What do you do?”

“Guess you could say I’m between jobs,” I said. “You?”

“I’m an anthropology professor.” Pause. “I guess I should have introduced myself. Teach at a Christian college. People don’t believe we teach anthropology at Christian colleges, but we do. Some of us.”

“I believe you.”

Another pause. “My car broke down. I got a ride to the motel from the highway patrol, as they said there was no tow truck going to be there until morning. Got two hours of sleep. Then the highway patrol called my hotel room. Tow truck’s on the way. I got to be there when they arrive. Can you believe that? I’m not there, they won’t touch it. Called a cab. Never came. Hope we get there before the tow truck.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I guess I should have taken a plane. It’s not that I’m scared of flying. But I cashed in the ticket. I’m on my way to New Orleans. Hour’s flight, four hundred and forty dollars. Day’s drive, thirty dollars. That’s four hundred and ten dollars’ spending money, and I don’t have to account for it to anybody. Spent fifty dollars on the motel room, but that’s just the way these things go. Academic conference. My first. Faculty doesn’t believe in them. But things change. I’m looking forward to it. Anthropologists from all over the world.” He named several, names that meant nothing to me. “I’m presenting a paper on the Haitian coffee girls.”

“They grow it, or drink it?”

“Neither. They sold it, door-to-door in Port-au-Prince, early in the morning, in the early years of the last century.”

It was starting to get light now.

“People thought they were zombies,” he said. “You know The walking dead. I think it’s a right turn here.”

“Were they? Zombies?”

He seemed very pleased to have been asked. “Well, anthropologically, there are several schools of thought about zombies. It’s not as cut-and-dried as popularist works like The Serpent and the Rainbow would make it appear. First we have to define our terms: are we talking folk belief, or zombie dust, or the walking dead?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I was pretty sure The Serpent and the Rainbow was a horror movie.

“They were children, little girls, five to ten years old, who went door-to-door through Port-au-Prince selling the chicory coffee mixture. Just about this time of day, before the sun was up. They belonged to one old woman. Hang a left just before we go into the next turn. When she died, the girls vanished. That’s what the book tells you.”

“And what do you believe?” I asked.

“That’s my car,” he said, with relief in his voice. It was a red Honda Accord, on the side of the road. There was a tow truck beside it, lights flashing, a man beside the tow truck smoking a cigarette. We pulled up behind the tow truck.

The anthropologist had the door opened before I’d stopped; he grabbed his briefcase and was out of the car.

“Was giving you another five minutes, then I was going to take off,” said the tow truck drive. He dropped his cigarette into a puddle on the tarmac. “Okay, I’ll need your triple-A car and a credit card.”

The man reached for his wallet. He looked puzzled. He put his hands in his pockets. He said, “My wallet.” He came back to my car, opened the passenger-side door and leaned back inside. I turned on the light. He patted the empty seat. “My wallet,” he said again. His voice was plaintive and hurt.

“You had it back in the motel,” I reminded him. “You were holding it. It was in your hand.”

He said, “God damn it. God fucking damn it to Hell.”

“Everything okay there?” called the tow truck driver.

“Okay,” said the anthropologist next to me, urgently. “This is what we’ll do. You drive back to the motel. I must have left the wallet on the desk. Bring it back here. I’ll keep him happy until then. Five minutes, it’ll take you five minutes.” He must have seen the expression on my face. He said, “Remember. People come into your life for a reason.”

I shrugged, irritated to have been sucked into someone else’s story.

Then he shut the car door and gave me a thumbs up.

I wished I could have just driven away and abandoned him, but it was too late, I was driving to the hotel. The night clerk gave me the wallet, which he had noticed on the counter, he told me, moments after we left.

I opened the wallet. The credit cards were all in the name of Jackson Anderton.

It took me half an hour to find my way back, as the sky grayed into full dawn. The tow truck was gone. The rear window of the red Honda Accord was broken, and the driver’s-side door hung open. I wondered if it was a different car, if I had driven the wrong way to the wrong place; but there were the tow truck driver’s cigarette stubs crushed on the road, and in the ditch nearby I found a gaping briefcase, empty, and beside it, a manilla folder containing a fifteen-page typescript, a prepaid hotel reservation at a Marriott in New Orleans in the name of Jackson Anderton, and a packet of three condoms, ribbed for extra pleasure.

On the title page of the typescript was printed:

“‘This was the way Zombies are spoken of: They are the bodies without souls. The living dead. Once they were dead, and after that they were called back to life again.’ Hurston. Tell My Horse.”

I took the manilla folder but left the briefcase where it was. I drove south under a pearl-colored sky.

People come into your life for a reason. Right.

I could not find a radio station that would hold its signal. Eventually I pressed the scan button on the radio and just left it on, left it scanning from channel to channel in a relentless quest for signal, scurrying from gospel to oldies to Bible talk to sex talk to country, three seconds a station with plenty of white noise in between.

…Lazarus, who was dead, you make no mistake about that, he was dead, and Jesus brought him back to show us, I say to show us…

What I call a Chinese dragon, can I say this on the air? Just as you, y’know, get your rocks off, you whomp her round the backatha head, it all spurts outta her nose, I damn near laugh my ass off…

If you come home tonight I’ll be waiting in the darkness for my woman with my bottle and my gun…

When Jesus says you will be there will you be there? No man knows the day or the hour so will you be there…

President unveiled an initative today…

Fresh-brewed in the morning. For you, for me. For every day. Because every day is freshly ground…

Over and over. It washed over me, driving through the day, on the backroads. Just driving and driving.

They become more personable as you head south, the people. You sit in a diner and, along with your coffee and your food, they bring you comments, questions, smiles, and nods.

It was evening, and I was eating fried chicken and collard greens and hush puppies, and a waitress smiled at me. The food seemed tasteless, but I guessed that might have been my problem, not theirs.

I nodded at her, politely, which she took as an invitation to come over and refill my coffee cup. The coffee was bitter, which I liked. At least it tasted of something.

“Looking at you,” she said. “I would guess that you are a professional man. May I inquire as to your profession?” That was what she said, word for word.

“Indeed you may,” I said, feeling almost possessed by something, and affably pompous, like W.C. Fields or the Nutty Professor (the fat one, not the Jerry Lewis one, although I am actually within pounds of my optimum weight for my height), “I happen to be . . . an anthropologist, on my way to a conference in New Orleans, where I shall confer, consult, and otherwise hobnob with my anthropologists.”

“I knew it,” she said. “Just looking at you. I had you figured for a professor. Or a dentist, maybe.”

She smiled at me one more time. I thought about stopping forever in that little town, eating in that diner every morning and every night. Drinking their bitter coffee and having her smile at me until I ran out of coffee and money and days.

Then I left her a good tip, and went south and west.

This story is part of Zombie Week: index | next ›
Tony Linde
2. tonylinde
I'm intrigued to know how all three collaborated on the illustration (which I love btw).
Irene Gallo
3. Irene

It was completely serendipitous. I asked Rick if he could do the art for the story -- he wrote back and said something like, “Neil is in the studio now messing around with some paint.”

Rick has a long history of collaborations. He’ll often paint with Phil Hale, Brom, Michael Whelan and others. It usually starts off with abstract marks and slowly they build up an image – passing the paintings back and forth. Sometimes making subtle changes, sometime making large sweeping changes. It’s a bit of jazz improv.

Here’s a shot stolen from taken by Neil of Rick and SuperKate in Rick’s studio:
Jerome Weijers
4. Jerome Weijers
Hmm...didn't see at first that there were four pages to the story, thought it stopped at the first page. Even that made a good stand-alone story!
Jerome Weijers
5. Nalo Hopkinson
BTW, this story of Neil's was first published in the anthology _Mojo: Conjure Stories_ Warner Books, 2003.
Jerome Weijers
6. CassR
I really do love this story.
Jerome Weijers
7. Christina Warren
Wonferfully haunting story. I love the journey that it takes you on and how it ends at the perfect point.
Jerome Weijers
8. Satsuma
Mmm... I have to disagree with the illustration for this story. That illustration is like... cyberpunk... somehow. It doesn't match so well with a zombie story.
Anyway, this story is great. So open, so ambiguous...
Leigh Butler
9. leighdb
Classic Neil, and awesome. That it was set in New Orleans made it even better.
Francesca Forrest
10. Asakiyume
Oh, that was just fantastic. Wonderful the way people got lost in this--just streamed in and then out of our narrator's life, until it's his turn to stream on out. I'm going to have to check out the original anthology it was in, because I could definitely do with more stories like this. And let's hear it for Zora! Her article on hoodoo positively scared me, when I read it.
Jerome Weijers
11. navintzac
Y'know, I didn't get a cyberpunk feel at all of the artwork. Felt very coffeey to me.
Great story, and echo the thought about the first page being a good stand alone.
Jerome Weijers
12. Bixie
Thank you, Tor, for sharing this story. I have only recently started dipping into Neil's work, having known of him for quite a while, and like everything I have enjoyed so far, his words evoke images that are slow to leave. Fantastic.
Clare Miller
13. clarekrmiller
Awesomely creepy. Love the title--I wish I could come up with perfect titles that work on so many levels like that! (Of course I wish that I could do most of the things Neil Gaiman does. Hopefully some of them will come with practice.)
Jerome Weijers
14. Joel Love
A haunting tale that seems to be an answer for itself. Truth in four parts.
Jerome Weijers
15. RumpelstiltskinIsMyName
Goes great with the song What Else Is There?, Royksopp.
Jerome Weijers
16. MollyW
Wonderful - can't wait to read more Neil Gaiman !!
Tucker Whitney
17. Ubique
The painting became endowed with new meaning everytime I got to the next page, and was quite haunting by the fourth.
Jerome Weijers
18. Leonardo Boiko
My fav story in Fragile Things. When I get to present an academic talk I’ll use the “edited abstract” and “about the truth” strategies to see if they stick. I’m serious.
Jackie .
19. jaxz101
this is such a great story, neil gaiman is such an excellent writer
Sylvia Wrigley
20. akaSylvia
Typo: should say said
Shanelle Gravely-King and I had an early dinner in the hotel, at the beginning of which I sad, “Oh, let’s not talk shop,” and she agreed that only the very dull talked shop at the table
Shiphrah Meditz
21. Shifra
Really great read. I want that cover pic on my wall!!
Cory Skerry
22. pussinboots
Ditto #17.

@Irene, thanks for the peek into the process! :)
Jerome Weijers
24. FNC0
I guess I'm still lost somewhere in the golden age of SF because this piece seemed like a failure to me. It started in the middle, giving me nothing to hang on to and it finished in the middle leaving me with unanswered questions and no sense of crisis or crescendo. It was disappointing, like reading "Literature" recommended to me by those people who hang around Haight-Ashbury, thinking it's still "cool".

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment