Bitter Grounds
Sep 13 2010 10:01am

Bitter Grounds

illustration by rick berry and neil gaiman and ekaterina slepicka

2. “Tongue brought me here”

There were no hotel rooms in New Orleans, or anywhere in the New Orleans sprawl. A Jazz Festival had eaten them, every one. It was too hot to sleep in my car, and, even if I’d cranked a window and been prepared to suffer the heat, I felt unsafe. New Orleans is a real place, which is more than I can about most of the cities I’ve lived in, but it’s not a safe place, not a friendly one.

I stank, and itched. I wanted to bathe, and to sleep, and for the world to stop moving past me.

I drove from fleabag motel to fleabag motel, and then, at the last, as I had always known I would, I drove into the parking lot of the downtown Marriott on Canal Street. At least I knew they had one free room. I had a voucher for it in the manilla folder.

“I need a room,” I said to one of the women behind the counter.

She barely looked at me. “All rooms are taken,” she said. “We won’t have anything until Tuesday.”

I needed to shave, and to shower, and to rest. What’s the worst she can say? I thought. I’m sorry, you’ve already checked in?

“I have a room, prepaid by my university. The name’s Anderton.”

She nodded, tapped a keyboard, said “Jackson?” then gave me a key to my room, and I initialed the room rate. She pointed me to the elevators.

A short man with a ponytail and a dark, hawkish face dusted with white stubble cleared his throat as we stood besides the elevators. “You’re the Anderton from Hopewell,” he said. “We were neighbors in the Journal of Anthropological Heresies.” He wore a white T-shirt that said “Anthropologists Do It While Being Lied To.”

“We were?”

“We were. I’m Campbell Lakh. University of Norwood and Streatham. Formerly North Croydon Polytechnic. England. I wrote the paper about Icelandic spirit-walkers and fetches.”

“Good to meet you,” I said, and shook his hand. “You don’t have a London accent.”

“I’m a Brummie,” he said. “From Birmingham,” he added. “Never seen you at one of these things before.”

“It’s my first conference,” I told him.

“Then you stick with me,” he said. “I’ll see you’re all right. I remember my first one of these conferences, I was scared shitless I’d do something stupid the entire time. We’ll stop on the mezzanine, get our stuff, then get cleaned up. There must have been a hundred babies on my plane over, Isweartogod. They took it in shifts to scream, shit, and puke, though. Never less than ten of them screaming at a time.”

We stopped on the mezzanine, collected our badges and programs. “Don’t forget to sign up for the ghost walk,” said the smiling woman behind the table. “Ghost walks of Old New Orleans each night, limited to fifteen people in each party, so sign up fast.”

I bathed, and washed my clothes out in the basin, then hung them up in the bathroom to dry.

I sat naked on the bed and examined the former contents of Anderton’s briefcase. I skimmed through the paper he had intended to present, without taking in the content.

On the clean back of page five he had written, in a tight, mostly legible, scrawl, “In a perfect perfect world you could fuck people without giving them a piece of your heart. And every glittering kiss and every touch of flesh is another shard of heart you’ll never see again.

“Until walking (waking? Calling?) on your own is unsupportable.”

When my clothes were pretty much dry I put them back on and went down to the lobby bar. Campbell was already there. He was drinking a gin and tonic, with a gin and tonic on the side.

He had out a copy of the conference program and had circled each of the talks and papers he wanted to see. (“Rule one, if it’s before midday, fuck it unless you’re the one doing it,” he explained.) He showed me my talk, circled in pencil.

“I’ve never done this before,” I told him. “Presented a paper at a conference.”

“It’s a piece of piss, Jackson,” he said. “Piece of piss. You know what I do?”

“No,” I said.

“I just get up and read the paper. Then people ask questions, and I just bullshit,” he said. “Actively bullshit, as opposed to passively. That’s the best bit. Just bullshitting. Piece of utter piss.”

“I’m not really good at, um, bullshitting,” I said. “Too honest.”

“Then nod, and tell them that that’s a really perceptive question, and that it’s addressed at length in the longer version of the paper, of which the one you are reading is an edited abstract. If you get some nut job giving you a really difficult time about something you got wrong, just get huffy and say that it’s not about what’s fashionable to believe, it’s about the truth.”

“Does that work?”

“Christ, yes, I gave a paper a few years back about the origins of the Thuggee sects in Persian military troops―it’s why you could get Hindus and Muslims equally becoming Thuggee, you see, the Kali worship was tacked on later. It would have begun as some sort of Manichaean secret society―”

“Still spouting that nonsense?” She was a tall, pale woman with a shock of white hair, wearing clothes that looked both aggressively, studiedly Bohemian, and far too warm for the climate. I could imagine her riding a bicycle, the kind with a wicker basket in the front.

“Spouting it? I’m writing a fucking book about it,” said the Englishman. “So, what I want to know is, who’s coming with me to the French Quarter to taste all that New Orleans can offer?”

“I’ll pass,” said the woman, unsmiling. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Jackson Anderton, from Hopewell College.”

“The Zombie Coffee Girls paper?” She smiled. “I saw it in the program. Quite fascinating. Yet another thing we owe Zora, eh?”

“Along with The Great Gatsby,” I said.

“Hurston knew F. Scott Fitzgerald?” said the bicycle woman. “I did not know that. We forget how small the New York literary world was back then, and how the color bar was often lifted for a Genius.”

The Englishman snorted. “Lifted? Only under sufferance. The woman died in penury as a cleaner in Florida. Nobody knew she’d written any of the stuff she wrote, let alone that she’d worked with Fitzgerald on The Great Gatsby. It’s pathetic, Margarent.”

“Posterity has a way of taking these things into account,” said the tall woman. She walked away.

Campbell started after her. “When I grow up,” he said. “I want to be her.”


He looked at me. “Yeah, that’s the attitude. You’re right. Some of us write the bestsellers, some of us read them, some of us get the prizes, some of us don’t. What’s important is being human, isn’t it? It’s how good a person you are. Being alive.”

He patted me on the arm.

“Come on. Interesting anthropological phenomenon I’ve read about on the Internet I shall point out to you tonight, of the kind you probably don’t see back in Dead Rat, Kentucky. Id est, women who would, under normal circumstances, not show their tits for a hundred quid, who will be only too pleased to get ’em out for the crowd for some cheap plastic beads.”

“Universal trading medium,” I said. “Beads.”

“Fuck,” he said. “There’s a paper in that. Come on. You ever had a Jell-O shot, Jackson?”


“Me neither. Bet they’ll be disgusting. Let’s go and see.”

We paid for our drinks. I had to remind him to tip.

“By the way,” I said. “F. Scott Fitzgerald. What was his wife’s name?”

“Zelda? What about her?”

“Nothing,” I said.

Zelda. Zora. Whatever. We went out.

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