A hobo's tale of New Orleans, the black bottle, and the dead.
In a beer hall I was sitting alone when an old fellow came up. He said, “I hear you’re from Tennessee. Care to stand a fellow Tennessean a drink?”
I looked away.
“I can tell you the best story you’ve ever heard if you buy me a beer. I won’t even drink the beer until I finish the story.”
I was bored. If the old man tried something tricky, I could hold down the glass hard enough his skinny arms couldn’t lift it, so I put a pair of fingers in theair to signal the barman.
“Start talking,” I said..
He began, "I rode into New Orleans on a freight. It wasn't smart for me to be there because I done three years in Angola--that's the state pen there, don't you know--but winter came to Kansas, and I left for warm weather in the Big Easy. First thing I got to town, I snatched some clothes from a line, and fine clothes they were, too. I walked to Audubon Park to feel the sun and melt the Kansas ice in my bones. On a bench I saw a man sleeping. His wallet poked out of his pocket. A lion in the zoo roared, and the fellow didn't stir. He slept the sleep of newborns and ancients. It was beautiful new wallet, and it tempted me. I lifted it out slow and easy and crept away soft."
"You're a thief," I said.
"Not everyday," he replied.
If you don’t trust the teller, I thought, don’t trust the tale. I let him go on.
"Inside the wallet the man had a few papers, a photo, and a gold eagle."
"A ten dollar gold piece.”
"That must have been a long time ago," I said.
"Not really. Some folks didn't trust the new money. They held on to their gold after they were supposed to turn it in."
"You couldn't spend it in a store," I said. "What did you do?"
"Oh, there were folks who still took gold. I went to a little back room I knew and bought a jar. The bootlegger liked the gold and gave me ten dollar bills back as change. I tried to sell the wallet to somebody in the bar, but couldn't get a deal so I stuck the ten bills in the wallet.
"I drank the jar and walked out on the street to look for a woman. I couldn't find one, so I kept walking. After a spell I started to get sick from the whiskey."
"What kind was it?"
"Moonshine. You can't tell from the way I'm telling this story? I thought you were from Tennessee."
Was he saying I wasn't trustworthy? What a turnabout. I said, “I always stick to beer.”
"You’re wise," he said. "That 'shine made me sick. I was falling down. I passed out and hit my head on the sidewalk. A cop found me and called it in. I came to and lay there groaning as he was going through my pockets. He looked at the papers in the wallet, and put the money in his pocket.
"I thought I'd go to jail, but he had me taken to Charity Hospital, and that place scared me more than jail. Folks in New Orleans, especially the Creole folks, said the doctors there had a black bottle they kept for poor people. When the doctors needed bodies or parts to cut up at the medical school, they'd give a poor man--or woman--a drop from the black bottle and then pickle the carcassfor the students.
"I didn’t want the black bottle. I hoped the fine clothes I wore made me look like I had enough money to be missed. A nurse came in with a wet cloth and washed the wound in my head. She was real gentle and put on a bandage. A doctor came in to look me over. Lo, it was the prison doctor from Angola. "What are you doing with those clothes?" he said. "Orderlies," he shouted, "strap this man down.'
"I fought dirty, punching, kicking, screaming, and biting, but there were six of them. In the end, one held each limb and the other pair belted me down to a gurney. That doctor took a little black bottle from a drawer and opened it. He held my head and put one drop on my lips, and I was paralyzed. I couldn't even blink. It took everything I had to to take shallows breaths. An orderly wheeled me out in the hall and down to the basement. The doctor followed.
In the basement they put me in a cold room with stiffs on slabs and jars on shelves. It was the pickling room. A big cask of embalming fluid had tubes running from it to the mouths of the corpses on the slabs. The jars had pieces and parts of people floating in them. I saw hearts in jars, kidneys in jars, and what looked like a pickled piece of John Dillinger, if you know what I mean."
The old man winked at me.
"Then what happened?"
"That doctor grabbed a big jar with some guts floating in it. He pulled the guts out with his fingers and threw them out. He got a funnel, stuck it in my mouth, and starting pouring that gut-pickling juice down my throat."
I was revolted and pushed myself back from the table.
"It went down my throat fast as this," he said, and he lifted the beer mug to his lips and poured the beer down his throat like a kid drinking a soft drink on a hot day."
"Then what happened."
"Nothing. I was already pickled. I told you I'd drink the beer when I finished."
This story is a slightly revised version of a story by the same name that appeared Oct. 27, 2011, on Triond's Authspot website: