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Tue April 30, 2013
Exclusive First Read: Walter Mosley's 'Little Green'
The last time we saw Walter Mosley's hardboiled hero Easy Rawlins, his car was hurtling off a cliff in the climax of 2007's Blonde Faith — a turn of events that Mosley hinted would be fatal.
But after months drifting in and out of a coma, Easy is back, and prowling the uneasy streets of 1967 Los Angeles in search of a missing teenager, Evander 'Little Green' Noon — for whom the book is named. Two years on from the Watts riots, LA is in the grip of the Summer of Love, and a lot has changed while Easy was unconscious.
Finding Little Green will be a tough job for a bruised and broken man who still thinks of himself as dead — at one point, Easy says, "I wore death on my shoulders like a superhero's cape." So in this excerpt, he visits the house of voodoo queen Mama Jo in the hopes of finding something that will bring him back to life. Little Green will be published May 14.
It was on Central Avenue that the memories started coming back.
I was smoking a Camel cigarette from a new pack that I picked up at a liquor store along the way. The window was open and the air whipped around the inside of that Barracuda like a manmade tornado.
Aretha Franklin was belting out Otis Redding's song, Respect, on the radio and I was feeling only slightly anchored to the world that I had left behind.
Down Tucker Street, in the heart of Compton, if you drive far enough, you come to a dead end. The asphalt turns to hard yellow soil. Thirty feet after that a dense stand of avocado and eucalyptus trees block the way. Through and beyond the trees are dense bushes, many of them with thorns. If you push past the bushes you come to an improbable door that seems like just another part of the forest. It was a yellow door with green lichen growing on it.
I stopped there to consider my actions. This was not a threshold that one, even a man in my condition, crossed lightly.
I waited a moment and the door opened of its own accord.
Jo was taller and darker and more substantial than I was even before the accident. She was in her sixties but might have been forty except for the heavy toll experience had left on her dark eyes.
"I wondered when you was gonna get here, Easy," she said in a strong tenor voice that man or woman would have been proud of.
I inhaled, taking in the strange odors of the backwoods alchemist's lair. The smells were sweet and bitter, vegetable and mammal, fish and also the deep, rich odor of the earth in its various refined guises.
I exhaled, feeling that the breath coming out of me carried an imprint of my soul that the house itself would study and pass judgment on.
"Come on in, Easy," Mama Jo offered. "Take a weight off them shaky legs."
Mama Jo's home was like no other in Southern California: one generous room that performed every function of a house and a backwoods clinic. The floor was packed earth and the furniture could have been built by peasant hands in Europe's Dark Ages. There was a hearth with a mantle-piece that had thirteen skulls on it. Twelve were armadillo heads and one was Domaque, the father of Jo's only child, and the one true love of her life.
She had a live raven, moving back and forth on its 'T' shaped oak stand, and two live armadillos that stayed to the corners of the wide room. I saw something else move in the shadow under her long worktable but failed to make out the species.
"Sit down ovah here, Baby," she said.
I lowered myself into a chair made from arm-thick branches and animal hide. It was the chair I most often used at Jo's house.
Jo sat down on the bench placed at her worktable. Behind her were dozens of crocks and jars, hanging bunches of dried leaves and branches, and more than a few hand-bound volumes.
There was barely six inches of space between our knees. Jo reached out for my hands and I gave them willingly, focusing my eyes on her bare feet.
"Easy," she said and I looked up.
We sat there for an interminable period passing breath and feeling between us. My hands began to sweat and that was just another form of communication.
After a long time Jo blinked twice and let me go.
"It's like you was dead out there in them bushes, Easy," she said.
I nodded and sighed.
"You were down there in the pit and it was Raymond's love that dragged you out. You two is just like chirren on a seesaw. One'a you is up and the other one down. That's how it goes."
I grinned but had no words to say.
"Man is a animal, Easy," Jo continued on her impromptu and yet ready sermon. "Bobcat can have the biggest fight of his life on a Tuesday noon. And win or lose, either way, on Wednesday 3omethi', if he still alive, he'll need water and meat to survive.
"It's a good thing that you run up off'a that cliff. A good thing. Because when you hit the bottom there is only one place left for you to go. You know that don't ya?"
"I don't know a goddamned thing, Jo," I said unable to keep my anger in check. "Not a fuckin' thing."
"You know you tried to kill yourself and that Death threw you back. He held you in his hand a minute and then said, 'Maybe.'"
I laughed deeply in spite of the pains in my chest and back. The idea of the Absolute looking at life and tossing it aside sounded so right that it was almost unbearable.
"I'm lookin' for somebody for Raymond," I said when the laughter subsided. "Evander Noon."
"That's just the seesaw action," Jo replied. "You lookin' for yourself."
"I'm not sure if it's for Evander or me," I said knowing that there was no arguing metaphysics with her. "All I do know is that I walked a block and a half today and nearly collapsed. And here I got miles up ahead of me."
"And that's why you come here?"
"You gave Mouse this little phial for hangovers," I said.
"Hangovah ain't like dyin'," she replied. "That's just a little pick-me-up after a night out."
"You got 4omething' stronger?" I asked.
"There's health in your body, sugah, and death in your soul. I can give ya something' help to see you through this thing but I can't tell whether you gonna come back alive or not."
"All I know is if I stop right now I will be dead in a week. I know it."
Jo's hard black face cracked into a girlish grin.
"I knew when you was just a teenager that you were gonna be one helluva man, Mr. Rawlins. You look at the world and see what's there. You know there ain't one person outta three hundred could lay claim to half'a that."
Jo got up and turned around to reach for something on a high shelf above the long and deep worktable. I had been looking almost only into her eyes since entering the cottage – either that or her workwoman's feet and near-feral pets. Jo had the kind of will that kept you engaged. But when she turned I noted that she was wearing an almost festive yellow dress that came down to the middle of her calves. She had dressed for company. She had dressed for me.
"Here we go," she said.
She handed me a wooden crate divided into eight three inch square sections. In each slatted section was nestled a little green bottle – all of them stoppered with hand cut cork plugs. The liquid inside the bottles was dark and thick.
"I call this here Gator's Blood," Jo said as she regained her seat. "That there is some powerful juju. You take yourself a nap and then if you feelin' weak you drink down one bottle. After that you'll be good to go for whatever time your condition will allow. When you get tired again don't take another bottle until you done falled asleep and woke up naturally. It's some powerful shit, Easy, so don't think you can break them rules... But if you do what I say not only will this medicine give you strength but it will help you heal."
"This is great, Jo," I said, "just what I wanted. I was wonderin' if you had some tar-balls too?"
"I don't have any trouble falling asleep but the dreams I've been having are sometimes
too strong. And if I remember right those tar-balls cut down the strength of dreams." "They up on the shelf. But lemme make you some tea right now. I think that would be the right thing."
Jo sat me on her hemp-padded sleeping cot and pulled the chair I'd been sitting in up next it. She served me a sour smelling sweet tasting tea in an earthenware cup that might have been a century old. I took a sip and yawned.
"It's good to see you, Easy," Jo whispered.
"It's good to be here."
I took another sip and my eyes felt like they needed to close.
"You can't fight with death," she said. "All you can do is stand your ground and hope that the foundation don't fall out from under you."
"Can you get word to Juice and Feather that I'm here and that I'm all right?" I said as she took the cup from my hand.
"I'll tell'em that you're here," she said and I fell on my side, sleep coming up around me like high tide.
I came awake alone in Jo's Compton cottage. She was nowhere to be seen. I didn't know if it was day or night because Jo's place had no windows and it was always lit by oil lanterns and candles. Breezes came through the walls and ceilings to ventilate the place but I never knew how this process was achieved.
On the worktable there was a plate of food under a flat-topped crystal cover. Standing on this glass protector stood a cat that had pointed ears like a lynx but weighed no more than eight or nine pounds. The feline hissed at me and I laughed.
I really enjoyed the soul food repast; pigtails, dirty rice, and collard greens cooked with ham-hocks and finished with white vinegar. My stomach hardly complained. There was a cola bottle with a bottle opener next to the plate. Next to the meal sat the wooden tray of Gator's Blood bottles with five rice paper wrapped lumps, which looked like tar-balls, wedged in between them.
I took one of the bottles, teased out the cork plug, and drank the contents, five or six ounces, in one draught. The concoction tasted like equal parts hard cider and swamp mud. The medicine was astringent against my tongue and throat. It felt like acid burning away the lining down to my stomach. It was hot too. This burning, which was at first painful, quickly spread through my chest, out along my arms, and finally up into my head. I broke out into a sweat and stood up because I had to.
I rose to my full height in the middle of Jo's place shivering, witnessed by the avian, feline, and rodent roommates of the absent southern witch. The heat in my chest turned to hilarity and the being in my soul was momentarily transformed into a hyena when the moon is full and the hunt is on.
After thirty minutes or so I was feeling better than I had in years. It was nighttime outside. There was a warm breeze blowing and the sky was both clear and black, except for a few stars.
I put the remaining Gator's Blood bottles and tar-balls in the trunk of the red Barracuda and then attended to the sky for a minute or two more.
I drove until coming to a World Gas Station where I used the payphone to call the Bel-Air house.
"Hello?" Feather answered.
"Hey, baby girl."
"How are you?" I asked my daughter.
"Fine. Mama Jo called and said that you were taking a nap at her house. Are you okay?"
"Why? Because you had that accident. You just got out of the bed this morning."
It hadn't yet been a day but it felt like there were months between me and the partial coma.
"I'm going up to the Sunset Strip to do something for Uncle Ray," I said. "Don't worry about me. Jo gave me some of her special medicine and I'm as strong as a bull."
"You sound funny, Daddy."
"That's the medicine working. It makes me feel good."
"You should come home," Feather said.
"And I will just as soon as I finish this job for Ray. Don't worry Feather I will come back to you and I will answer every question you have about where you came from before you came to us."
After that I jumped into the borrowed car and blazed my way toward the future.
Copyright Walter Mosley 2013. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc
Audio excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced without permission in writing from the publisher.