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Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Monday, 24 October 2011 18:19

Needlemen of New Orleans

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May finished getting ready and came out to find Granmere burning down the kitchen. She had just put on her rouge, the final touch that always put May in a putrid mood. Opening the off-kilter bathroom door shoved a curtain of smoke at her.

Rushing for the stove, May found a fry pan full of oil fuming oil. Granmere was sitting in the den as usual. Something in May coiled, made her want to yell at Granmere.

There was no point in yelling at someone who could no longer learn better.

May shut off the burner. She waved the smoke away. After a minute with her face in her hands, she sighed and opened the fridge for a beer.

It was empty but for the leftover gumbo she’d heated up for Granmere earlier.

May went to kiss Granmere goodbye.

Granmere was sitting in the last remaining chair in the house. She stared at the watery brown square where the TV used to be. May had tried to scrub it away, but it was as much a part of the walls as the roaches.

As May kissed between Granmere’s neat gray curls, Granmere lifted a hand from clutching a doll in her lap.

“Something’s wrong with the TV,” she said.

“We sold it, Granmere.”

Granmere turned a serene look on May. Only her lips smiled.

“Of course we did.” She cupped May’s rouged cheek.

“I’m going out now, Granmere.”

“Don’t you want dinner? I’ll put on some oil, get the chicken from the ice box and make us up some fryers.”

May’s little grin came pained. “I’ll get something while I’m out, Granmere. You just stay here and read, okay?”

A shade of distress swept Granmere’s features. She shook. “This is no town to go out at night, girl. New Orleans has phantoms in it. Always has.”

May sobered. The old stories, told by Granmere by nightlight during the days when the streets throbbed with gunfire, had sewn a chill in her bones that always rose up strong. She blinked away visions of leering faces with looking glass eyes, fingers long and fine as surgical instruments, cloaks rustling through unwatched alleys.

“I’ve got to go out, Granmere. Got to pay those bills.”

“No bill is worth your life, girl.”

“Bills pretty much are life.” Another smile failed. Nothing funny about that joke. May didn’t have to look around to see the dusty spaces where she’d sold away their things to pay the doctors, the grocer, the Entergy power company.

The shotgun house had more brown-stain phantoms in it than it had things—more ghosts than memories.

Granmere gripped May’s hand.

“It would end my life if they took you,” Granmere said, eyes now as wet as they were lost.

“Nobody’s going to take me, Granmere. I’ll be fine.”

Laughter sounded from the window, hard and low and mean. Bottle glass broke on the concrete. May blinked rather than wince.

“I’ll be fine.”

“No,” Granmere’s voice leapt with rising hysteria. “There’s worse than men out there. I’m talking about the Needlemen, woman. They hide in the trees and behind the houses, and when a fresh, young girl comes along, they leap out—leap out all dressed in gowns of white satin.”

“And stovepipe hats. I know.”

“Yes, and stovepipe hats! And they steal your life, girl. They put a needle in you and they draw it right out of your body. Gone, gone. All gone.”

May shifted to loosen the chill wound around her by the story. Desire District’s streets were quiet now. That was more terrifying than the laughter.

“I’ll take care of myself,” May pried Granmere’s fingers loose and laid them on the doll’s patchwork dress. “I’ve got to take care of you, don’t I?”

“Yes,” Granmere nodded, imperious, delight stealing back into her face. “That you do.”

May plucked a paperback from a pile on the floor and set it on the arm of Granmere’s chair. “You read ‘til you fall asleep. I’ll be here for breakfast in the morning.”

Granmere nodded, papery face clenching and relaxing in thought. Her eyes widened. She held out the doll.

“Here,” Granmere declared. “Your doll, Sabrina. To keep the Needlemen away.”

May felt a pang of hate for herself as she lost her smile again. She turned her face away until she could bring it back. She sniffed and put the doll back in Granmere’s lap.

“That’s Mama’s doll, Gran.”

“Oh yes.” Granmere went vacant. There weren’t even tears. “Where is my girl?”

“She passed.”

“Yes.” There wasn’t even sadness. “The Needlemen got her.”

“Cancer, Granmere.”

May waited, but Granmere stayed blank. She went to the door and was about to wave goodbye when she noticed something wrong. The lock was stuck open.

May twisted at the knob. It wouldn’t budge. The door just drifted.

Tires crackled as a car pulled from the curb outside, trailing bass beats. Then the quiet closed its teeth again.

Granmere’s voice put ice down May’s spine. “White gowns and stovepipe hats, girl. You look out for them needles.”

May left without another word.


May had a short walk from Morrice Duncan Drive to the corner of Humanity Street, but it was too long not to think. Evening’s spaces were too silent, too vacant and strange, not to birth ghosts.

May looked over yards where towering weeds waved behind rusted chain link. She stared down the narrows between the gaping, black-barred faces of peeling shotgun houses. She watched the empty skyline where the Desire Projects once rose, as it fumed dark brown and starless.

Nothing moved. Everything seemed anxious.

May heard the click of her high heels in the quiet. Sounds stirred and died: Cats’ cries. Gates clanging closed unseen. Tires rasping down distant streets.

And everywhere, a rustle—like a snake’s coils waking; like a white gown—the sound of every Desire evening.

May was almost glad to see Silas standing sentinel on the corner: Shoulders set. Back unbent. Jewelry glistening.

“May flower.” Silas studied her every stitch through a haze of Kool smoke from his scowl. “You looking fine to night, bitch.”


“You ready to work?”

“Ready as ever.” May rubbed her arms. They itched already, just from seeing him.

“Good,” Silas slapped May’s haunch. “Because this ass is bank for me.”

May shivered again, anticipation making her rock.

“But where are my manners?” Silas flattened a hand to his chest. His other hand slid for his pocket. May’s eyes dove after.

They lidded low as a chill stole over her at the sight of Silas pulling out a heroin needle.

“I got to take care of you, don’t I?” he said.

May nodded, eyes wet and vacant.

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Matthew C. Funk

Matthew C. Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily, and a writer for FangirlTastic and Spinetingler Magazine. M. C. Funk's work features at numerous sites online and in print with Needle Magazine, Howl, 6S and Crimefactory. He is represented by Stacia J. N. Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.

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