Works in Progress - Winter 2017

Gratitude for a Femme Fatale

An excerpt from Peter Carlson’s memoir-in-progress

By Peter Carlson | December 5, 2016
Flickr/Fady Habib
Flickr/Fady Habib


Peter Carlson, a former Washington Post columnist, is writing a book with the working title “Knuckleheads: A Comic Memoir of a Father, a Son, and a Jamaican Jail.” It’s the story of how his father, “a guy who climbed poles for the Long Island Lighting Company,” rescued him after he and his friends were detained for marijuana possession in Jamaica in 1972, when Carlson was 19. The following scene describes the night of Carlson’s arrest. “We were walking down the road in a small Jamaican town,” Carlson explains, “and the cops searched our box of groceries, found a little bit of pot, and arrested us. A woman I call Marjorie—I changed everybody’s names—owned a bar on the beach and the nearby treehouse where we were staying.”

Marjorie arrived at the police station about a half-hour after we did, and tried to talk the cops into letting us go. She sat in a chair next to the boss cop’s desk and told him we were good kids.

The police knew Marjorie, of course—they sometimes drank at her bar. She was a beautiful, gregarious woman, and maybe that’s why they let her sit there, watching them interrogate us. When they finished, they ordered us to empty our pockets. We pulled out wallets, coins, and keys and piled them on the desk. As the cops rummaged through the pile, one of them found a rolled-up Band-Aid wrapper that had come from Nick’s pocket. I gasped when I saw it because I knew what was inside—the last of our little orange pills, a leftover hit of acid.

Jeez, I thought, I hope he doesn’t look inside that wrapper.

He squeezed the wrapper and felt something inside it. When he unrolled it, he found the tiny orange pill.

“What’s this?” he asked Nick.

Nick looked stricken. “Ah … um … candy.”

Candy? Are you out of your mind? If this cop eats this candy and starts tripping, they’re liable to kill us.

But the cop didn’t eat it. He put it back in the wrapper, carefully rolled it up, and placed it with the other items on the desk.

I couldn’t stop staring at it, thinking, If they send that pill to a lab and find out it’s LSD, we’re in big trouble.

Marjorie watched all this while chatting amiably with the cops. As a bartender and thus a master of small talk, she kept up a steady stream of chatter while she crossed her lovely legs and reached into her pocketbook for her cigarettes. She offered the cops a smoke, shook a cigarette out of the pack and put it in her mouth. Then she took out a book of matches, lit the cigarette, and in a gesture made famous by countless film noir femmes fatales, she tilted her head back, exhaling a stream of smoke toward the ceiling. She blew out the match, placed the matchbook on the desk, near the pile of our possessions, and reached for an ashtray.

While she spoke, she fiddled with the spent match, tearing it up lengthwise and nonchalantly placing it in the ashtray. Then she casually picked up the Band-Aid wrapper and began fiddling with it as she talked and smoked and kept the policemen entertained. She played with the wrapper for a while, slowly unrolling it as she talked. The orange pill fell to the floor. She ignored it for a few minutes and then, without missing a beat in the story she was telling, she casually uncrossed her legs and squashed the pill into powder with the sole of her shoe.

Nick, Lori, and I watched all this in nervous silence, astounded at what we saw. In a bit of acting worthy of an Academy Award, Marjorie had managed to destroy a damning piece of evidence against us while three cops were watching her—and none of them noticed.

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