The Napoleon House oozes polished brass, dark wood, comfortable leather and quiet classical music in an airy, casual way. The waiters in starched white shirts, black pants and dark bow ties are properly deferential and earn their tips by being invisible unless needed. In earlier days patrons could have watched Ruthie the Duck Lady zip by on roller skates, walking the raft of ducks she kept as pets. Now, Ruthie and her ducks were gone and the only traffic on Chartres Street was tourists, Budweiser trucks and the occasional United Cab.
Marcel’s table faced the street through one of the open doors. His lunch companion, Marie, was a reporter for a weekly in Metairie. For the last hour he’d talked about Voodoo and life in New Orleans; Marcel was a priest, an Obeah man. He was a first generation American whose father had been a Haitian Obeah man and had raised Marcel in the tradition. Marcel told her about his father and how he sat on the porch of his Creole cottage in Faubourg Treme in New Orleans, his Bible next to him as he rolled the obi seeds he used to divine a person’s trouble in his hand. He might pray or anoint them. Some might ask how he knew what was wrong and Marcel’s father would smile and say, “The Power never lie. Keep on the path of righteousness and yo’ soul ‘n’ body’ll mend.” When his father died he inherited the family business.
Marie broke into his thoughts. “If they ordered the evacuation, would you go?” The story on everyone’s mind now was a hurricane, possibly The Big One. The storm crossed Florida into the Gulf a day ago and, should it turn more to the north, promised to equal Hurricane Betsy that hit the area in 1965.
Life in the Big Easy, he thought. He remembered the laid-back panic and hurried evacuations before Hurricane Georges in 1998. It only grazed the City and left people maybe a little less willing to leave if another storm came toward New Orleans. Even a good rain would flood the streets and leave a foot or more of standing water. What would a Category 3 hurricane do if hit the Quarter?
This wasn’t an interview. They met two days earlier when she came into his shop looking for background information on Voodoo. She’d been directed there by the priestess at the Voodoo temple who knew Marcel as both a strong practitioner of The Faith and a man with an appreciation of beauty. After introducing herself, she had asked about his business. “It’s New Orleans.” She was new to the City, quite pretty and Marcel very much wanted her to be comfortable with him. “First people think of the three B’s: bars, bordellos and Bourbon Street. Then they think of Mardi Gras and Marie Laveau and Voodoo. Ghosts. Magic. They come to the Voodoo Shop wanting to play at it and we accommodate their wishes.” He wondered if she believed a word he said and if she would like to go to lunch.
A hurricane was the last thing on Marcel’s mind then. For now, this one was in the Atlantic Ocean, gently but firmly beating the hell out of the east coast of Florida. She asked if he believed in ghosts.
“Ghost stories are a dime a dozen in New Orleans.” She has a wonderful smile. “So it’s all a game?” Her expression had left Marcel wondering if he’d said something wrong. Does she think I’m just another Bourbon Street vulture?
“No, no. What I do in the shop, its business; but the Voodoo—Obeah—is a very real, very old religion. My father practiced it for sixty years and more before he died.” He crossed his fingers behind his back and said a small prayer. “We could talk more about it over lunch…”
“Not today, but how about day after tomorrow? You pick the restaurant.” Marie was determined to get a story on the Voodoo business in New Orleans; the editor had given her a limited expense account, so she was going to use it. Now, two days later, sitting in the restaurant that occupied the home built for Napoleon - should he have escaped from Elba — Marcel was telling her his life story. The storm had moved across the Florida peninsula, into the Gulf and was intensifying. “Explosive deepening” was the seaman’s term.
He struggled to answer her question.“This is my home. I might evacuate, but I probably would never completely leave.” It felt right and it sounded right, but was it true? Yes. “What about you, though? This isn’t your home.” He knew the answer before she could speak. He also knew that it wouldn’t be completely true. Marie wasn’t attached to New Orleans. It was where she worked. She didn’t grow up there, had no roots there. It was a lovely place, sure, but…
Before she could answer, he asked again, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Like I said the other day, it depends on the ghost.”
“William Faulkner. Three years ago a friend of mine said his ghost helped her write a book. Wanna hear about it?”
Lunch just got interesting, she thought. Either he’s spinning a whopper or he’s so self-absorbed that he thinks that charm rubs off on everyone. “Sure,” she said, prepared for anything.
“You know you that if you live in the French Quarter you can’t take a pee off your balcony in the morning without hitting a tourist,” he began. “Sheila – that’s my friend’s name - stood in front of the bookshop in the alley next to St. Louis Cathedral, looked up at the balcony and thought about that gem of truth. Faulkner himself had lived here while he wrote his first book, Soldier’s Pay; maybe he’d peed off that very balcony. Sheila wasn’t concerned about the hazy shape of a man lounging on the balcony of the bookstore; she’d grown up with the idea of ghosts as natural inhabitants of the French Quarter. Ghosts and New Orleans not only went together, they were an article of faith for her mother. A New Orleans native, she filled Sheila’s early years with tales of Madame LaLaurie’s tortured slaves, the ghosts of the Monteleone, and the witch of the French Opera House. Whoever he is, he’s dead, she told herself. He can’t hurt me.
The shape surprised her yelling down to her again, “So, you wanna write a book? Be here tomorrow morning. We’ll have coffee over at Cafe du Monde.”
This was the best offer she’d had in a very long time.
In her day job, Sheila was the opening bartender at a bar on Toulouse Street. Five dollars and fifteen cents an hour plus tips and she didn’t have to put up with much in the way of customers. A few regulars would drift in between noon, when she opened the bar, and four p. m., when happy hour began. She’d clean up the leftover barware from the previous night, finish restocking the bar toys and the liquors, make out the day’s order for the beer salesmen, then play the jukebox with money out of the register. She left at eight p. m., so her mornings and evenings were free, which was fine with her; she was an aspiring author and could use the time. Bartending and authorship were both honorable occupations in New Orleans. She remembered when another New Orleans author who thought writing was an honorable occupation and took on a local restaurateur who purchased one of the buildings on St. Charles Avenue with plans to turn it into a chrome and chintz diner for tourists, with high-end burgers and greasy fries. The building was featured prominently one of the author’s novels. Their argument went on for weeks in the media, the author garnering publicity for her next book and the restaurateur getting free advertising for his expensive dive while touting the advantages of “adaptive re-use of abandoned buildings.”
The waiting game is as much a part of Cafe du Monde as the pigeons and the powdered sugar on a beignet, the French donut that was the signature item at the Café. Local residents know to bring something to read, the Times-Picayune or the latest best seller. The servers occupied a row of chairs along the dining room’s outside wall, talking to each other in Vietnamese or French or English, only leaving the group to take an order when conversation lagged or a table needed to be cleaned and readied after customers left. “It’ll be forty-five minutes before they even look his way; there are still empty tables in here.” Sheila had lived in New Orleans long enough to say this with certainty but the ghost had insisted on Café du Monde.
Without warning, the waitress was there, running a coffee-colored rag over the table, saying, “Youwantcoffeeandbeignets?” She made it one word in Oriental singsong. “Two cafés au lait and a plate of….”
“Okay.” The waitress was gone. She heard “two,” “cafés” and knew “a plate of” meant a tip for bringing beignets. She might have exhausted her entire English vocabulary, but she’d made money.
“You know,” Sheila began, “when I first moved to New Orleans I went to St. Louis cemetery at the top of Canal Street and found Marie Laveau’s tomb. I walked around it three times, chalked a cross on the tomb and made a wish that I’d be an author one day.”
The ghost chuckled. “Ah, yes. The Queen of Voodoo and the ritual to get your heart’s desire. I’d heard about her before I left Oxford over in Mississippi. I did that too, when I first got here. Elizabeth Prall hired me — me — to clerk in a bookstore in New York for her. I came down here to visit her and met her husband, Sherwood Anderson.”
Sheila smiled and asked, “What did you wish for?”
“The same thing you did. In spades.”
Sheila laughed out loud this time, not noticing the looks from the group at the next table: one woman at a table, two cups of coffee, half a plate of beignets and she’s laughing at an unseen companion’s joke. Oh my, New Orleans does have such a strange effect on some people.
“If the mother looks after the child, both smile,” the ghost said. “If the child looks after the mother, both cry.”
“What?” Sheila looked around to see if anyone noticed her talking to thin air.
“It’s an old Yiddish proverb, but it’s the theme the book follows. I was working on it when I had the heart attack.”
“Now’s the time to finish it; it’s worked out, it’s ready to be set down and ready to be presented as a book that leaves no questions about the writings of the one and only old literary rambler, since it covers all subjects equally well without much ado or too many words in each sentence and absolutely no adverbs to offend the reader’s stomach and ulcers.” The ghost noticed Sheila’s blank look. “What, did you want some self-deprecating crap like my Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech? Instead I give you a one-liner that’ll kill them.”
“Thanks loads. Those long, drawn out things aren’t really my style.”
“I thought you wanted to be a writer.”
“Well, yes; why else would I be here?”
“So, are you going to do what I tell you or are you going to stand by your so-called style?” The ghost raised his voice, as if he were getting angrier at every word. Sheila looked around to see if anyone could hear what was going on. “Every writer wants to know ‘the secret’; that one secret that will either make them rich or make them famous or both. Seducing a publisher and the book-buying public is about as easy as herding cats.”
She looked across Decatur Street at the Lower Pontalba Building and decided that buying café au lait and beignets for a ghost was expensive, particularly if she didn’t get anything out of it. She started to copy as her newfound friend spoke.
The story he told was simple, moving King Lear from England to Lower Alabama; the language of the Mississippi Delta took control and left thoughts of Lear behind. She began to understand how her friend had herded cats. After twelve cups of coffee and half-a-dozen French donuts, she had copied twenty pages longhand and had to take a break to let her hand relax. Finally, she got up the nerve to ask a question that had been bothering her. “Why me? Of all people, why me?”
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, remember that? I can tell by your expression you don’t. It was 1947, before your time. A movie with Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.” He still sounded testy. “No, wait; wasn’t that about the woman who ghost-wrote a book for a sea captain’s ghost and they fell in love?”
“The same. Only I don’t have any feelings for you and I don’t intend to stay with you until you die, protecting you from unscrupulous children’s authors. I have my own agenda and that’s writing this book. I don’t care whose name is on the cover and I don’t care who gets the credit. The book is the important thing. Just follow my lead.”
“Please, no arguments.” He seemed to get angry again. I’m in love with this story and I intend to see it in print. I chose you because you were standing there and because you want to be a writer. You’ve got the basic skills and speak the language at least as well as the people who’ll be reading it. You just got lucky, like it or not.”
Sheila glared at the ghost. “Who in hell do you think you are? I…”
“I’m William Faulkner, young lady.”
She decided not to fight. Yet.
As Sheila took breaks from copying, he talked about his life, how he’d skipped a grade in elementary school, how he’d maybe seen a black man lynched — he fudged on that, as if he might have heard it second hand from someone who’d been there — but it was hard to tell from the flow of his words.
“…And his feet were dancing around in the air as if he wanted someone to throw him a tip, and nobody did.”
“You saw this when you were how old?”
“The hanging was in 1908; I was eleven then. I’m telling you it was gruesome.”
He’d been bored with school by the time he was ready to enter high school and called it, “the ninth revision of See Spot Run. “If I had written Silas Marner, it would have been a helluva lot more interesting. As it was, I had to suffer through it just like kids do today and I suffered through two — no, three more years of that crap. My official biography says I took some poetry to Phil Stone, but Phil had seen some of my stuff years before; he just hadn’t said anything about it because he was just too damned busy. He liked what he saw and encouraged me, so when I got bored out of my skull, I dropped out in the eleventh grade. I can’t complain. I had a good run after that, but sometimes I still wish I had finished high school. Not because it was the norm, it just would have been nice to have that on my resume.”
The sessions at Café du Monde continued through the week. Sometimes they ended in heated discussion, sometimes with the ghost preening himself for the copy he delivered. They always left Sheila drained.
King Lear’s soliloquy about a “thankless child” turned into a reverie by an old man consigned to a nursing home by two uncaring daughters. A third child, a son, visited him daily with stories and treats, and the day’s events would be summarized in the old man’s thoughts before sleep. Faulkner would offer up interior monologues for the characters and tidbits about his life and times in between cups of coffee. The old man had been rich beyond greed or avarice, and the daughters, of course, represented Greed and Avarice. Their only hope was that the old man would hurry up and die. Each daughter prayed that the other would die, too, so that only one would inherit. They gave no thought to their brother; in their estimation, he was a “fuzzyheaded dreamer,” who wouldn’t care about the money and the property. Likely, he would get just enough out of the estate to get by for a time. That suited the sisters, because it didn’t take much to keep fuzzyheaded dreamers dreaming.
“You know, I hung out at Ole Miss, but I never actually went to school there. They’ll talk about ‘This is where Faulkner went to school,’ but that’s a load of hooey. I never matriculated and I damn sure wouldn’t today. College still isn’t anything more than editions thirteen through sixteen of See Spot Run. What do they teach beyond that, some math? Enough sociology and psychology to draw all the wrong conclusions about what the people you love do, feel or think. History isn’t relevant to anyone except those who lived it, and who cares about them anyway? Most of them —hell, nearly all of them — are dead. Do you know what it’s like going through eternity with Julius Caesar telling you about his conquest of France? All Gaul is divided into three parts. In Latin. Hell, if I have to hear that again, I’d just as soon take up residence with Lucifer. Napoleon’s better, he just sits there and broods, like he’s still stuck on Elba. Maybe that’s his version of Hell. Maybe mine is listening to the defunct First Proconsul of the Roman Empire. That’s an entertaining idea: Hell for writers is listening to bad audiobooks — what, you didn’t think I knew about those? I’ve kept up with changes in technology over the years. Might be a valid comparison, too. I haven’t seen Cicero there and I hear he was supposed to be a thumper.”
While these tidbits were interesting in themselves, they didn’t add much to the book. How can I write about what he’s saying? He’s going on about Heaven and Hell, she thought, and the only thing I can do with that is add it as a back story to what…
“…To what the old man is thinking? I can’t read your mind, but I can tell from that look on your face that you think this is just fluff about me. Wrong. This is the back-story for the book. You shall weave the story around this framework. That old man’s life choices made him what he was when he was laying in that nursing home bed; they made him more than just the husk of a person, they were his life. They formed the attitudes and opinions that he based his history on.
“I chose to drop out of school. I chose to join the RAF. I chose to write poetry, though of course the first $10.00 prize I won went a heckuva lot farther in 1920 than it does today. Greed and Avarice aren’t exclusive to what’s-his-name’s daughters and those twin sisters put food on the table while they gave me a cheap thrill. And don’t tell me you don’t want to be paid for your work, even if it’s my work. I saw that look.” The ghost glared at her. At that point she decided that the ghost was getting unstable. She didn’t want to argue and recommended that they go for a walk; perhaps back to Pirate’s Alley. Maybe he’d had too much caffeine and powdered sugar; his cups kept draining themselves and she never got more than half the beignets, though she had no idea where (or how) his half of the coffee and donuts disappeared.
“See you tomorrow?” She was tentative about this whole relationship. While it was better than some she’d had with flesh-and-blood males, the “call back” etiquette for a ghost might be different.
“Mademoiselle, I shall await your return on yon balcony. If I’m not apparent when you arrive, then wait; I’ll be along presently.”
She turned and took two steps, then turned back with one more question. Her friend was nowhere to be seen, not even as a haze. Guess it’ll keep ‘til tomorrow, she thought. She turned back toward Royal Street and headed for her “other” job.
An hour later she opened the bar. Captain John came through the door before she finished setting up. He ordered his first drink of the morning, engaging Sheila in small talk. After his fourth drink, Sheila told him about Faulkner’s ghost.
“So, the ghost of William Faulkner is feeding you a novel before you come into work.” It was a statement, not a question. From Captain John, statements usually took the form of a raised eyebrow, and questions weren’t common. He was a direct, no-nonsense regular in the bar. He was big, more than six-six, and old enough that his silence was intimidating to anyone who didn’t know him.
“Well, yeah. He’s feeding me the book and says he’ll help me get it published.”
“What’s he asking in return?” Captain John was a retired pilot. He once sailed all over the world, but came to New Orleans twenty-seven years ago to guide ships from the mouth of the Mississippi River north as far as Pilot Town at Mile 34 and lived with a six-toed cat that he claimed was descended from one of Hemmingway’s famous Key West felines. He planned to move inland, Tennessee or Kentucky he said, in the next year. Nothing much that happened in the French Quarter surprised him, but he was protective of his friends.
“He just wants to make sure that the book gets published. It’s his — it’s the one he was working on when he died, sort of. What, do you think I’m trading sex to a ghost in exchange for a story? If I were it would be my business, thank you Captain John.
“Just be careful. I knew a man once…” Captain John took off on one of his stories about “a man he knew,” meaning he was drunk enough to accept the idea of Faulkner’s ghost passing along a story, but he was cautious about the idea of a free lunch.
At seven the next morning, she was back in Pirate’s Alley ready to write. She still had no idea of how to make him — what? Materialize? Appear? She decided that standing in front of Faulkner’s balcony would be the best way to attract his attention. She stood there for twenty minutes, wondering if she had been had by some otherworldly practical joker and then he was just there.
After one morning she’d come to accept the ghost as reality. After the first few days she’d even forgotten that it was a ghost. Now, two weeks after she’d met him, he was her teacher, her mentor; he was helping her write the novel she’d dreamed about and would show her how to get it published. What more could she want?
They walked across Jackson Square to Cafe du Monde and went to one of the tables in the far corner, under the striped awning. A few of the Goth population that seemed to center on the Café in the mornings were still hanging around and the tourists who’d survived the night were starting to file in, most of them nursing hangovers.
While they waited for service, Sheila asked, “So, what’s on the agenda this morning?”
“Well, if you hadn’t shown up, I was gonna pee on some tourists and make ‘em think it was raining.”
This guy really has a warped sense of humor, she thought, but if you’ve got Eternity to deal with, I guess peeing on tourists can seem like a real thrill.
“Well, we’re here. Wanna get to work before the coffee comes?”
Once more, the waitress — it’s always the same one, Sheila noticed — appeared quickly and took their order.
“How do you make them do that?” she asked. This wasn’t the first time she asked and she always got the same answer.
“I don’t make them do anything. I guess they like having famous customers.”
Sheila rolled her eyes, shook her head and they got down to business.
That afternoon in the bar, Captain John asked her how the book was going.
“We’re down to the last chapter. He’s hard to work with, but he doesn’t hold back. Says he wants to make sure this gets published. We’ve spent more time at Cafe du Monde with me transcribing this…well, it’s like he’s got the whole thing memorized, down to the punctuation. All I do is write what he tells me. It’s like I’m taking dictation.” Sheila finished cleaning last night’s crud out of the bar sink drain and leaned on the sink’s edge. “Between all that writing and working behind the bar, my hands feel like hell, but I guess it’ll be worth it.
Captain John squinted and looked closely at her. “You really think it’s William Faulkner?”
When he was sober, as he was now, he was a little less accommodating about wild stories. He’d once told Sheila that the only difference between a fairy tale and a sea story was that one began, “Once upon a time” and the other began, “Now this ain’t no shit.” Now he suspected that she was either hallucinating or trying to kid him.
“I don’t know anymore. His material reads like Faulkner’s, he knows Faulkner’s life history, he’s a ghost…”
“How can you tell?” John was pretty sure now that she was imagining this “person.” He liked Sheila and didn’t think she was doing any heavy drugs, but the idea of a ghost dictating a novel to a bartender was pretty far out there.
“Well, he’s a little hazy, not like smoke exactly; he’s got more detail than that but I can kind of see through him. He’s a ghost. I’m sure of it. Anyway, I just see him in the mornings.” As she listed her reasons for believing, she began to realize how doubtful the whole thing sounded. She also realized that Captain John was worried about her, not because she was working with a ghost, but because she was seeing ghosts.
Captain John just snorted and ordered his usual peppermint schnapps with a Heineken back. His friend Marcel, a voodoo priest, had assured him that a spirit “on a mission” could indeed make himself or herself known to the living. Hell, he thought, I’ve never seen pink elephants, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.
The next morning she picked up her ghost (she’d begun to think of him in possessive terms) and headed across Jackson Square for coffee and that day’s work.
“One chapter to go. Think we’ll finish it today?” Sheila’s right hand was beginning to cramp all the time and those morning outings were taking a heavy toll on her budget. Café au “lait and beignets for two every morning was bad enough. They were going through all her tips each day to buy the coffee with milk and the donuts. The cost of twenty-six legal pads and pen refills was nominal, but it came out of the rent money.
“How fast can you write? They should require shorthand in schools today.” Snippy, snippy, Sheila thought.
Her ghost had become increasingly argumentative and she worried that he would vanish in a fit of anger before the book was finished. She wondered if it was because he wanted to finish the work but didn’t want it to be over.
Four hours and eight cups of coffee later, Sheila saw Faulkner sit back and sigh. She hadn’t been paying attention to what he had been saying; she’d been taking dictation. She realized the book was done.
Faulkner looked at Sheila and said, “It’s like delivering a baby, push and push and push and then there’s a sudden relief and a new life has dropped into the world; then come the thousand details that attend a simple Event.”
Sheila felt that same relief, mostly in her hands. “What now?”
“I’ll help you arrange for publication, of course. Start herding cats, so to speak, but that’s for tomorrow. I’ve got to get back and you’ve got to go to your work.”
She walked across Decatur and through the Square, taking the alley to the left of St. Louis Cathedral. Faulkner seemed quieter than usual. When they stopped in front of “his” house, he looked up at the balcony, turned to her and said, “Thank you.”
Sheila smiled, “No, thank you. I’ll see you in the morning.” Then, as always, she turned away and walked up the alley. As always, when she turned to wave, the ghost was gone.
On the fifteenth day since the ghost of William Faulkner hailed her from his former balcony, she waited for him to appear. And waited. And waited. After an hour she finally gave up. Where was her ghost? This wasn’t like him. She headed toward Cafe du Monde, thinking perhaps Faulkner was there, waiting for her.
He promised me and he’s not here!
She realized that the only shouting was in her head; her ghost was a no-show. She sat down at their table, still mad at her ghost for not being where he was supposed to be. He had promised, but now he wasn’t here and what the hell is going on?
“May I sit with you? The café’s pretty crowded this morning.”
Sheila didn’t want to be pulled out of her tirade by some damned tourist who wanted to sit down and guzzle some “real New Orleens coffee.” Her ghost wasn’t here and she didn’t want some jerk to scare him off if he showed up. She looked up and started to say, “Hell, no,” but the man seated himself before she could speak.
“What do you have to do to get service around here?” The questioner looked like he was in his early thirties, with china blue eyes and longish dark brown hair, parted in the middle. Sheila glared at him but his smile took some of the edge off his uninvited presence at her table.
“I can do that,” he said as he unfolded a copy of the Times-Picayune. Tourist or not, he seemed to understand the waiting game. “Would you like a section of the paper?”
Sheila fumbled with her bag, dragging out the last legal pad of the manuscript. If she couldn’t have her ghost, at least she could read some of his new book. “No, thanks. I’ve got something to read.” If the ghost doesn’t help me get it published, I’ll probably be the only person to read it anyway, she thought.
“I spend my days at work reading.”
Her tablemate seemed determined to strike up a conversation whether she wanted to talk or not. Above all, she didn’t want to talk about books.
“Do you live here? I’m just here on holiday from New York. I’m an associate editor at Random House. We’re publishers; you’ve probably heard of us. Children’s books, textbooks...we were William Faulkner’s last publisher.”
Sheila looked up from her reading, painfully interested.
“Do you know his work? He used to live in New Orleans you know; up that alley there, next to the Cathedral.”
Without warning, the waitress was there, running a damp, coffee-colored rag over the table and asking, “Youwantcoffeeandbeignets?”
Sheila looked from her new companion to the waitress, then smiled. Still herding cats, are you?
Marie laughed and clapped her hands when she realized that the story was over. That charm of his is rubbing off on me. Oh, well, what the hell. He makes me laugh. Let’s see where it goes. It was still early in the afternoon when they finished lunch. He didn’t want to go back to the Shop. He didn’t know what effect his “ghost story” had on Marie, but she seemed to be in no hurry either.
“How long have you been in New Orleans? Have you been through the French Quarter since you’ve been here?” You know a whole lot about me, but you haven’t answered a single question I’ve asked you.
“Not really, but I can’t this afternoon. I didn’t know we’d take this long for lunch and I’ve got to be back at the paper before three. With the traffic…”
She didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. She did want to prowl the streets of the French Quarter with him and listen to him tell his stories. She wanted to spend as much time with him as she could, but today wasn’t the day. That hurricane was in the Gulf and strengthening steadily. It was a Category 3 storm before she left her office for lunch. “Can we make it a late dinner? Tomorrow night, say, tenish?” Would he accept a compromise? God, I sound so desperate.
“That would be great; I should to be at the shop tonight. Could I pick you up at your office, or would you rather meet at …?”
“Mulate’s. Uptown” she interrupted him. “It’s halfway for both of us and I’ve heard the food’s good and I want to go.” Before it’s blown away or flooded. Oh, God I really do sound desperate. “We can take that tour of the Quarter in the morning maybe.” She noticed his smile. No, I don’t. I sound like some kind of slut. Why the hell can’t I say what I mean?
“Ten sounds good. Lets the tourists get out of the way. We can use the back entrance.” When he walked her to her car he decided to keep it light. No kiss, but not a handshake. He held her hand gently, at arm’s length until she had to pull away to get into her car. Lingering over the moment, he thought. When she turned on to Iberville Street, he began walking back to the Shop.
The hurricane was deepening quickly. Its central pressure dropped to 905 millibars and its winds picked up to 135 miles per hour. It was officially a Category 4 storm.
Marcel floated through the next day at the shop, thinking about dinner that evening and deciding whether or not he should give his employees the next few days off. No matter. The Weather Channel’s saying the storm was moving back and forth, flirting with Category 5 status. There won’t be any trade if a hurricane comes anywhere near us.
At dinner that evening he asked her about herself. She was impressed when the maitre‘d had let them in through the kitchen and seated them in a “special section” in the back of the restaurant. She saw his questions as a good sign that he was interested in her, at least seeing her as more than a potential roll in the hay.
She opened up a little and told him that she’d come from Michigan, where she worked for another weekly after college. Majoring in Journalism when she couldn’t find anything else that suited her or promised some payback for her time and money, she’d moved to New Orleans when the Metairie newspaper posted a notice on one of the Internet job sites. She said she was tired of snow and cold and pressure and wanted warm and laid back.
“…Then I get here and a week later this damned hurricane comes in and I’m working twelve or fourteen hours a day.”
“For a weekly newspaper?” This surprised Marcel.
“Yeah. In the mornings I sell advertising for them; visit business customers and try to get them to spend some more money. Three afternoons a week I’m a reporter. Sometimes I even help out in the press room.” She paused, then chuckled. “I’m gaining experience in all aspects of the business, as they say.”
They both laughed for a moment, then Marie said, “So many things here are…different. Exciting.”
When Marcel was at Tulane, one of his friends was Egyptian. Marcel thought it must have been fascinating to grow up in Cairo and said as much.
You can get used to anything, his friend said. A man on a camel rides by the Great Pyramid every day. To you, it’s an amazing thing, this pyramid. To the man on the camel it’s the same old thing he sees on the side of the road for years — like the kudzu you see growing on the telephone poles in the South.
It was just about that time that the hurricane became a Category 5 storm and started to move north.
The next morning they went for their walk in the Quarter. Bourbon Street wasn’t deserted, but there weren’t many people. The street smelled of stale beer, garbage and other unpleasant, unidentifiable odors. Their feet stuck to the sidewalk. Marcel explained that the Quarter didn’t start to function until about 11 a.m., and anyone who was out at eight or nine was catching the Quarter in its underwear.
“…Or they’re tourists trying to find a Denny’s.” For all his business depended on tourists, Marcel took a dim view of them when they weren’t in his shop.
“With that hurricane coming, I would have thought the tourists would have gone home.” Marie looked in the window of a t-shirt shop at a shirt that proclaimed the wearer to be a Certified Muff Diving Instructor. “At home they wouldn’t dare have something like this in the window.” “It’s New Orleans. T-shirt shops and tourists who buy things they wouldn’t dare wear at home. The tourists will stay here until someone throws them out. Even with hurricane-force winds blowing down Bourbon and a foot of water covering the street, the tourists won’t leave.” “They’ll stay because it’s their first vacation in two years and they still have to get souvenirs for Great Aunt So-and-so! The weather’s not so bad, they’ll say; they’ll just have another Hand Grenade before they go back to the hotel. They’ll stand on the Moonwalk down by the river, watching the River in a rainstorm until they’re soaked to the skin, just because it’s The Mississippi River. It’s New Orleans.”
Marie glared at him, but he wasn’t looking. That explains everything to you doesn’t it? Just say ‘It’s New Orleans.’ She looked down the street and started to speak, then hesitated. Maybe it does explain everything, she thought. Marcel, Marcel. You see it too, and you can’t do anything about it. It’s the stinking streets; it’s the t-shirt shops, the strip joints, the bars, the ”goddamn tourists,” the River, the museums, the art galleries, food, music, graveyards and the people. You love it and you hate it and you can’t do one thing about it, and you won’t because it’s Home. If I ever love you, it’ll be for that.
They walked a little further down the street and Marie looked into the only open bar they saw. Marcel answered her question before she asked.
“Johnny White’s. It’s open every day, all day. See? It doesn’t even have locks on the doors.” The small bar was packed with people drinking while they watched the Weather Channel on the television set above the bar. Marie decided it was too early for alcohol.
“Is there any place where we can get breakfast?”
Marcel smiled and took her hand. He led her down the street and around the corner, then halfway down the block. The sign in front proclaimed that the diner had the Best Hamburgers on Earth. “They have the best breakfast in New Orleans, too.” It was small, chromed and wearing red vinyl on its benches and barstools, the Village People blaring from its jukebox. Marcel waved to the short order cook working the grill, then moved towards a booth.
“The wait staff here is sorta different.” Just as Marcel said that, a waiter slid into the booth next to him and addressed Marie.
“Hey girlfriend, you gotta hang onto your man in this place.” Slim and very well groomed, he wasn’t at all self-conscious about putting his arm around Marcel’s shoulders. What kind of place did he bring me to? Marie got the giggles and couldn’t stop. The waiter reached past Marcel and patted her hand.
“Girlfriend, it’s New Orleans.” She laughed even harder.
The Weather Channel full of nothing but the hurricane and speculation about the hurricane’s path.
After breakfast Marcel and Marie walked past the A&P at the end of the block and ended up at St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. “The Baroness Pontalba and Andrew Jackson weren’t the best of friends; he never tipped his hat to her. So, when she built this apartment block she put Jackson Square in the middle and for the middle of the square, she commissioned that statue of Andy Jackson tipping his hat at her apartment for eternity.”
Marie laughed and looked at the statue of General Jackson knowingly. “The Baroness had the right idea.”
Streets that had been full of tourists 24 hours before now were empty. No one (except she and Marcel) walking in front of St. Louis Cathedral, looking at the oaks in Jackson Square and knowing that they’d come down in the storm. Walking down Chartres, empty. Stores not likely opening soon. Knowing that the statue of Andy Jackson would still tip his hat to the baroness Pontalba every morning, even if all else collapsed.
They walked across Decatur to the levee separating the city from the Mississippi River and stood on top, watching the ferry moving cars from the West Bank to the terminal on the New Orleans side of the river. It might all be under water in a few days.
“If they decide to make it a mandatory evacuation, are you going?” Will I stay if he stays? I’ve fallen in love with this fool and I know what he’ll say.
“Marcel? Are you going to leave?”
I’ve been here nearly all of my life. Now, though… “Will you come with me if I do?”
“What if I don’t?” What if I can’t? What if I’m stuck here because this is Home?"
“Then I don’t either.”
Marcel looked down. He knew that things would be very bad at the very best. The Quarter was the highest part of the City and probably wouldn’t flood even if the levees along the Lake broke, but even so, there wouldn’t be sewer or city water. What he had in bottles would be it. Electricity would be gone and trash removal. Hell, I won’t even touch the streets with a bare hand when things are good and the sun’s shining, unless I have something to wipe my hands on. What will it be like when the sewers back up? I’ve got the apartment above the shop if it floods, but that’s not a sure thing either. No one knows how high the storm surge will be and they’re guessing more than twenty feet. That’s two feet onto the second floor.
“Then we’ll leave. Together.”
The hurricane turned squarely towards New Orleans that evening. A mandatory evacuation was declared the next morning.
She met Marcel in front of the shop that morning. Marie had one overnight bag in the Toyota’s trunk, a change or two of clothes, some extra shoes and such. “I didn’t bring a lot. I don’t have most of my stuff here and I thought traveling light would be best.”
“I brought a change of socks and a toothbrush.”
Men would go naked, unshaven and barefoot if we let them.
They’d planned their route the evening before, when she got the news about the hurricane’s projected path. If they got a hundred miles or so away from the city, they reasoned, they would be safe. West was the direction of choice: even if the eye of the storm hit a bit west of New Orleans, they’d be on the safe side of the hurricane and inland, which meant the main hazards of the hurricane would come from the wind, not flooding.
Marcel insisted that she drive. It was her car, and it had its little quirks, so when he opened the driver’s door for her, she wasn’t surprised. When he closed it and kneeled down next to it, she was.
“Here’s the map you’ll need…”
What the hell? “You’re coming with me you said!” You love it and you hate it and you can’t do one thing about it, and you won’t because it’s Home. But I didn’t tell you I knew that, you bastard. I love you, and that’s part of it, but… “Damn it.” Marie was hissing. “You said you were coming and now you’re going to back out and stay here in your precious City? Damn you!”
“You’ve got to go. If you don’t go, you’ll regret it. This isn’t some Weather Channel simulation.”
Marcel stood. “Last night, I told you I love you and you told me you loved me; I do love you, but now I’m talking about survival. When we talked about the evacuation you left the decisions to me and I decided you’re going to leave. Three more days, and this place won’t be fit for human habitation. You don’t have to stay; I do.” This is my home, my fight, not yours. And I won’t let you get hurt because you stayed here with me. “Go.”
After she drove off in a huff Marcel looked up at St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square (he’d corrected her pronunciation of the saint’s name twice; “Louie, not Lewis.”) and he thought about Bogart, Louie and a beautiful friendship. Yep, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. For now, though, he had to close up the shop and head for Johnny White’s. They’ll be open, hurricane or not.
Marie couldn’t help glancing up at the balcony when she passed it. The ghost was there staring balefully down at her. But it wasn’t William Faulkner; it was Marcel. She cursed him for the first twenty-five miles of Intersate 10 until the highway’s pace picked up. She knew she’d never be back. Oh, I might visit again, but it would never be the same. Hemingway said Paris was a moveable feast. I guess New Orleans might be one too, but I don’t have to like it.
©2005 Will Carpenter
Will Carpenter lives in middle Tennessee with his domestic partner and three formerly feral cats. A retired shipmaster, he began writing when she told him to “find something to do and stop fidgeting around the house.” This is his first published work.