Not so long ago, on the banks of the Mississippi, Charlotte Avery Cole felt a sudden convulsiveness in her breast. She was terrified. When she doubled over and began to gag, witnesses thought she might be close to death. The presence of Alice Night was the proximate cause for the attack. The true reason was more than fifty years in formation.
It was the fall of 2005: Charlotte had come to live in the city of New Orleans only a few weeks after The Storm, as natives had started to call it, because its given name was too limited. The Storm was a process, a lacuna in everyone’s life, a period of wandering, loss, discovery, heat, strangeness, and difficulty in breathing. It was a walk in the underworld. The old order did not apply: whole houses had floated off their foundations and now slumped in the middle of the streets; toppled stoplights blinked randomly from the gutter; people burst into tears when asked the simplest questions. At the time, Charlotte couldn’t have articulated why she decided to dwell in the zone of the disaster. Her husband claimed she was running away from her real situation. She would have countered there was nothing real about her situation.
Just before her attack, Charlotte had been sitting on a bench in a park overlooking the Mississippi. Nearby, on a riverside stage, a “Thanksgiving Concert” had attracted a small, disconsolate crowd. An R&B singer wore a bright sail of a yellow dress, and a turban—but her voice was weak, and her band, half missing. The only person in the scene who looked genuinely cheerful, in fact, to Charlotte, was Alice Night, her former tenant. When she spied her at the edge of the gathering, Charlotte pulled up the hoodie she had taken to wearing in the uncertain streets, and slumped down into the bench, to hide.
She recalled she had once been quite cruel to Alice Night.
Ten years before, Charlotte and her husband, Minton, had bought a house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans. They “inherited” Alice, who was already renting the small studio cottage in the backyard. Charlotte wanted to evict her immediately but Alice had a good lease. She also had a boyfriend, Victor, a lanky, curly-haired fellow who could have been cast as Ichabod Crane. He was pocked-marked, a slob, and divorced. He had a boy, called “Little Vic,” and custody two weekends a month. The ex-wife lived in the suburbs and dropped off her son at Alice’s on Fridays, where the boy would wait for his father while Alice fed him cookies. Victor usually showed up at seven, in time for dinner.
Victor’s ex-wife went to a church so big you could see it from the interstate: a round building with a wriggly spire in the middle like a cocktail swizzle stick. It remained a going congregation even after its pastor was caught coming out of a motel in broad daylight with a girl who looked fifteen. The photo was on all the newscasts.
About a month after the scandal broke, the pastor emerged from seclusion to go on TV to confess and cry like a baby. Many people forgave him but Charlotte would not. This place, New Orleans, she thought at the time. Charlotte came from Northern Mississippi where some things went without saying. In her hometown, the pastor would have had the decency to go away quietly.
The child, Little Vic, who also attended the swizzle stick church, had a morbid fear of several things, among them, sin. For an eight-year-old, Charlotte thought, he was a nervous wreck. Once, Charlotte and Minton had taken him on a trip with their little girl Belle to a water park–Minton’s idea. Charlotte saw this as charity. The boy and Belle went on the huge slide, and not long after, Little Vic said he had to be sick.
“Go ahead,” Minton had told the boy, so did Charlotte. They brought him into a unisex bathroom, showed him where.
He absolutely would not throw up. He swallowed, he moaned, he held his mouth tightly closed, turned yellow-green. He wouldn’t do it.
Finally he turned to Minton and asked to be taken to the gentlemen’s. There, Little Vic confessed that he had done bad things, and now God was punishing him with a bellyache. He’d taken a crayon from Sunday school. He had stolen a toy from Belle without even meaning to! He’d found it in his pocket when he got home!
It was hardly a toy: it was a small, silver horse that had been a piece in a game called Destiny he had played at the backyard picnic table with Belle. Destiny involved advancing pieces around the board, and acquiring things and experiences, and sometimes losing them. Charlotte had kept it from her own childhood. It was a precursor to the more popular Careers. She loved the small silver horse token—whenever she had that, she won, or got the advantage. If she had the shoe or the train car, she couldn’t be so sure. Her daughter enjoyed the game as well, and often won, the same as her mother. There were lots of lucky cards. The items considered signs of good fortune were spouses, children, homes, high paying or fantastic jobs, fame, wishes unspecified. A Vacation in Hawaii was one of the very highest prizes. Now and then, of course, you pulled a card that took everything away. One said Civil Judgment: Pay DEBT of your whole net worth. Another, EXTREME PERSONAL REVERSALS: GIVE all your bounty to the poorest player.
One time, in the backyard on Esplanade, when Belle had got the “reversals” card, she burst into tears over the loss of her imaginary assets and threw the silver horse, which was also her favorite token, at Little Vic. Then, her knee hit the table, accidentally on purpose, disturbing the whole game. The boy didn’t blame her; in fact, he was just as upset as she was about it. The game was mean, he said. Belle shouldn’t have to suffer; she was too pretty, he claimed, as he crawled around, trying to pick all the pieces and paper money out of the grass. He was distracted by Belle’s distress, and that’s when he’d pocketed the token, the “toy.”
“It was like the Exorcist with this little boy,” Minton said at dinner parties, later, when he talked about that day at the water park. He liked the story, the incidence of transformation. In his last attempt at resistance to throwing up, Little Vic had cursed, called Charlotte and Minton filthy names— accused them of having put a “voodoo stinking spell ” on him because they were Catholic, which they weren’t. Where he got any of this, Minton had no idea, possibly his mother, who was rigidly pious. But then, after every expletive was spent, after he dug in his pants for the tiny horse, after he tattled on himself in every way, after he threw the token down in a final defiance, the boy finally hurled.
When he emerged from the men’s room with Minton, the child was handsome, serene. His innocence returned. It was as if the entire mad tirade had come from a demon he’d purged. He was a different little boy, after.
There was a patio in the backyard beside the cottage. Minton said Alice had a right to use it. He was a lawyer; he had read the lease. As long as they had a tenant, they would lose part of the yard. Charlotte thought a pool would look good right there on that patio: Alice’s could become a cabana. Minton didn’t want the attractive nuisance. Swimming pools and lawsuits were two concepts inextricably linked in his mind. They fought about it. Charlotte lost.
Alice invariably barbequed when the Victors were visiting. Charlotte often looked down on them from her kitchen window. Big Victor never lifted a finger to help. He just sat at the table and smoked while his son sipped a coke or colored pictures and ate the cookies Alice provided. On these occasions, Alice usually wore a striped V-neck sundress with short kimono-style sleeves big enough for her thick arms, which emphasized their girth—a mistake, Charlotte thought. Alice laughed at whatever inane thing her boyfriend said. He was an accountant for a small IT business in Metairie. It was a job to find him interesting, Charlotte believed. Much less, cook for him and watch his neurotic child while he disappeared for long stretches every weekend, which he invariably did. He would say he wanted a six-pack of Dixie beer, but he’d be gone for two hours. From time to time Charlotte considered that Dixie beer was not that rare on Esplanade Avenue–something was wrong with the picture.
Charlotte thought a great deal about appearances in those days. All the women she grew up with were concerned with externals– it was normal. She was sure there was such a thing as natural beauty. She thought Alice would get farther with Victor if she didn’t try so hard, or paint her face so much. She believed Alice had a few good features: natural auburn hair, with glints, and nice, though narrow, green eyes. Even if she were eager, Alice should appear indifferent. But Charlotte couldn’t violate the proper distance between landlady and tenant by giving advice, so her words of wisdom, which were about keeping one’s self aloof, had to be cancelled: because she believed in them, she couldn’t impart. Many times in life in those days, actually, Charlotte ran into conundrums like that one. It made it difficult for her to do things– work, for example. She was too good for the jobs she was qualified for, and her station in life made it difficult to learn how to do anything, to start as a lowly beginner. She was aware of this contradiction but, since she was who she was, she felt she couldn’t do anything about it. It would amount to stooping, coming down from her proper place. And after all, why would she want to be anyone else? She’d gotten so far in the world being Charlotte Avery Cole. Except, somehow, it wasn’t enough—secretly, she knew this, but she didn’t know what to do about it. She had everything she was supposed to want. She was a bit ashamed she wasn’t happy.
After they’d been on Esplanade a while, Charlotte started working out with the wives of Minton’s partners, doing spinning and Pilates. Eventually, she dropped two dress sizes. She had hoped that would make her feel better. Then she got the idea of giving her hand-me-down dresses to her tenant– they were size eights and sixes, very stylish, still. She came to the door and explained her new regime to Alice– perhaps she would be inspired? In a gesture that was threaded through with distance, she handed her old clothes over. Alice was grateful, and told Charlotte how beautiful she looked lately. Charlotte was elated, for a few minutes.
Minton said it didn’t matter what size Charlotte was, or how she dressed for dinner parties. Minton didn’t know what was really important, Charlotte didn’t think. New Orleans wanted something from you. Drama might be the word for it– or, performance. People had the habit once a year of dressing up like characters from their fantasies and parading through the streets in satin masks, with crowns and huge medallions and silly buckled shoes. Of thinking this was fun, par for the course, when in fact nobody else in the rest of the entire world that Charlotte knew of acted that way. New Orleanians were uniquely showy.
But, when in Rome– not long after she gave her cast-off garments to Alice, Charlotte bought a new flashy strapless dress to wear to Minton’s law firm’s Twelfth Night functions. She accessorized with jet beads and thick mascara. Charlotte was a wide-faced brunette whose looks were much improved by eye makeup, but even when she went all out, plenty of women at the party looked better than she did. She had to admit it. In the car, going home, she was disappointed. To make matters worse, that night, Minton told her he was going to Indonesia for three weeks. Something to do with a company that had hired his firm to work out oil leases. He said he was sorry; he would miss her and Belle.
The problem with Alice started almost as soon as Minton left. Deliveries. Lots of them. Boxes every single day, without respite. United Parcel Service men ringing and ringing and ringing the doorbell, at all hours, even when Charlotte was in the bath. No matter how she tried to emphasize that Alice’s address was 2942 and a half Esplanade Avenue, the UPS people never understood. When she got fed up, she descended her back stairs into the yard and banged on her tenant’s door.
After a long time, Alice opened up. The afternoon deteriorated from there.
The first unpleasant thing Charlotte learned was what the packages held– semi-precious stones. Peridots the color of green apple hard candy, sapphires pink as bubblegum. These were set into brooches, pendants and earrings. Although they were real, they looked fake because the colors had been “enhanced,” under great heat, Alice explained with an enthusiasm Charlotte found unsettling. But then, with no prompting, Alice announced that she had just received a terrible blow.
She had found pictures under Victor’s side of the bed: Men with dicks the size of– ears of corn, thick as poles. She illustrated, pointing to Charlotte’s outdoor umbrella, at the picnic table, which was from William and Sonoma and Charlotte really didn’t want to look at it and think about Victor or his pornography, but she was afraid she would forever after.
Victor, it turned out, had not one male lover, but three. Counting Alice, he was sleeping with four people. One he met regularly at a hotel when he took his two-hour trips for Dixie beer. The other two, he saw at their homes in Metairie. “Did you know? Could you tell? What is wrong with me? Why couldn’t I tell? ” Alice implored, then sobbed.
The things that happened in New Orleans, Charlotte couldn’t help but think. Then she reminded herself that her father’s name was Harrison William Avery IV, and the town where they lived was named after his great grandfather. There were horses on her property when she was a girl and there were black people in the back in small houses who harvested the pecans when the trees were bearing, and did odd jobs. The Avery family never went inside these people’s houses, never sat on their porches or patios. If things like this happened in Averydale the tenants certainly didn’t come and tell you about it, or show you the size of the organs of other parties.
“So he says, he only has sex with me and these three boyfriends. That was how he was looking out for me. Looking out for me!” Alice’s small, plump lips were a perfect upside down “U.” She put her head down and shook with sorrow. “You should have seen his face. Glad to get this off his chest!”
Charlotte had to pat Alice, of course, when she heard this thing. She sat there for a certain amount of time because she had been raised a Christian, but she got away as quickly as she could.
The next ten days– with Minton on the other side of the world– Charlotte felt as if she had a bomb waiting to explode in the back yard. The brown boxes were still coming, two a day. Alice was up all night, running the air conditioner and the TV. Sometimes Charlotte could hear the announcers. “Candy Tourmaline Puzzle Rings, Azurite Pendants Special Value Two Left.” Alice started going to work wearing false eyelashes, garish lipstick, low cut sweaters, as well as the gaudy jewelry. She dyed her nice hair garish copper. When speaking to anyone, including the UPS man, she was very loud, as if she were yelling over music in a bar. Charlotte hid in her house, afraid of hearing more revelations about Alice’s love life, or Victor’s. She told herself Minton would know how to approach this, and counted the hours until his return.
“You mean I should ask her if she will see a shrink?” he said when Charlotte finally picked him up at the airport.
Charlotte explained that she’d decided Alice was in a hypomanic state and was going to crash. She’d seen this on a program on PBS and it fit perfectly: the erratic behavior, the grandiose ideas, the inability to sleep, the shopping sprees, and the makeup. But that wasn’t all that concerned her. She told him to ask their tenant one particular question.
At that, Minton gave her a look she recognized. He used it when he was taking a deposition and expected an answer from the person and instead had gotten what he considered gobbledygook. He jutted out his chin, his eyes slanted harshly. But he didn’t say he was disappointed. In the past, he would have. It was peculiar, she noted, that this time he didn’t.
As soon as he put down his luggage, Minton dutifully went and knocked on Alice’s door. She appeared, wearing one of Charlotte’s knits, which fit her. She was also holding a mint julep. She explained to Minton she was taking off work because there was a special, Fabulous Opals of Australia.
Minton patiently led her to the picnic table. He asked her about things in general terms. Charlotte listened from her kitchen window.
After a few pleasantries, Alice volunteered, at the top of her lungs, “You heard he was three-timing me? With boys! Don’t matter, I have a ton of dates.”
Charlotte believed all the dates were in Alice’s head.
Minton asked her if buying all the jewelry was a good idea with her bills. She answered she needed to dress up because of her new boyfriends. And then he said, “About that–” Dutifully, he asked Charlotte’s question.
Abruptly, Alice shifted from effusive joy to desolation, like a scene-stealing actress. “Yes! Yes I did! It was horrible to have to do it!”
The whole thing was so tawdry, Charlotte felt, though she was relieved. And all in her very own backyard.
After a certain amount of time watching her husband with her tenant, however, she became a little jealous. She could not remember the last time Minton had listened to her an hour plus, straight. She had problems, too, besides having a crazy backyard neighbor.
She had starved herself down to a size four but her husband still didn’t notice, or think it mattered. It would be hard to get sympathy for that from Minton, she allowed. Their daughter Belle was a sullen child, who thought the world positively owed her, and she was difficult in school, that was another. Charlotte knew Minton thought this was their fault. She was an only, they spoiled her. In New Orleans it was hard for Charlotte to make friends, people were too blatant, she could never keep up. This, she knew, was difficult for Minton to grasp, as he was a native of the city. But he did know she didn’t have that many people she could confide in. In fact, she had nobody. But then, confiding was not how she was brought up. She was brought up to wait until someone figured out something was bothering her, and came to help. She was brought up to expect, not to explain.
Minton’s conversation with Alice proved the turning point.
Eventually the jewelry deliveries slowed down to twice a week, then once. Alice cut out the makeup, buttoned up her blouses and sweaters, and stabilized. As soon as Charlotte could forget about her tenant almost completely, it became a pleasant spring. May, Minton went to Jakarta again. When he came home this time, he brought lots of gifts. Silks, gold jewelry, beaded belts, carved figurines, toys for Belle, and silver slippers that curled up at the toe. “For the Princesses,” he said, and pecked the two of them on their almost-identical cheeks.
When Charlotte wore her Indonesian gifts, which were exotic and much more interesting than the things Alice bought off the TV, she reminded herself how fortunate she must seem to Alice, having a man like Minton, a beautiful daughter, and not having to work, and, to top it all off, recently, a very good figure. When Charlotte looked at her life from the imaginary point of view of someone like Alice, who had been used in such an ugly way, by a liar– she could see, in theory, how happy and lucky she must seem. But the fact was, Charlotte was miserable that whole year and it was just getting worse.
This was perverse. Minton was good to her, better than ever. He never crossed her anymore. Every time he came back from Indonesia he was kinder to her than before.
If Alice had my life, my status, she would enjoy it, Charlotte thought in those days. Charlotte herself couldn’t get any pleasure out of life. Sometimes she would, for an instant, envy Alice; because she seemed to genuinely have high regard for her and for Minton, for their fortunate lives. But then, Charlotte would come to full consciousness, and feel awful, for having to prop up a straw admirer. She didn’t even know how to tell this to the psychiatrist she had started to see. It was so complex. To be envious of someone whose life was so paltry– because she’d be able to enjoy yours!
Finally, that summer, when Minton was on his last trip to Jakarta, Charlotte decided to explain it to the doctor, for he wasn’t very good at reading her. She had to come right out and say it: things that happened to her, including the best of things, were as if full of holes. Feeling passed right through her. Nothing stuck. There was no solid thing inside her– she had no core, she felt. Sometimes she envied people who were miserable, especially people who were miserable because of things that happened to them or that they did and couldn’t help. At least they had feelings that had good reasons behind them. In this respect, also, she envied Alice, out there at the picnic table that day with Minton, her face beet red, her tears freely flowing, mascara spots on her cheeks. Why? For her concrete unhappiness. To have an undeniable, unmediated feeling for a cause of any kind was a state to be desired. She was actually saying this to the doctor, even though she found it a great nuisance to have to, when he stopped her in the middle and said that this session would be their last unless she wanted to start paying full freight. Her husband’s insurance was not going to cover anymore, unless he entered a false diagnosis, which he didn’t want to do. Charlotte suspected that the psychiatrist didn’t believe there was anything really wrong with her. Or worse, he just didn’t like her enough to sit with her week after week. He told her he was putting her on Prozac. Charlotte left, like that, with just a piece of paper, a prescription, and no sympathy. The whole experience was humiliating.
In fact, she and Alice were on the same dose of antidepressants, she was embarrassed to learn that next winter, when Alice came in the kitchen one afternoon to deliver the rent, and saw Charlotte’s bottle. She commented that she had been on 20 milligrams, but lately she’d started cutting her pills in half. What did Charlotte think?
“Who did Alice think she was?” was what Charlotte thought. But at the same time she felt a rather alien impulse– she actually wanted to tell Alice what she’d been to the doctor for, the things he wouldn’t wait to hear. She turned around and opened her mouth– all she felt, all that was lacking in her life, the things the Prozac couldn’t get to, the great bulb of sorrow that was in her breast. She was just about to do it, but then she remembered she couldn’t. It wasn’t in her nature. Alice was just a tenant. How would it look?
“It was good of you to lend me your husband that afternoon,” Alice said, “back when I found out about Victor, and got so crazy.” She flashed a simple smile– intimate, almost.
Charlotte didn’t smile back.
Not long after, Charlotte told Minton it was “time to take over the yard.” He complied. It was the Jakarta principle. Whenever Minton came back from Indonesia, he would do everything she asked, he never argued anymore. Charlotte thought maybe it was just that they had more money. That winter he didn’t say a word when she evicted Alice. Alice said she was going to live in an efficiency near her Aunt Nancetta in the Garden District, the extremely old lady Alice escorted to Sunday brunch at Galatoire’s once a week. Though she was rich as Croesus, she always made Alice pay for her own meal. Alice’s life was in tatters, in Charlotte’s view. She was over thirty-five. She was going to be an old maid, looking after that nasty woman, right on out to the end.
The morning she left, Alice came to the back door and Charlotte feared a confrontation, but instead Alice said, “I’ll miss you.” Her eyes seemed larger than usual, greener, prettier, liquid. For a brief moment Charlotte considered what it might be like to feel the same way.
The men came to dig the pool the next day.
Two years later, Charlotte tried another request out on Minton. Could they move to Bay St. Louis, on the coast of Mississippi, leave New Orleans? She was tired of the stress of the city. In Mississippi she would feel more at home. She was a native, after all.
Minton said okay, sure. They built a mansion in Bay St. Louis right on the Gulf Coast and bought a boat. He commuted to work in the city. She saw him less, but they were very rich at that point, and the general consensus among the people they met in Bay St. Louis was that wealth made up for everything that could be wrong. They lived like that for five years– Charlotte drank a bit more, got slightly fat around the middle, and tried to enjoy her abundant life, even went to church and prayed she could be in the moment, and live, somehow, and not be always looking around for someone else to envy her, or tell her how wonderful she was. Her prayers were not answered.
Then, when she was fifty-six and had just returned from taking her daughter to a special college with a lot of rules in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Charlotte sat down on her beautiful gallery in Mississippi overlooking the Gulf. It was a late night in August. The man on the radio told people to evacuate the coast. She got up and did the minimal packing, then made her way to their tiny cabin on Bayou Sara north of Baton Rouge. She waited there for Minton, who was in Tulsa on a case. The next night, The Storm visited.
Minton had trouble getting back from Oklahoma. The New Orleans airport had been turned into a hospital, he couldn’t fly into it. No other airport in Louisiana or Texas had any rental cars to use when he landed. He eventually leased a Suburban and drove all night to get to Charlotte. The next day he’d made his way to Bay St. Louis to see the devastation. Seventy-two hours later, he pulled up in the huge, muddied vehicle, and parked, but didn’t come in. Charlotte watched him from the picture window. She was afraid to go out and greet him. Finally, he climbed out of the car holding a single plastic grocery bag, and made his way to the porch. He was slow, stiff, and eerie. Inside, he went directly to the kitchen counter, and removed the contents of the little bag: a bottle of Gatorade with a fifth of Vodka. He poured them together into a pitcher. The first words he uttered were, “The guy at the convenience store in what used to be Gulf Port told me about this. You call it `St. Petersburg.’ Get it, Florida—Gators, Russia.”
She couldn’t laugh.
He showed her pictures on his digital camera. Only wreckage, nothing left. The ocean could swallow something as big as their mansion and a boat house, and not even spit a little bit of it back. How would it be possible to have a life if this could happen to it? Nobody had ever told her about disaster. All that was left of that entire existence was one tiny thing, he said.
Over a period of about an hour and a half, Minton drank a great deal of St. Petersburg. Charlotte refused to join him.
Then, all of a sudden, his face buckled, so he looked a little like the minister of the swizzle stick church years ago, and he said, “You know what? I’m relieved it’s all gone. I feel better than I have in years. I am thankful. Hah!”
Then he told her he once loved another woman. Her name was Salma. This was in Jakarta, when he’d travelled there, ten years before.
Charlotte was astounded. She had lived through the parts of life that were supposed to make you a tough bird–Belle’s hellish middle school years, a breast cancer scare. But this, she had never expected. “What kind of name is Salma?” Was all she said.
“She was Indonesian. Daughter of–” he paused, shook his head violently, like someone getting rid of a bee in his ear. “I don’t want to get into all of it. I refuse to tell you. And I only slept with her once! I wanted to a thousand times. Since The Storm, I think of her constantly. Up in Tulsa, the night it came in, I dreamed I was in her arms. Her arms.” He threw his head back.
Charlotte looked at his throat. She didn’t know what to say.
“In fact, now, the truth is, I am so fucking sorry I did come back to you. What do you think of that? I thought of it all the way back here from the coast. I should have gone to her. All I have to deal with, why is this the only thing I’m thinking of? How crazy am I?” His head wasn’t nodding exactly; it was bobbing around, weaving, as if he couldn’t decide whether these comments deserved a nod or a shake.
“This affair was years ago? What did she look like?”
“That is just what you would say. What did she look like. I knew it. That’s so you, Charlotte.” His head moved even more wildly. “It wasn’t a full blown affair. I was too guilty. Afternoons in the city, tea, coffee. Just one night in the International Hotel.” His chin was finally still. He glared. “You would beat her in a beauty contest. But she was a human being.”
Why did he say his Indonesian girlfriend was a human being?
“Remember Alice? When she had that break up with that fool Victor? I had just come back for the first time when that happened. I was smitten with Salma. But I was determined to be the good husband. I was happy to see you, to start all over with you.” At this point Minton touched his heart and Charlotte was acutely aware that he had one. He was a creature, with internal organs, and very liquid, deep, desires, not a man in a seersucker suit in an air-conditioned office, or in boxer shorts and knee socks, which is how she usually thought of him. “Remember, you picked me up at the airport, and you told me all about Alice? How that guy hurt her– and all you could think about was did she have AIDS? Had she been tested? You just didn’t know how to say you were sorry for her –I told myself that. But I think I gave you too much credit.”
“Why are you telling me now?” Charlotte said in a very tiny voice.
“Because!” he said. “That life we led there, that whole life we had—whether I wanted it or you wanted it or if it was for Belle, or to show your father some damn thing–it doesn’t matter now, because it’s gone. And we have to start another. A person has to ask himself: Do I want it all back?” He shook his head. “Because it’s gonna be years, hell, to get it back. Have you seen what I’m talking about? It’s a huge job. There is no Bay St. Louis. There is hardly much New Orleans. Maybe I’m not a good man. My father was a good man. He took such a job and never laid down the burden. But you know what? I want Salma. I want to be happy. I don’t want to prove myself. I don’t want to go back to Bay St. Louis. I don’t even know if I want to live with you. She had a soul. I saw it. It was obvious.”
His chin was trembling. It was a confession– so messy, so disturbing, she thought.
“How can I spend the rest of my days? Playing Princess and the Pea with you?”
Furious, Charlotte thought to herself, is that what I am, furious? No, that isn’t it. What is it? A voice in her said, Leave. At the same time she had never known so much longing for Minton, not since she was in her twenties.
The next day, she said she couldn’t stay with him in the cabin.
“Where are you going to go?” he asked. The flatness in his tone was very new.
“It is dangerous, have you any idea? You can’t even get in– can’t drink the water–”
She knew those were lies. The National Guard were lax at some checkpoints. You could get in. She’d read there were ten thousand souls in the city, aid workers, people who refused to leave, hangers on, thrill-seekers, even. She suddenly wanted to be there, wanted to see it, to study it up close, watch and look and listen. She didn’t even know why.
“Are you off your rocker?” he asked her, but he didn’t seem to have the slightest interest in stopping her. She found that remarkable, but in a way she was pleased he was consistent.
In New Orleans in early October, if you came up to a stranger on the street, and said, How did you make out?– you might be held for an hour. Some were outrageously generous, others, gross and frank, insulting. In every coffeehouse or open restaurant several operas were going on at once– multiple casts exploding with soliloquies and arias. People were on their cell phones, screaming at insurance adjusters, or pleading with dead beat roofers, or weeping about their losses, or bragging about how they intimidated looters, drove through Uptown with a cocked pistol, stole drugs or water–did things they had never believed they would do. Nothing was normal: for this she was grateful. She never told her story. Not once. It wasn’t much, in a way, compared to what she overheard. But she was devastated. She didn’t listen to many people directly, she found it too wrenching. She eavesdropped, she lurked, she stepped around the stinking piles of debris, the darkened houses, crossed the street when she saw clusters of National Guardsmen. The misery was general, widespread, though unevenly, distributed. She knew she ought to find some way to help– but she hadn’t gotten around to it.
Occasionally, Minton texted her. “U R so fck*g impn*trable. Where R U? Shit to sign!” This was about insurance.
She was living in a former slave quarters in the backyard of the house of one of Belle’s old schoolmates’ mothers. There was water and gas, intermittent electricity. The landlady wasn’t permanently back– she just visited now and then, and sat on the front porch in a stupor, mumbling about how much had to be done and how she couldn’t manage it. The house had not flooded, but there was roof damage, mold. She was ignorant of Charlotte’s situation, except that she was aware she’d lived on the Mississippi coast. Now and then she’d come up to her and say, “You poor thing, you poor thing, I can’t imagine what you are going through–” then she’d ride off in her Volvo.
Charlotte liked her life sometimes. It was quite easy, actually, if you lived in two hundred and ninety square feet: you moved from kettle to table to bed by just turning around. No need to hike past all your silver and your mother’s china and your puddled drapes and traipse through dining rooms and front parlors possibly no one had ever used. She had only one trinket that linked her to her former life. It was in her pocket. She touched it several times a day, a talisman when she was coursing through the littered streets.
This was the state of things that November day at the Thanksgiving concert. Charlotte was still slumped down and hiding in her hoodie when Alice Night recognized her and marched up. Alice’s hair was its original auburn now. She wore a very expensive looking leather jacket with whip-stitched lapels.
Charlotte showed her face, decided to go first. “Alice! How did you make out?”
Her former tenant went through the basics: She had stayed through The Storm; neither her apartment nor Aunt Nancetta’s house around the corner had flooded. Her aunt had been in a nursing home following a fall at the time. Tuesday after, Alice took a boat from a friend’s yard with her neighbor Andy who worked for the TV station. He had a shotgun and a good camera; he needed to check on his sister, who turned out to be fine. They also were curious to see it all. They took Bayou St. John for a while and then went over to Jefferson Parish. For a few days, they ferried people out of Mid-City, then went back for dogs and cats. Somewhere during the second week, they fell in love. She kept calling her aunt’s caretakers– finally, finally, they called back and said the lady had a fatal stroke while they were trying to evacuate her to Alexandria. She went peacefully: ninety-seven years old. Alice was going to end up with the house, “Me, a grand dame on Harmony Street, who would have thought it? I go back to that time when I lived behind you, going with that jerk Victor. Everything is so turned around now.” She had a sweet, small smile, like a girl. “How about this: I’m engaged for the first time in my life!”
Charlotte remembered how she used to stand in her kitchen and consider Alice’s meager existence so she herself could feel a little better. Then, in an instant, Charlotte glimpsed how everything her husband had said was not an exaggeration, not the wailing of a lovesick crazy man– but completely true. Charlotte was cold. She was aloof. She didn’t have feelings, or if she did, she didn’t feel them. Her soul, if she had one at all, he said, was buried deep, deep under rubble.
She looked into Alice’s green eyes and saw not even a shred of cruelty. She looked for it, that shred– she looked and looked.
“I made out so well– I almost feel guilty– It was Nancetta’s time, it’s okay. You?”
What would that be like, Charlotte was thinking. To not have that place, preferably in the center of the room, where you are waiting, for everybody else to get it. Who you are. What you want. What you feel. They were supposed to get it, because her life was large and everybody was always looking. She had always had that, from the time she was a little girl. What would it be like not to have it? But it wasn’t a hypothetical: it was real– she didn’t have anyone to wait upon her, anymore. Not at all. Alice was standing there, but she wasn’t going to stand there long, or guess. Could she just come out with it, the way other people did. In the abstract, it felt like an adventure, but Charlotte was not adventurous. Or, at least in the past, she had not been adventurous.
Alice sat down beside her, wanting to be kind, to listen, said, “You and Minton?”
And Charlotte realized she might have to actually speak.
Back, weeks back, when they had their last face to face argument, she had sat silent at one end of the rustic table in the Bayou Sara cabin looking at her husband, and thought, I am not angry, I am in shock. Finally she said to her husband, “Look at me. Look at me. Please.” It was agony to beg. If he had stabbed her, it would have been less painful. The fact that he didn’t look back hurt nowhere near as much as having to beg him to do it. Eventually she had to come round and get down on her knees to see his eyes, to gaze up at him.
His face was so unused to showing anger it was perfectly distorted. A Minton she didn’t know. “Look what I found,” he told her when she cowered beneath him. “It was in the hollow of a fallen tree where our driveway used to be. That’s all that’s left of Bay St. Louis. It’s yours, take it, you always won with it– rather come out on top than –” A wide rush of air passed through his nostrils, the opposite of a snort. He threw down the tiny object. “Anything.” He walked out of the room.
Charlotte picked it up. It was hard and very old, the silver paint very chipped. It was rearing back on two legs– a thing the Tennessee Walker horses in the barn in the back of her daddy’s land did when something really startled them. When they were utterly terrified. She had never thought of that before. They were so scared.
”Minton and me–” she was planning to tell Alice that they were okay, but the house in Bay St. Louis was gone. She never told the whole truth, not to anybody. Even to the shrink, she lied. But then, she felt something in her chest, a big dark hot ball, getting bigger, and bigger–
“Minton and –” she began again.
“Yeah, you and Minton?” Alice asked, her smile loosening with concern–
Charlotte couldn’t speak. She meant to, but she couldn’t. She thought she might be having a heart attack.
She flashed on a memory, which gave her slight solace: her husband that day in the water park with Little Vic. She saw how gently he bent down to comb the boy’s damp hair with a black plastic sixty-nine-cent comb that seemed meant only for such difficult moments, for combing the hair of children who have found themselves in some terribly upsetting predicament, whose faces had to be washed by a stranger. She had never thought of it before, not really– how tender Minton could be. She had to swallow to go on.
Uncanny, actually– she retained a certain level of objectivity about the pending explosion inside her, at least for the first few seconds. But then it started to come to life– a great, untamed being within her, ranging around, demanding to be let out. This was like the moment right before giving birth. She realized even greater pain was coming; there was no stopping it. She just had to let it. Oh she hated this feeling. The horse, the horse–
“Miss Charlotte. How bad could it be? What is it? What happened?” Alice asked, thinking she’d never seen such a twisted expression on a sane woman, “What happened to Minton? Did he–?”
Charlotte shook her head violently, and doubled over, then she raised her left hand–something was in that left hand. She was either going to knock Alice Night down with her sharp, hard fist and then stand up to trample her, or she was going to hurl that little horse out into the waters, and spill her story, let it all go, all of it, and all, all, all that went with it, a whole way of carrying on in life.