Vieux Carré

It was a new story in an old place.

It was an old story with a new face.

At any rate, it was his story for the first time, and it wrapped its black velvet arms around him, embracing him with the strength of wrought iron. He left the PDA, the cell phone, the beeper, his tie, and his marriage in the office that overlooked the Mississippi River. He left the investors’ portfolios stacked on the credenza in neat rows with labels from Abbott to Yates. He closed the door behind him as if he would never be back: A clean break at forty-eight.

He chased his lust into the Old Quarter. The humid air lay between the courtyard walls in a stagnant pool that pressed against his sticky cotton shirt and bare arms. After awhile, he stopped himself from running the tip of his thumb along the groove at the base of his third finger. His thumb could not accept the missing gold, the absence of a band to push in endless circles.

He crossed Dauphine and walked down St. Ann Street toward the riverfront, wandering aimlessly without a plan. Every doorway held a promise. Fantastic aromas draped the entrance of every dark café: The sharp, spicy smell of hot seafood. The mellow fragrance of French bread. A broad, flat bowl of crawfish lay tilted in a picture window, their shells blistered red. He heard snatches of music, even though it was early yet. Piano. Horn. Dixie rhythm. Party songs.

A beggar in Jackson Square prophesied to him in a loud voice, saying, “Where you goin’? Why you come to Vieux Carré? This no place for you.” His cheek twitched between electric blue sunglasses and a hoary beard.

He stopped and stared. Thunder rolled overhead as the storm clouds drove north toward Lake Pontchartrain. Rain drummed on the surface of the river a few blocks away.

“You in th’ land o’ Canaanites. You un’nerstand?” the beggar said. “You don’ know nothin’ here.”

“You’re crazy,” he said.

“I tell you what is crazy. Crazy is a fool like you!” The old man waved one arm over the handle of his IGA cart in dismissal and then crossed the square with his rattling, squeaking load.

He turned back up St. Ann toward Bourbon Street to find a bar. He passed an alleyway beyond the restaurant with the picture window. A dishwasher in a greasy apron leaned against a wall in the shadows, smoking. The stench of putrefying crawfish shells mingled with the burnt alfalfa of marijuana smoke and spilled into the street. The kid extended the ragged joint toward him, then laughed when he shook his head no.

He moved on.

Too much decay: The rotting food, the moldering buildings, the aging people, his disintegrating marriage. First desire, then decay: The two as irreversibly linked as fire and ash. Nowhere were they more closely laid against one another than here. Oh, for something or someone that could survive the use!

He crossed the street to a corner bar with happy Friday afternoon voices. Her reflection, baffling and illusory, shimmered in the glass of the door as he pulled it open. He wheeled around and saw her standing on the opposite corner. She wore a summer dress he had not seen. A cool draft preceded the rain that began to splatter here and there. It blew her hair across her eyes. She might have been a stranger until she brushed the hair back with her hand.

“How did you know?” he asked. He had told no one where he was going.

“You’re predictable,” she said simply. “We’re predictable.”

He shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Common,” she added. “A cliché.”

“Hardly worth the effort,” he said, sounding melodramatic.

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

He raised one eyebrow.

Then she added, “I’m a stranger tonight.”

“How so?”

“I’m a stranger to you.”

“Yes,” he agreed after a moment. Actually, she was beautiful, stranger or not.

“I think I’ll taste this place tonight,” she said. “You know, turtle soup with dinner on a white tablecloth, a handsome waiter in a tuxedo, jazz at midnight, and a room on Orleans Street.”

“Sounds fine,” he said.

“I’ll forget the mundane in my life tonight,” she went on. “Forget the day to day. Forget my practice and my patients. I think I’ll be someone else tonight.”

“Can you?”

“I already am.”

He smiled. “Dessert at Galatoire’s?” he asked.

She nodded. “And breakfast at Brennan’s.”

“And tomorrow night?”

“All over again.”

“And Monday?” he asked.

“I’ll never be the same again,” she said.

“Then neither will I.”

 

Originally published in 2003 in Apocalypse.

© 2003 Melissa Kay Simonds

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