His body depleted from the long run and almost refueled by the rich, flavorful breakfast of fried eggs, buttery, peppery grits, and andouille sausage, his heart kept strong and tender by the series of odd interactions that morning, T settled back into the broad iron chair. He closed his eyes and let the banjo music wash over him along with the cool breeze. Background noises of car horns, bicycle bells, early Bourbon Street revelers breaking into drunken song, and that same classical piano filtering in from the hotel lobby… all of it combined into a perfect spell. He inhaled the chicory coffee, the flower vines, the pool chlorine… a pleasant gumbo of fragrance that kept him seated in that perfect moment.
His email messages had put him at a crossroads. One job offer was to hop on a plane that evening and fly to London to do a candy bar commercial, but the script was tainted with a homophobic undertone which was extremely offensive to T. Man, I pity the fool who thinks that stuff is funny, he had thought to himself after reading it. Thankfully, his agent’s assistant, Carin, had given him a good warning about that. Another job offer tempted him out west to Los Angeles to make an appearance at a Derby Dolls skating bout. That would be fun, and he had some good friends out there named Gen and Julia who could talk all night about books and would probably take him to eat at Umami Burger. But every intense detail of this city, of this small neighborhood that was its own universe, made the choice easy. He was staying a bit longer. Two days in New Orleans is never enough. And besides, he had offers here too. He treasured the freedom and flexibility of his profession.
T swallowed the last of his pulpy, sweet orange juice and dabbed his mouth with the thick cotton napkin. He thanked his server and made sure to leave a generous tip which would be billed to his hotel room. He made his way to the sidewalk, wanting to hear the end of the musicians’ set right up close, then dropped a handful of quarters and dimes into the open banjo case. They thanked him in heavy, mysterious Cajun phrases, smiling and bowing and dancing, blessing him with their particular street magic as if he had laid down a hundred dollar bill. He did not resist the grin this time. T even danced with them a little, shuffling his high-top sneakers on the sidewalk and letting that feather earring swing. Then he nodded goodbye and turned back to the hotel. He had some emails to send before showering and getting on with his day.
Reluctant at first to abandon the coffee shop and leave unanswered the question of her weird message being delivered, Olivia needed very little time with Carly to feel not only distracted but completely fascinated. She had never really seen the Quarter in daylight, much less in these misty morning hours while a whole new slice of the city was getting started to work, and she was rapidly falling in love with it. Why do I keep feeling this here? She wrestled silently with her constant swell of romantic inclination in this city. From the dark, handsome stranger who had kept her awake all night though he was in a different hotel, to the instant communities that formed at every street corner for various reasons, Olivia felt knitted to this place. Drawn to it for her own reasons and craved by it all at once.
Carly was dragging her now past the restaurants and narrow alley ways, a few blocks away to an expansive stretch of pavement and flat rock, a walkway laid like a dangerous wide ribbon between two spiritual lakes. On one side stood the bleached white, vaulted cathedral called St. Louis, an historical icon that instantly cast shadows onto Olivia’s heart. It pointed to an emptiness in her lungs, an old hunger she had forgotten about. On the other side, just at the edge of the lush and meticulously kept Jackson Square gardens, the cathedral’s antithesis: A string of mismatched chairs and folding tables, umbrellas, and hand painted signs all populated by men and women who could be gypsies. Or vagrants. Or mystics from another realm, most of them holding mangy but smiling dogs on leashes: Fortune Tellers Row. At night, this place was packed with people, mostly risky tourists, but this morning barely a dozen souls lingered at the park benches and not one street performer had taken up residence yet. This patchwork of fortune-telling characters and their piercing eyes sent inky black tendrils of fear onto the flat, wide walkway, snaking coldly toward Olivia, sucking all the noise out of her ears despite the growing activity around her. She had never felt such a distinct spiritual fear before, and to feel it at a moment when she was enjoying so much romance and possibility was very much like being splashed with cold water from behind.
She stopped walking and pulled back a little, asking Carly, “Uh, what are we doing here?”
“We’re gonna have your palm read, silly! Let’s see if Mow-hawk Man is the one!” Carly giggled and huddled in close like they were old friends at a slumber party. Like they were just opening and folding a little boxy paper fortune teller, for fun. Olivia enjoyed the smell of Carly’s patchouli and noted the odd mix of it with her own expensive perfume.
“No, that’s okay. I mean, I don’t have any cash on me anyway.” She lied. Olivia was stiff now, once again adjusting her call cap and hugging herself, and her senses were on high alert, all of the romance quickly draining from her veins. She caught herself glancing around for an escape route and felt ridiculous. In every direction, rationally, there were only lounging people and leashed dogs. Plenty of space to bolt if she needed to. Wide open air and daylight, what could happen? Still, that icy snaking feeling of assault wouldn't go away. And her companion was oblivious.
“No problem, Ben here owes me a read.” Carly was aiming them toward a guy perhaps in his twenties with a scratchy four-day beard, a yellow and red knitted cap, and a sun-bleached trench coat covering up an old Madonna t-shirt. Like a prayer? Yeah right! Olivia thought. He wore a stack of plastic Mardi Gras beads around his neck, and Olivia judged how dicey they looked, how unnatural, compared to the stunning jewelry T had worn. She suddenly missed him, this man she barely knew, and wished he would appear to help her out the way he had protected her from the drunken collision last night. Then she worried that Ben could read her thoughts, especially her lie about having cash, and decided she had better shut up.
“No, seriously, I don’t want to.” In a rare resolute moment, Olivia stood firmly on her high-heeled boots and thrust her skinny arms down to her sides, and shook her head. “I really, really don’t want to. I’m sorry.”
Carly was dumbfounded, “What? Why?” She giggled again, this time trailing off a bit as she realized her brunette friend wasn't kidding. Carly's long, colorful skirts were swishing around her legs from the brisk walk. “Hey, are you okay?”
Olivia glanced around, trying hard not to look directly at Ben for fear of him casting a Stephen King-style curse on her, and said in a high-pitched voice feigning casualness, “Yeah, I’m okay, I’m just… hungry. You know, you did eat most of that spinach croissant.” Maybe a smile and a joke would trick Carly into forgetting about her abrupt halt a moment ago. It did not.
“Okay, whatever you say. But I’m telling you Ben is the best palm-reader in this town. You ought-ta try him out.” Carly wrapped her cozy arm around Olivia, pretending to only be warming her and not chasing away her obvious fear, and they turned back the way they had come.
“See you latah, alligatah!” Ben called out after them in a booming voice with no trace of a Cajun accent. Phony. Then he threw a bright green puff of chalk dust or something at the concrete in front of his table. The women squealed a little and broke shamelessly into a run.
This episode is dedicated to Carin, sweet and creative blogger at Artfully Carin.
who recently told me a story about the REAL Mr. T
declining a candy bar commercial in Great Britain
because of its offensive homophobic undertones.
This episode is also dedicated to my little sister Gen and my literary mentor Julia,
who both skate with the Los Angeles Derby Dolls and have all my love from Oklahoma!
Finally, it is dedicated to my husband who always thinks it's hilarious
to peer-pressure me into voo-doo type activities
when we visit my favorite city in the universe.