Monday, September 28, 2009
Sunday, September 20, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Henri's time had come. Death stood above him as surely as the pine floor lay beneath his feet. But he had prepared himself long ago for this, and he'd lived a good life. He'd seen many things, and the world around him had changed so much that he barely recognized it any more. The Civil War, Reconstruction, motor cars, electric lights...women's suffrage. The last turned his guts even more than the end of slavery had.
His heirs did right by him, though, setting him up on the second floor of their French Quarter building. He could catch the breeze up there and avoid the stench of the streets. In the morning, his granddaughter rolled him out to the balcony in his wicker chair, and he could watch the business on Royal Street. His daughter-in-law came at lunch and fed him cold cucumber sandwiches and mint tea. And in the evening, his son Jean would bring up a dinner tray and sit on the balcony, smoke his Cuban cigars while Henri ate, and tell him about the labor situation in the city. Henri could think of no more pleasant a way to spend his final days on earth before going on to his just rewards. On occasion, his son even brought him a pint of rum with his dinner.
When Henri's health continued to fail, he became confined to his couch. His heirs moved it closer to the balcony windows so he could still look out. The daughter-in-law began bringing him rice porridge for lunch instead of sandwiches, and his son no longer smoked near him. His granddaughter read to him from the Bible in the afternoons.
One rainy day -- a day Henri knew was quite close to the end -- he sat staring out the windows. Dusk lay not far off, and the clouds above hung heavy and swollen. The rain obstructed the view of the street, but Henri could see a few people dashing from one overhang to the next, sodden Daily Picayunes held over their heads to ward off the downpour. As he watched, he became aware that someone watched him back. A single figure leaning against a balcony support half a block down and on the opposite side of the street. A black man, his hands in the pockets of his outdated clothes, eyes clearly and shockingly trained on the window out of which Henri now stared. The insolence, thought Henri, of that shiftless boy to stand there like that, glaring at the window of a respectable citizen.
"Sabine," Henri called for his daughter-in-law, who minded the store downstairs.
"Un moment, Papa," he heard from below. He wished she'd break that dirty habit of speaking French. Were she in school today, the nuns would beat it out of her, as they had Henri's granddaughter, who spoke nothing but perfect English.
Before long, he heard the heels of her boots on the stairs. He turned toward the door, where she appeared.
"There is a colored boy standing on the other side of the street, staring at my window," he told her. "Find someone to send over and move him along."
Sabine crossed the room to look out at the street. "Papa, il n'y a personne là."
He glared out the window, sure she somehow missed the loiterer; he saw no one there. "He must have left."
"Oui," Sabine said and moved to adjust the coverlet on his couch. "Pardonnez-moi." She headed back downstairs.
Henri watched the now-empty section of banquette where the man had leaned. Something niggled at the back of his mind, squirming like a buck moth caterpillar only half squished on the bricks. The lost memory seemed made of ice: slick, cold, resistant.