One of these days, I’m going to believe I’m actually pretty good at this writing gig.
Where I left off in Dorian:
A mournful blues slide greeted Alex as she made her way up Ma Mère’s curving wrought-iron steps to the intimate rooftop patio where Mac sat on a small raised platform, head bent over his beloved Gretsch. The hands that during the week dissected bodies with cool efficiency, attempting to draw from them the secrets of their demise, now caressed the strings of the vintage guitar, drawing from them an aching pathos and sorrow that resonated down to a body’s bones. A true bluesman. All it had taken was a few notes from his guitar that first day, and Alex had understood here lay the real Mac. Had understood that his invitation to “come hear me play for a spell,” amounted to far more than casual politesse.
That first Sunday, so long ago now, had been the real beginning of their friendship.
“Well if it isn’t the good doctor herself.”
Hell. And here she’d simply been looking for an afternoon immersed in good food, good music, and good company. Hoping to banish, if only temporarily, those haunting images of mournful gazes and the lingering headache with its relentless, agonizing heartbeat. Wanted to forget she’d imagined whispered entreaties to dare—to open herself.
She didn’t want to open herself, dammit.
Any more than she wanted to acknowledge the greeting, delivered in its typically mocking drawl.
However, it was difficult to ignore a lifetime’s worth of good manners—much as she might want to.
Curly wrought iron scraped across the weathered brick pavers as he shoved a chair away from the table, the invitation clear. Alex stared from the empty chair to Gabriel’s seemingly disinterested expression, debating. On the one hand, she could simply acknowledge the summons with a “No , thank you,” and the polite dismissive nod learned at Nana Louisette’s knee. On the other, if she declined the invitation, she stood to get an earful from Mac regarding her chronic muleheadedness, as well as giving Gabriel further fodder in their not-always silent battle of wills.
“Bloody Mary, please,” she said to the hostess who’d returned when it became clear Alex wasn’t following. She dropped into the wrought iron chair, shifting to allow for a better view of the stage. That it kept Gabriel safely contained at the edges of her peripheral vision was just an added bonus.
“Now that’s a bit rude, Doctor.”
“You’re the one who asked me to join you. Should’ve been prepared.” She took a slow, deliberate sip of the potent red cocktail that had appeared with the preternatual efficiency for which Mère’s bartenders were famed, then sighed.
“I’m sorry.” She pushed the drink away, not even sure why she’d ordered the damned thing in the first place. For God’s sake, she didn’t even much care for Bloody Marys,.
Mac’s taunt echoed in her head as she turned the chair back toward the table—enough to keep the stage in her line of sight yet bringing her back within the realm of decent manners. “That was rude.” Knowing damned well even though alcohol had never seized hold of him same way the smack had, Gabriel still viewed anything harder than a beer as something to be treated with respect and generally avoided.
He shrugged and gestured at a passing waitress, lifting his bottle along with two fingers. “I take it’s been a difficult morning?” His voice was surprisingly neutral.
“No more so than usual.”
“Isn’t there some rule where Sundays shouldn’t be difficult?”
“If there is, my family didn’t get the memo.”
As soon as the words left her mouth she regretted them, fully expecting some scathing retort, likely involving silver spoons and apron strings. Then she’d snipe back, something completely inappropriate and ugly, and so it would go until she’d up and leave, only to return home cloaked in the nausea and vague sense of unease that had dogged her ever since this morning’s bizarre episode.
Episode—that’s how she’d chosen to denote it. A brief, surreal moment brought on by too little sleep and not enough coffee.
Again, however, Gabriel surprised her, merely tapping the neck of his fresh Abita against hers with a murmured “Santé,” and relaxing back in his chair to listen to Mac finish out his set.
A good part of Alex remained tense, unable to completely shake the feeling he was just trying to lull her into a false sense of security because… well, because. It would be just like him, wouldn’t it? Almost against her will, though, she relaxed, soothed as always by the music and the beauty that was Ma Mère’s. The smoky aromas of blackening spices butting up against the cool, loamy scent of weathered brick all wrapped in the steady hum of an early Sunday afternoon. Quiet, compared to the tourist traps down in the Quarter, but that’s just how the regulars around here liked it. Not to say it didn’t have its noisy, raucous moments—catch it on any given autumn Sunday when the Saints played—but even so, Mère’s belonged to the locals and those they trusted to keep the secret of the best brunch and blues in New Orleans.
Initially, it had been the latter, by way of Mac and his weekend hobby, that had drawn Alex to the venerable Marigny landmark. Still relatively early in the post-Katrina recovery, he’d suggested she drop on by. Listen to him play his guitar and if she had a mind to, maybe even lend a hand because at Mère’s, in those days, they’d needed all the help they could get. It’d been that rarity: never once closing because of the storm, surviving on generators, charcoal grills, and a wing and a prayer. A loosely organized host of volunteers had cooked, cleaned, and procured supplies from God-only-knows where—best not ask what you really didn’t want to know—while overseeing it all had been Mama Earlene and Lucille, her trusty twelve-gauge.
She’d offer food and drink to any who needed, take what payment could be offered and if none could, simply scribbled out an I.O.U., assuring the customer she was confident the debt would be paid. Even now, five years on, folks regularly eased in through the palm-shrouded entry, bearing their tattered half of a ticket along with payment, while at least once a week an envelope would drop through the mail slot, bearing postmarks from as nearby as Slidell or as far away as California. There was even the memorable instance of a case of fresh-smoked salmon from Alaska that had landed on the doorstep with a simple “Thank you, Mama” scrawled on the side.
One gesture of generosity in exchange for another—one that may well have saved a life.
That was the thing—people remembered.
Even if they no longer lived here—forced out by circumstances beyond their control—they remembered their city and the people in it.
This city, it had a way of holding a body’s heart. And Mère’s itself embodied the very heart of the New Orleans Alex had never been able to escape, no matter how far she’d run.
“Well, now… look at the two of you, playing nice in my little corner of the sandbox.”
“Fuck you,” Gabriel retorted, but there was no real heat behind it. He raised his hand again to summon the waitress while Mac pulled a chair up to the table and drained what was left of Alex’s Turbodog.
“Didn’t mess around, did you, girl?”
Alex shrugged. “Gabriel ordered.”
Mac’s sandy brows rose. “You let Gabe order for you?”
“I don’t let Gabriel do anything—he simply did and I felt it bad manners to argue.”
“As if niceties and proper behavior have ever stopped you before.”
“Just trying to take your repeated suggestions to heart.”
Mac made some unintelligible noise deep in his throat, before turning his attention to the newly-arrived waitress. “Three more Turbodogs, darlin’, along with the large bucket of Frenchman’s wings and a couple baskets of sweet potato fries.”
Alex felt her arteries hardening while Gabriel grumbled, “Why yes, Mac, you presumptuous son of a bitch, wings and fries would be great, thanks ever so for asking.”
Mac snorted. “Pot, meet kettle or was that some other Alex Lacorbiere telling me you’d ordered beer for her without so much as a by your leave? Besides, y’all had your chance to order whatever the hell you wanted while I was up working my fingers to the bone.”
“What can I say? You played such an engrossing set we forgot about eating.” Alex said with only minimal acid.
“And I remain stunned y’all quit arguing with each other long enough to actually listen.”
Gabriel leaned back in his chair the fingers of one hand restlessly playing with a worn silver lighter, sparking a flame and flipping the cap closed several times in quick succession. Remnants of yet another vice left abandoned in the ashes of his past, Alex knew, yet some habits remained deeply ingrained.
“Again, weren’t you the one chastising us to get along and all that Rodney King peacemaking bullshit?”
“Yeah—just never imagined either of you stubborn mules would actually listen.”
“The credit for this one actually goes to Gabriel,” Alex found herself saying, though for the life of her, she couldn’t figure why, exactly. “I would’ve been perfectly happy to find a remote corner where I could hide for a few hours and lose myself in the music.”
A knowing eyebrow rose. “And what kind of fresh hell did Miz Louisette inflict today?”
“Nothing fresh—merely more of the usual. Gossiping about who at church has had what done, being barely civil to Teddy Beckett because she can’t stand the man and wants to make certain he knows it, although I got the distinct impression he could give less of a shit. Oh,” she added as an afterthought, “and giving me hell about not wearing stockings to church.”
No need to go into the episode. Especially not in front of Gabriel. Not as if it was pertinent to the discussion at hand and besides, it was nothing more than an anomaly. Brought on by that lack of coffee. And booze. God only knew, that fresh beer couldn’t arrive soon enough.
“She’s lucky you put on a skirt.” Mac’s glance took in Alex’s battered jeans and the worn to butter-softness Oxford button-down that had belonged to Daddy and that she’d pilfered from the bag intended for the Saint Vincent de Paul charity drive.
“Choose your battles.” Oddly restless, she stood and wandered to the rooftop’s edge, hoping for the warm spring breeze to sweep away the vestiges of the headache that the brief memory of this morning had resurrected.
From A Tempestuous Noise by Barbara Caridad Ferrer ©2013