Mary Louise and Santy
Mary Louise could hardly contain herself as she sat by candlelight, sitting as still as a child on Christmas Eve could sit while her mother brushed out her hair. It was the middle of the Civil War and their plantation home in South Carolina was in ruins, but Mary Louise just knew Santa Claus would answer the letter she wrote.
“Now, don’t you go wishin’ for the moon, young lady,” her mother lectured her as she began to tie pink ribbons in Mary Louise’s brown hair, making two, perfectly divided pigtails.
“But if Santy got my letter….”
“I didn’t send Santy’s letter,” her mother said abruptly. “He couldn’t run the blockade anyway if I had sent the letter.” She finished tying the second ribbon. “Blame the Yankees if you don’t get no Christmas this year. It’s their fault.”
Mary Louise knew not to argue with her mother when she got into one of those moods, and she seemed to be in one of those moods all the time recently. After her mother left the bedroom, she scrambled to her desk and pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil and proceeded to write the very same letter over to Santa Claus. She had but one wish.
“Please, Santy, let me see my daddy one more time.”
Folding the letter neatly, Mary Louise went to the window, opened it and tossed it out in the cold night air. Her mother always told her Santa Claus was magical so she knew her letter would reach him on the winter wind of Christmas Eve. Content she had done all she could do to ensure a merry Christmas, Mary Louise closed the window and ran to her bed where she buried deep underneath the many layers of down-filled quilts. No time had passed since she closed her eyes, it seemed, when she felt a cold blast, a gentle ho ho ho and the familiar baritone chuckle of her father.
“Daddy! Santy!” Mary Louise whispered excitedly.
Jumping from bed she ran to give her father a big hug. She knew it had to be her father because no one could hug as well as he did. She sniffed. Yes, it was the smell of his sweat and a slight hint of his favorite Cuban tobacco. But Mary Louise detected another scent, unfamiliar, acrid, almost taking her breath away.
“I can’t stay long, darlin’,” her father said. He pulled her away. “Let me look at you. You’ve grown an inch since I last seen you. And still got that purty smile.” He hugged her again. “Always keep that purty smile, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just have to give you a Christmas present!” She turned to Santa Claus. “Isn’t that right, Santy?”
“Yes, Mary Louise, that’s right,” Santa replied.
“And I know just what to give!” Mary Louise stuck out her hand. “Give me your tobacco pouch, Daddy.”
Her father pulled a leather pouch from his tattered, soiled gray trousers and handed it to her. Mary Louise ran downstairs to the parlor and opened a drawer in a large old desk. She gently lifted the lid off a humidor and carefully scooped out the last of the fragrant Cuban tobacco into her father’s pouch. She quickly returned and proudly presented it to him.
“It’s the last, Daddy. I knew you would want it.”
“That’s mighty kind of you darlin’. I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s time to leave,” Santa said.
“But I have to give my little darlin’ something.”
“Oh, Daddy,” Mary Louise said in a soft voice, “just you being here is all the Christmas I need.”
She watched her father’s eyes fill with tears as he pushed his long dark hair from his forehead. Her nose crinkled as she noticed his hair had begun to turn just a touch of gray. Mary Louise’s head cocked when he pulled his pocket knife out and opened it.
“I know. This will be from me to you for all the Christmases in your rest of your life.”
The next morning Mary Louise jumped from her bed and flew down the stairs to the kitchen. She felt one side of her neatly parted hair fly free of the pink ribbon, but she did not care. She had to share with her mother the happiness of her visit with her father, all thanks to Santa Claus.
“Oh Mommy, Mommy! It was wonderful last night! He came! He came! Santy came and he brought Daddy with him!”
Her mother looked up from her cup of coffee as she sat at the table. Her hands covered a letter.
“What on earth are you talking about, Mary Louise?”
“After you left me last night, I wrote another letter to Santy and threw it out the window. And he got it. He woke me up with his ho ho ho and when I opened my eyes I saw Daddy!”
“You were dreaming, child.”
“No, I wasn’t dreaming! It was real!”
“That’s foolishness! Now sit down and eat your breakfast.”
“No! I’ll prove it!” Mary Louise ran to the parlor, brought back the humidor to the kitchen table and put it down. “See, all the tobacco is gone.”
“That was the last of your father’s favorite tobacco. Very expensive tobacco from Cuba. What did you do with it?”
“I gave it to Daddy. I put it in his pouch. I wanted him to have it,” Mary Louise said softly.
“You dreadful child! You threw away your father’s tobacco as part of this cruel joke that he was here last night!”
“But it’s not a joke, Mommy. Daddy was really here. Santy brought him.”
She watched her mother sink into the chair, dissolve into tears and hold up the letter on the table.
“Because this letter says the Yankees killed your father at a place in Maryland called Antietam. I got this letter three weeks ago, so there’s no way your father could have been in this house last night! And why would he have come home and not….” Her voice choked. “…and not visited me?”
“Maybe,” Mary Louise whispered, “because you didn’t write a letter to Santy.”
Her mother arose abruptly and shook Mary Louise’s shoulders.
“You terrible child! How can you be so mean to me, especially here at Christmas?” She stopped and reached out to touch the loose strands of hair on the side of Mary Louise’s head. “And you lost one of the ribbons from your hair. Do you know how expensive ribbon is now?”
“I’m sorry, Mommy.”
“I’m so angry I can’t stand the sight of you! Go to your room and stay there all day!” She stepped away, picked up the letter and folded it. “I shall spend the day in prayer, asking God to give me the strength to forgive you. Perhaps all will be better tomorrow.”
Mary Louise turned and without another word went to her room. There she decided she would never write another letter to Santa Claus again. It was not that she no longer believed in Santa; no, it was because she decided there was no use in asking Santa to give her something if no one believed her when it happened. She pulled out a lock of dark hair streaked with gray tied with a pink ribbon. It was her present from her father. Mary Louise was afraid to show it to her mother because she might throw it away, and Mary Louise wanted to keep it forever.
Her mother forgave her the next morning and gave her extra jam to go on her biscuits. Her mother never celebrated Christmas as long as she lived. This is not to say Mary Louise never had a merry Christmas again. She had a life-long love affair with Christmas, starting with her eighteenth year when she relented and wrote another letter to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, folded it and tossed it out in the winter wind.
“Dear Santy, Since Mommy hates Yankees so much, please bring me a nice Yankee boy to marry.”
On Christmas Day, a school friend, who knew Mary Louise’s mother never celebrated the holiday, invited her over for dinner. In the parlor was a tall, willowy young man with long straight dark hair and soulful eyes.
“Mary Louise, I want you to meet my father’s new assistant, Thomas. He’s from Ohio.”
Mary Louise was impressed with Thomas’s strong but gentle handshake. By that evening they were sitting close to each other by the parlor fireplace. Instinctively she leaned into him and he placed his arm around her shoulder. With her head on his chest she sniffed. His sweat smelled like her father’s. She sniffed again.
“Do you smoke a pipe?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It’s my only vice. I buy the tobacco from Cuba.”
Mary Louise and Thomas were married by the next Christmas. On Christmas Eve she pulled out the strand of hair tied with the pink ribbon and told him the story of her Civil War visit from her father. She also told him about her letter asking for a nice Yankee boy. He believed her. They had five boys and three girls, each carefully taught to write letters to Santa Claus, fold them neatly and throw them out the window onto the winter wind of Christmas Eve.
Three fir trees on the edge of the forest were chatting one morning in early December.
A huge fellow, about twenty feet tall and wide at the base, ruffled his limbs. “I don’t know what you two guys are planning for Christmas but I expect to be center of attention downtown this year. Oh yeah, on the square overseeing the Christmas parade. Anybody who is anybody will be there with their kids watching the parade pass in front of me. I’ll be lit to the max with lights and a star on top.”
“That’s nothing,” a ten footer with lush green boughs replied. “I mean, if you go for that common man scene where they let absolutely everyone near you, I suppose that’s okay. As for myself, I’m selective about my company. Not saying I’m better than anyone else, but let’s just say I have discerning taste. I’m winding up in the grand foyer of a millionaire’s mansion, decorated with only the most expensive ornaments and lights. I’m talking Waterford crystal here, and I’ve got the branches to hold them.”
The third tree, not more than three feet tall and with scrawny limbs, just stood there without much to say.
“What about you, junior? What do you expect to be doing on Christmas morning? Brunching with the chipmunks?” The middle-sized tree blurted forth a forced ha-ha-ha. A nice baritone but shallow as could be.
“Now, now,” the largest tree chided. “We shouldn’t make fun of our inferiors. We all can’t be the best, most important Christmas trees in town. Not even second best, like you who will be charming to a small group but not as the official town tree.”
The littlest tree felt like he was about to ooze sap out of sadness but knew it wouldn’t do any good. The other trees were right. Who would want him except for kindling for the fire? He wasn’t big enough to make a decent Yule log.
Just at that time a caravan of cars leading a large tractor-trailer truck pulled up in front of the three trees. A group of important-looking dignitaries crawled from their cars and circled the largest tree as the crew pulled its equipment from the truck.
“Oh, yes, I think this one will do fine,” a large bald man announced as though he was thoroughly practiced at making important decisions.
“Oh yes, Mr. Mayor, this one will be more than fine.” The others standing next to him quickly agreed with him.
The crew started its chain saw, chopped the fir down and laid it on the flatbed truck.
“See you never, suckers!” the biggest tree called as the municipal procession disappeared.
“Commoner!” the middle-sized tree replied.
A couple of hours passed before a long limousine with shaded windows rolled up to the two remaining firs. A chauffeur jumped from the driver’s seat and opened the door for a couple elegantly dressed in fur and leather. The woman, with her artificially colored blonde hair piled on her head, sipped from a champagne glass, while the man fixated on his cell phone.
“Oh, Maxim,” the woman cooed. “You did a wonderful job scouting out the most beautiful tree in the forest.” She ran her fingers across the chauffeur’s broad shoulders. “Of course, you do everything well.” She turned to the man on the phone. “So, what do you think Joey? Is it big enough for our grand staircase?”
“Yeah. Sure. Whatever.” The man didn’t look up from his phone. “Max, cut it down.”
The chauffeur cut down the middle-sized tree, carefully tied it to the top of the limousine and they got into the car to drive away.
“Good luck, shrimp! You’ll need it!” the tree called out as the car disappeared around the bend.
At the end of the day, the sky darkened, and a small old car rambled up to the small tree and stopped. Three small children poured out of the back seat and ran to the little tree.
“Oh, daddy, this one will be perfect!” they sang as a chorus.
“That’s good,” a young man in ragged overalls said. “Anything bigger wouldn’t have fit in the car.”
A wispy haired young woman came around the car. “Stand back, children. I don’t want you close when your daddy starts using that axe.”
“Oh, Mommy, you worry too much,” one of the children said with a laugh.
On Christmas Eve, everyone in town gathered on the square to watch the Christmas parade and ooh and ah over the beautiful lit giant tree. Floats rolled by, and the people on them pointed and shouted at the town’s big Christmas tree. Bands with drummers, tubas and more marched past. Each one made the tree feel prouder and prouder.
On Christmas Eve night, elegantly dressed couples gathered in the millionaire’s mansion and oohed and awed over the beautifully decorated tree by the grand staircase. They all drank champagne and nibbled on appetizers served on a silver tray by Maxim who also turned out to be the butler. The ladies in their lovely gowns asked the millionaire’s wife when they were leaving for their estate in the Bahamas.
“Midnight,” she replied. “We always spend Christmas day in the Bahamas. It’s our family tradition.”
Also on Christmas Eve night, across town in a small wooden house, the family decorated the little tree which they placed on a table in the corner of the living room. The room smelled delicious from the freshly popped corn which they strung and hung on the tree. The children kept busy coloring, cutting and hanging the new ornaments on the little tree. The room was alive with the constant giggling of the children, and the little tree decided this wasn’t a bad place to be.
The next morning, everyone in town was home, opening presents and enjoying Christmas dinner with family and friends. The large tree downtown had already been forgotten. It kept hoping to hear another oom pa pa coming down the street but it didn’t. The enormous fir shivered first from the cold wind and then from the loneliness. It couldn’t decide which was worse.
In the millionaire’s mansion, everything was dark and still. All the elegantly dressed people were gone. Numbing silence replaced the insincere wishes for a happy holiday season. The middle-sized tree decided all that Waterford crystal was making its branches droop. Not even Maxim was there.
Meanwhile, in the small house across town, the family gathered around the tree to open presents. The children tore away wrapping paper to see new socks and underwear and hugged their parents gratefully for it. Then they cooked their modest Christmas feast and settled back around the tree with their plates in their laps and ate every bite of it.
Now you tell me. Which was the grandest Christmas tree of all?
Clarice had serious moral reservations about having fun based on her genetic inability to smile or laugh. The best she could muster were slightly upturned corners of her mouth which her church friends interpreted as sweet and gentle. Those relatives who were required to observe the traditional Sunday dinner and afternoon gossip session knew that expression was neither sweet nor gentle.
On one particular Sunday, an attendee squirmed in the silence which had lasted five minutes or more had the audacity to speak up.
“Did anyone see the story on television last night about the little boy who sneaked into a balloon which his father launched over Los Angeles? It seemed the whole thing was a hoax. He hid under the bed while his father pretended to be horrified that his son would be killed in the accident. The plan was to land the family its own reality television show based on the adventures of the real-life Dennis the Menace son.”
Clarice arched an eyebrow. “I watch the Christian station from Pensacola. It has such nice music, and the pastor is a Bible scholar.”
Properly chastised, the relative lowered her head and remained silent the rest of the afternoon along with the other monastics seated around the room, one daughter, her husband, two children, an aunt, uncle and a couple of cousins.
“I don’t understand why my grandchildren don’t want to sit next to me. After all, they don’t know how long they will have their grandmother with them.”
The mother elbowed her son and daughter and nodded toward the dining room where the most elegant and uncomfortable chairs waited to be carried into the living room and placed around Clarice’s lounger. When the children finally managed to squeeze the chairs around the oversized recliner and sit, Clarice sighed.
“You didn’t have to go to all that trouble. The children could have just sat on the floor.”
Another hour of silence passed before Clarice announced it was time for her nap. The cousins were the first to escape through the front door. Aunt and uncle were next. Before her daughter’s family could make it out, Clarice sighed again.
“You could nap in the spare bedrooms and then we could have leftovers for supper.”
“The children have homework, Dan is expecting a call from his parents, I have laundry to do, you really need your rest.”
“If you really don’t want to stay I won’t force you. But I did buy those games I keep in the spare closet for the children to play, and they’ve never played with them.”
The following Sunday, upon instruction from their mother, the son and daughter pulled out the games and tried to engage their grandmother in a rousing afternoon of Monopoly.
“Do we really need to use all these pieces?”
A couple of years later, when the relatives arrived for Sunday dinner, they found Clarice dead in her bed from an apparent heart attack. The aunt and uncle cried, the cousins comforted them and the mother was the one who sighed. All of the relatives and church friends attended the lovely funeral and spoke incessantly of Clarice’s sweet smile and how they would miss it. By the time the last car pulled away from the cemetery, Clarice’s ghost returned to her home where she was appalled to see that her daughter had already begun packing up her heirlooms and marking each one, “Salvation Army”.
This was not the last indignity Clarice was to suffer. After a year of rambling through her empty house, Clarice observed her daughter finally selling it to a nice couple with children. The very first act of impudence by the family was painting each room a different bright color. Clarice was astonished that they didn’t realize that white made a house look more spacious. As the family members talked among themselves Clarice was further confounded that this was the very same family that had pretended that its son was on the balloon floating over Los Angeles. They had moved to Florida and now resided in her house which had always been a monument to silence and grace.
The son was now a teen-ager with shoulder length hair. The father converted the garage into a rock and roll studio and coached his son on how to twist his head around so his hair would fly in all directions.
“My dear Lord,” Clarice whispered, “why did you allow this family to move into my home?”
Immediately she heard a voice.
“Because, unlike you, I have a sense of humor.”
(Author’s note: This story contains mature dialogue.)
Dammit, I had to pick up my brother Royce at Love Field again. He would be drunk and would slur insults all the way from Dallas to our home in Gainesville, an hour’s drive away.
One thing I liked about my father was that he had confidence in me not to get in any trouble. One thing I didn’t like about my father was that he made me go to the airport when my brother was flying in on leave from the Marines. I was eighteen, and today that would be considered child abuse but in 1966 it was okay.
Experience told me to skip going to the gate. Go straight to the main concourse bar, and there Royce was, sitting at the bar bending some guy’s ear.
“…and that’s why you should never eat breakfast.”
As soon as I walked up, the guy mumbled something about Royce’s ride being here, threw some bills at the bartender and got the hell away from my brother as fast as he could. In a few minutes we were driving on Mockingbird Lane toward the interstate when my brother ordered me to take a left at the next block.”
“Just do it! Dammit!”
One thing I learned about driving with a drunk in the car. Go ahead and do what they say. A lot less hell to pay. Next he pointed to an apartment complex on the right and demanded I pull in there. After I stopped the car and turned off the engine, I guessed that Royce had progressed from mere alcohol to marijuana, and this is where his dealer lived.
“Go ahead and thank me. I’m going to get you laid.”
“Just get out of the car! Dammit!”
So we got out of the car, and Royce staggered toward an apartment and banged on the door.
“Candy! I got some business for ya!”
“Is that you, Royce?” a woman with a husky Texan drawl called out. “Haven’t I told you time and time again I don’t do that shit anymore? I’m gonna be an actress, so go to hell!”
“It’s not for me, Candy. It’s my baby brother.”
“No! Go away!”
Royce repeated the name Candy loudly in a sing-song voice until the door opened, and a dirty blonde in capri pants and a loose man’s shirt grabbed my brother’s arm and pulled him in.
“Shut up for God’s sake!” she hissed. “The neighbors will call the cops!” Then she looked at me. “You too, little boy. Are you really this drunk’s brother?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied softly as I entered the apartment. It wasn’t as run-down as I thought. Actually, it was rather expensive looking.
“I want him to lose it tonight,” Royce announced, pointing at me. “And you’re the girl to do it.”
“Royce,” Candy said with a sigh and shaking her head, “you have pulled some stupid shit before but this is absolutely crazy.”
He ignored her, fumbled with his wallet, pulling five twenty dollar bills and shoving them into my hand. “Now don’t you dare give her the money until you got what you came here for.”
“You’re not going to watch, are you? I mean, you’re not going to tell me where to put my elbows and things like that?”
“Dammit, kid. You don’t know what I’m doin’ here. This bitch is Candy Barr! The best whore in Dallas!”
“I told you, Royce, I don’t do johns anymore! I’m a dancer!”
“Then why did you lay me?” he shot back.
Candy smiled slightly. “Because you looked so pitiful when you came into the Colony Club that night. You didn’t even know what kind of drink to order.”
“Well, he’s more pitiful than I was, so get in that bedroom! I want to get home and get some sleep!”
Candy motioned at me, and I followed her into the bedroom.
“First thing, go into the bathroom, take off your clothes, take a hot, soapy shower, and when you come out I’ll be in bed.”
“I took a bath before I drove down here,” I replied weakly.
“Dammit, do what she says, kid!”
Royce must have had his ear crammed next to the door.
“I’m so nervous I don’t think I can turn the shower knob on. Could you show me?”
Candy was smarter than she looked because she cocked her head, as though she knew what I was thinking.
“Sure, little boy. This way.”
After we entered the bathroom I turned the shower on and closed the door so Royce couldn’t hear us.
“So you’re the Candy Barr, Jack Ruby’s girlfriend?”
“Well, let’s just say friend. Jack’s not exactly boyfriend material.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “So you know a lot about who killed Kennedy?”
“You don’t want to know, little boy.”
“Yes, I do. Listen, I’m not going to go to bed with you. You seem like a nice lady, but, no offense, you’re really too old for me.”
“Thank God, somebody in Royce’s family has some sense.”
“So we’ll go back into the bedroom, bounce on the mattress while you whisper stuff about the assassination in my ear. Then I give you the hundred bucks, and Royce will get off my back, okay?”
She nodded and turned off the water. As we walked back into the bedroom she whispered, “Your brother likes a lot of noise, you know what I mean?”
“Oh, you’re really hot!” I screamed as we sat on the bed and started bouncing.
“Thatta boy, kid!” Royce yelled on the door, banging it with his open palm.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes,” Candy purred as she leaned in and began murmuring all the good dirt on what happened that day three years ago.
“Wow!” That was actually in response to what she told me, but it also pleased Royce to no end.
“That’s it! That’s it!”
I had some theories of my own about who shot President Kennedy, but I would have never guessed the truth.
“What’s goin’ on in there? I don’t hear any action!”
“Now! Now! Now!” Candy was in hysterics. I decided she would be a good actress.
My mind went blank, so I had to improvise.
“Oh, come all ye faithful!” I sang. It was all I could think of.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Royce was enjoying this way too much.
While I put my clothes back on, Candy muttered one last thing in my ear. “By the way, little boy, you can’t ever tell anyone this, because some big thug will come in the middle of the night and blow your head off.” She put her hands on my face and smiled. “And it’s such a sweet little head, too.” Then she kissed my forehead.
I handed her the hundred dollars and opened the door. Royce hugged me, unintelligibly congratulating me on my transition into manhood.
“Was it great?”
“Words can’t describe it.”
Since I was only five years old, my memory of that day is dim and rather muddled.
Happiness, I suppose, crowds out the bad feelings. Mom and Dad both worked. She sold dresses at a big store downtown. She always looked pretty when she left me at the nursery school each morning where I sat on the floor playing with trucks and building blocks. Mom wore bright red lipstick and rouge on her cheeks. When she hugged me good-bye she smelled of roses. I didn’t know what Daddy did at work, mostly sat in an office and talked on the telephone. Later I figured out he sold insurance.
Anyway, on this cloudless, briskly cool day in late November—it was a Friday, I remember now—I didn’t go to the nursery school. Mommy dressed me in clothes I usually wore to Sunday School. Instead, all three of us climbed into the car and drove downtown, left the car in a big lot and walked several blocks to a park where all these streets came together.
About halfway there, I tugged on Daddy’s sleeve and told him I was getting tired walking all that way. He smiled and lifted me to his shoulders, and the rest of the way I was taller than anyone else on the street, and there were a lot of people on the street that day. Daddy always carried me on his shoulders the very first time I would say I was tired. To the day he died many years later I never admitted to him that I wasn’t really that tired. I just liked being so high above everyone around me. Like I said, happiness.
When we arrived at the park, we saw it was filled with all kinds of people—young, old, white, black, some were dressed nice like us and others had some pretty raggedy shirts and pants. I don’t remember ever going there before. Daddy told me we had driven through the park to get on the big highway many times but I was usually busy playing in the back seat. Looking around I saw one tall brick building with people leaning out of all the windows. There was a big sign on the roof.
“What does that sign say, Daddy?”
“That’s a funny name.”
“It’s the name of a car rental company,” Mommy said.
“I don’t know what rental means,” I replied.
Before Daddy or Mommy could explain what rental meant, the crowd started yelling and jumping up and down. I saw a lot of people with cameras. By the time the police on motorcycles began riding by, the noise was so loud I couldn’t hear anything Mommy and Daddy were saying. Even Daddy jumped a little when this one big car with no top slowly turned the corner and to drive towards us.
Shots rang out. They sounded like firecrackers. Before I knew it, we were on the ground, and Daddy was on top of me. My first thought was that Mommy was going to be mad because my Sunday School clothes got dirty. Then I started crying. I didn’t know why; maybe because everyone else was crying. I even saw tears on Daddy’s cheeks.
I am now an old man. People always ask me what I remember about being in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza on the day President Kennedy was shot. The only thing I really remember is the happiness I felt being on Daddy’s shoulders. I know they wouldn’t be interested in that. Instead, I tell them, “I saw the nice lady in the car with the pink hat.”
Marina Oswald awoke in a vodka-induced haze the morning of Nov. 22, 1963. Rolling over, she reached for her bottle, only to find it empty.
“Lee Harvey Oswald,” she slurred in a sing-song voice. “I need some more vodka.” When he didn’t respond, she repeated, a little louder, “Lee Harvey Oswald, I need some more vodka.”
“Huh?” He had a distant air in his voice as he cleaned his rifle.
“I need more vodka.” Marina giggled. “Don’t you understand good old American English? I want vodka.”
“Oh.” Lee stood, walked out of the bedroom and reappeared a few minutes later with a full bottle. “Here you go, honey.” He handed it to her with a smile. Then he sat and resumed cleaning his rifle.
“You are so good to me, Lee Harvey Oswald.” Marina put the bottle to her lips and sucked down as much as she could before it began dribbling from the corners of her mouth. “Why are you so good to me, Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“I guess because I love you so much.”
Marina remembered the first time she saw him bundled up in a fur coat on a Moscow winter morning. The only object she saw was this cute round face sticking out, all twisted up and shivering. He had the most delectable lips she had ever seen on a man. By that night she had him in her apartment and peeled off each layer of his clothing until he was naked. Her hands ran over his thin torso.
Before she knew it, they were married and living in a place called Dallas, Texas. Marina gulped vodka as she regarded him sitting on the edge of the bed cleaning his rifle. His slender arm muscles rippled as he rubbed a cloth up and down on the barrel.
“Lee Harvey Oswald, you are a sexy Marine man, do you know that?”
He chuckled. “Oh, I haven’t been a Marine in a while.”
“You still sexy Marine man to me, Lee Harvey Oswald.” After her third slurp, Marina carefully positioned the bottle on the bed stand and crawled across the sheets to him. “Why do you have to go to work today? I am—what do you call it—I am horny, Lee Harvey Oswald.”
“I’d be glad to stay home, honey, but this is a special day.”
“What makes it so special?” She ran her hands across his back.
“Well, President Kennedy is coming to Dallas today.” He paused wiping his rifle. “His car is going right past my building.”
“Oh, who cares about the silly old president? I don’t like him. He’s an old man.” Sighing deeply, the young woman wrapped her arms around his waist. “I like young man. I like you.”
“But I care about the president.” He disassembled his rifle. “I care very much.”
“Why don’t you stop playing with your gun and play with me?”
“I keep telling you. It’s not a gun. It’s a rifle.”
“Oh yes, I know.” She stretched her arms out to touch the weapon. “This is my rifle.” Marina lowered her hands to his crotch. “This is my gun. One is for shooting. One is for fun.”
She breathed on the nape of his neck.
“Marina, baby, you know what that does to me.” He emitted a guttural sound, but then he shook his shoulders. “You don’t understand. I’m making history today.”
“Don’t make history,” she whispered in his ear. “Make me.”
“The proletariat needs me.” Lee’s voice began to reflect his dwindling willpower.
“I am the proletariat. I need you.” Marina’s hands went up under his T-shirt to his chest. “Lee Harvey Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald….”
He dropped the rifle to the floor and turned around. Marina pulled his shirt off him and proceeded to lick and kiss his stomach.
“You do this to me all the time,” he murmured as he lifted her head and kissed her lips. “You drive me mad.”
“I know. I love you so much.”
And that’s how John F. Kennedy would have lived to serve two full terms as president of the United States if Marina Oswald had been an alcoholic nymphomaniac.
Unbeknownst to each other at the time, Janet and I were very practical. We both knew the most important task after high school was to learn a skill that would make us money the rest of our lives. After that was accomplished we looked for jobs. Once we had regular paychecks coming in, we started looking for someone to love and marry. We met at a conference dinner and started dating. She lived an hour’s drive away, so I proposed quickly. If she wasn’t interested in me, I wanted to know fast so I wouldn’t continue waste gas money on her. (Okay, we didn’t live like we were in a romance novel.) Once we were married we agreed we wanted to have two years to have fun together and learn to live together with as little conflict as possible. When we accomplished all that and the doctor confirmed that Janet had conceived, we announced it to her parents, Maude and Jim.
And we were not ready for the response.
After staring at us for a long awkward moment, Maude said, “Your cousin Patty Belle and her husband just bought a new car and their old one wasn’t that old—“
Jim interrupted. “Oh, Maude, you don’t know what you’re talking about. They bought that car five years ago….”
Not another word was spoken about our announcement. A couple of months went by before Janet couldn’t stand it any longer and she phoned her mother.
“Why did you ignore us when we told you I was going to have a baby?”
“Well, I assumed you just thought you were pregnant. After all, we waited eleven years to have you.”
Janet assumed she was pregnant because her doctor showed her conclusive scientific evidence that there was a bun in the oven. And the reason her mother waited eleven years was that she had an inverted uterus and could conceive only after a sledding accident flipped it. In actuality. Janet and Maude were both 27 years old when they conceived.
I can’t remember what finally convinced Maude that Janet was—as they used to say—in a family way. Maybe Janet got a signed note from her doctor: “To whom it may concern: the holder of this memo is indeed preggers. Yours cordially, Dr. certified obstetrician.” Or maybe Janet showed her the sonogram. But Maude would have thought Janet had accidentally swallowed a watermelon seed and it was sprouting.
Anyway, even though she had to admit the obvious, Maude still kept up a steady conversation on what other family members were up to, which was generally no good.
By the last month no one could deny Janet was on her way to mommyhood by the size of the baby bump. I didn’t know how she could maintain her balance. To keep herself occupied, Janet decided to decorate the small bedroom as a nursery. We put up zoo animal wallpaper on one wall and painted the other three yellow. She didn’t want the traditional pink or blue.
Maude didn’t want us to do anything with the bedroom until after the baby had been born and had survived at least three or four months of life.
I should have known better but I asked her why.
“If the baby were stillborn or died after a week or two, then the decorated room would make Janet sad.”
No, losing the baby would make her sad, not the color of the bedroom walls. Also, the room was already painted and papered. It was a little late to take it all out now, and expensive to put it back when the baby was okay. Finally, yes, we knew bad things can happen, but we always wanted to anticipate the best. We thought life worked out better that way.
Halloween of 1890 surprised Arthur Conan Doyle with a mixture of happiness and mysticism.
He was the guest of honor at a party hosted by Ward Locke, the publisher of his first Sherlock Holmes book, A Study in Scarlett. Ladies, all of them in black evening gowns highlighted with orange flowers or brooches and necklaces, were particularly attentive, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles on his dinner jacket.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Doyle,” Ward Locke’s wife cooed, “when you become the most famous in London? You won’t have a moment’s peace.” Her eyes, an uneventful shade of brown, fluttered without producing their intended purpose of luring the single gentleman with her non-existent wiles.
“I am certain I shall find a suitable safe harbor in the storm of public attention.”
Mrs. Locke practically swooned over the more sensual meanings of Doyles’ metaphor.
“Among my many new-found friends and acquaintances, such as your husband and yourself, indeed all the fine people who are here tonight.”
“Oh. Of course.” She stood erect in the middle of her collapse into the romance of her thoughts. Recovering, she smiled respectfully. “And I’m sure your friends from the hospital will be a great comfort to you.”
A woman wearing too much rouge made good use of her ample hips to force Mrs. Locke from the inner sphere of Doyle’s immediate company. “You mustn’t ignore your other guests, dear. I shall entertain our wonderful young gentlemen for now. I am Mrs. Wickham, a dear friend of the Lockes. They tell me you are a doctor.” She paused a moment to admire his physical appearance. “My, you must have an impressive bedside manner.”
At that moment Doyle caught the gaze of his publisher and turned the corners of his lips into a smile that expressed mild desperation. Locke smiled in return, lifted his glass and clinked it with a dessert spoon.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in a toast to the man of the hour, Arthur Conan Doyle!” Locke announced. After an appropriate pause for all the guests to murmur their acquiescence, he continued, “We wish him continued success so suddenly found at the young age of thirty-one.”
“Oh, yes. I remember being thirty-one,” a voice boomed from the shadows. “Great expectations can wither on the vine as time passes, leaving you with sad dreams of what might have been.”
Holiday chatter died as all heads turned to watch a tall, swarthy man step toward Doyle, who suspected the man to be in his middle forties and under the influence of liquid spirits. A shrill giggle shattered the silence.
“You must forgive my friend, Mr. Doyle,” Mrs. Wickham said with forced cheer as she left his side to join the darksome stranger and grab the man’s arm, pulling him back. “His attempts at humor are an acquired taste. He’s my neighbor at the Nickleby Arms Hotels, Nathan Ladderly. The dear man has no family so I thought—“
“Mrs. Wickham finds me attractive and creates excuses to be in my company,” Ladderly interjected.
“Oh, Nathan, you’re so wicked,” Mrs. Wickham said with a laugh.
A second giggle erupted, this time from Mrs. Locke. “Ward, darling, what is a Halloween party without parlor games appropriate for this evening of ghouls and goblins?” She pushed her way through the crowd holding a small square table on which was a mysterious wooden board. “This game has just been invented. They call it a Ouija board. It’s a way to communicate with the dead,” Mrs. Locke chirped. “Mr. Ladderly, Mr. Doyle, Mrs. Wickham, please pull up chairs, and we shall see what spirits we may conjure.”
“This will be droll,” Ladderly muttered as he sat at the table.
“I am open to spiritualism, though I am not completely convinced,” Doyle announced with a tight smile. He sat opposite Ladderly.
Tittering, the two women filled in the gaps and Mrs. Locke placed a wooden disk on three small balls in the middle of the board. On one side was a pointer and in the middle a hole.
“Ward, darling, lower the gas lamps,” she said. “We must have the proper atmosphere. Now, everyone place your fingertips lightly on this little wooden pointer. It’s called a planchette.”
As the lights dimmed, Ladderly leaned his head, almost touching his cheek to the board. “Ouija, Ouija, Ouija, is anyone there?”
All the guests gathered around the table gasped as the planchette moved suddenly to Yes.
Ladderly pulled his hands away. “This is ridiculous. I want nothing to do with it.”
The planchette jerked over to No.
“Please, Nathan, dear,” Mrs. Wickham pleaded. “Open your mind. Participate. For my sake.”
“Why should I do anything for your sake?” Ladderly’s tone bordered on insolence.
Doyle leaned forward. “You seem nervous, Mr. Ladderly. Do you have anything to fear?”
“Of course not,” he replied in a huff. Reluctantly he placed his fingers back on the wooden pointer.
“I’m so flustered,” Mrs. Lock admitted. “I don’t know what to ask.”
“Are you trying to communicate with a specific person?” Doyle asked.
The planchette moved to Yes.
“Is it me?”
“Why?” Doyle continued.
The wooden disk quickly moved around the board stopping to reveal specific letters in the hole. It spelled murder.
“Oh, Mr. Doyle,” Ladderly sneered. “How obvious. I insult you, and you accuse me of murder.”
“My fingers are barely on this device. Those standing over my shoulder can attest that. And why do you assume the board is speaking specifically about you out of all the people in this room?”
The pointer again moved to Yes.
“Oh, this is impossible!” Ladderly said with a hiss. “I refuse to continue with this charade.”
“No, I think we should continue,” Locke announced as many of his male guests moved to stand around Ladderly’s chair.
Again the planchette floated over the letters. I am Dickens.
Gasps and twitters spread through the room.
Someone murdered Drood.
“How foolish,” Ladderly said. “That was a work of fiction.”
“Then who did kill Edwin Drood?” Doyle asked.
“He was the young man from India who was enthralled with Drood’s fiancé Rosa Bud,” Doyle clarified. “Dickens was writing the novel and publishing each chapter in the newspaper as he finished it. Before he could complete his work, he died. Literary circles still discuss who the murderer might have been.”
“Everyone knows Drood’s uncle did it,” Ladderly added nervously.
The pointer moved to No.
“Is Neville Landless in this room?” Doyle asked, staring at Ladderly.
“N.L. Neville Landless. N.L. Nathan Ladderly,” Mrs. Wickham said slowly as though the entire plot had been revealed to her.
“These parlor games have gone too far!” Ladderly tried to stand, but several hands pushed him back down.
“Put your fingers back on the planchette, Mr. Ladderly,” Mrs. Locke said in a flat tone. “Perhaps you can handle your destiny.”
“Is Nathan Ladderly actually Neville Landless?” Doyle asked.
“So he killed Edwin Drood?”
Yes. The disk’s hole highlighted other letters. Me too.
“No!” Ladderly screamed.
“Mr. Dickens, did Mr. Ladderly know you were about to incriminate him?” Doyle said.
“Nonsense! Why didn’t he go directly to Scotland Yard?” Ladderly demanded. “Why write it as a novel?”
“Obviously he had no evidence that would hold up in court. Once he published his novel, the public outcry would be deafening. Of course, he had to change names,” Doyle explained. “Nathan Ladderly became Neville Landless. Edwin Drood… Anyone remember the disappearance of a man with the initials E.D. around the time of Dickens’ death? No matter. Scotland Yard will know.”
Yes, the Ouija board responded.
The entire family gathered for its evening meal around a circle deep in the forest, its heart interminably tangled in underbrush and vines.
“Hey, Ma,” Junior piped up with his mouth full of berries and nuts, “Buggums and me want to go out human hunting tonight. That’s okay, ain’t it?”
Ma almost spit out her food. “What did you say?”
All the boys my age go out human hunting at night. It’s fun. I ain’t never seen one. All my buddies say they’re real funny lookin’.”
“Gruff, did you just hear what your son said? He wants to go human hunting!” Ma lifted her chin and crinkled her nose in disgust.
“What the hell is going on here?” Gruff looked up as he wiped his paw across his mouth.
“All the boys have seen one, except for Buggums and me. We kinda feel left out,” Junior whined.
“Well, you’ll feel left out forever if one of those hairless bastards points his magic stick at you and blows your brains out!” Ma’s eyes fluttered.
“Oh, Ma, I hear the humans are so dumb they hardly ever shoot no one,” Junior replied.
“You ain’t never seen one of our kind, spread out on the ground, his face staring up at the night skies with this blank look in his eyes, have you?”
Junior hung his head. “No, Pa.”
“I’ve seen way too many dead folks. And they’re not all just youngin’s. I’ve had a couple of close buddies killed. And some nice ladies too. How would you like to come across your ma’s body with blood oozing out of it?”
“Nobody’s told me about that.” Junior paused. “In fact, none of the boys have seen dead bodies. I think you’re trying to scare us like when you told us about the boogeymen.”
“Those damn hairless bastards done scared all the boogeymen away,” Gruff snapped. “You know why you’ve never seen any dead folks? ‘Cause me and all the other men roam the forest at night, find them and give them a proper burial, that’s why. I’ve been tellin’ ‘em we ought to send for you kids to help us buried the dead. That’d shut the whole bunch of you up. But, no, the women start cryin’ boo hoo hoo about how they don’t want their babies to see anything bad.”
“Well, I’ve never seen a dead body, and I don’t think I want to.” Ma sniffed. “That’s way our people have done things and I don’t see no reason to change it. After the old ones die, the men hurry up and bury them on the other side of the forest and then we don’t talk about them anymore.”
“You mean Grandma and Grandpa didn’t go live with their cousins in the Himalayas?” Junior’s eyes widened.
“Naw, they’re ten feet under right over that ridge” Gruff said.
“I don’t know,” Ma offered softly. “I like the idea of thinking Auntie Poopoo was vacationing in the Everglades. She always did like the water.”
“Maybe the humans just get scared and shoot to protect themselves.” Junior was running out of ideas to defend his trip through the woods.
“No, they’re mean bastards,” Gruff shouted. “Mean, ignorant bastards who like to shoot their magic sticks just to see one of us die. Now, if they dragged the body off and skinned it to get the good parts out for supper, well, I could understand that. Everybody’s got a right to eat, but they just leave it to rot. You know what those bastards call us?”
“Beautiful creatures of the forest?” Junior whispered with hope that he was right.
“Hell, no! They call us Big Foot! Now ain’t that smart? Big Foot!” Gruff lifted up his leg to point it at Junior. It must have been twenty-four inches long. “I don’t think this foot is so big!”
“I don’t know. It looks pretty big to me,” Junior replied meekly.
“Don’t worry, Baby.” Ma patted his leg. “You’re just a boy. You’ll have bigger feet than that by the time you grow up.”
“Oh hell no!’ Junior jerked away from his mother.
“And what’s wrong with big feet?” Gruff demanded. “You know what they say, big feet, big—“
“Gruff!” Ma interrupted. “Enough of that.” She turned to Junior. “You understand now why you can’t going looking for the humans, don’t you dear?”
“All the other boys—“
“All the other damn boys are lying!” Gruff bellowed again, half-masticated food flying from his mouth.
“I can take care of myself,” Junior replied, feeling defensive.
Gruff put his food down and walked to Junior, pointing his large hairy index finger at Junior’s temple. “What are you going to do when a hairless bastard rams his magic stick up to your head and it goes boom? Your brains will be all over the ground. The wolves will come up and chomp down on your brains, smacking their lips. But you won’t be see it because you’ll be dead! No more romps in the moonlight with your friends. No more splashing in the mountain streams. No more hugs from your Ma. Because I’ll have to sling your fat-assed body over my shoulder and carry you over the ridge and dig a hole so deep to bury so deep that no other creature will dig you up!”
“Gruff! That’s quite enough! You’re making the baby cry!”
Pa hugged Junior tight to his hairy chest. “Don’t cry, boy. Grow up. Trust me. You don’t ever want to meet one of those hairless bastards. I don’t know what I’d do if….” Gruff’s voice trailed off as he tried not to cry.
As he shuffled back to his dinner, Junior wiped the tears from his eyes with his paw. “If the humans are so bad, Pa, why don’t you and the others just kill ‘em all?”
Gruff laughed as he plopped on the ground. “You can’t even imagine how many of those hairless bastards are out there. Why, most of them don’t even believe we exist. It’s gotta stay that way. If I got mad and killed one of them, then all hell would break loose and every last one of us would be killed.”
“I wouldn’t be too scared to fight ‘em.” Junior tried to find his voice.
“I know you’re brave, Junior.” Gruff smiled and struck his big hairy chest. “I’m brave too. But what good will that do us when all the hairless bastards come after us with those magic sticks?”
“Don’t think your pa is a coward,” Ma interjected. “But he’s also very smart. Running and hiding don’t sit well with him, but he knows if he’s gonna protect us he’s got to do it.”
Junior smiled. “I’m sorry, Pa. I didn’t understand. I promise never to go looking for humans again.” He laughed. “I never realized it. My pa is a real hero.”
“Aw.” Gruff waved his big paw in the cool night air. “Pass me one of those rabbits before it stops bleeding.”
(Author’s note: I had been serializing this short story because it was long but Hurricane Irma came along and I had to skip a couple of weeks. To make sure the final segment makes sense, I have decided to run the story in its entirety.)
Alphine Beauregard spent another day going through new boxes of library books and cataloguing them. Occasionally she had to take time out to answer the same old questions about where to find books about every topic. Looking at her watch, Alphine saw she had ten minutes before closing, just enough time to visit her favorite aisle—Victorian vampire romance novels.
Discretely mounting the stairs to the second floor and heading to the furthest dusty back corner of the French Quarter branch of the New Orleans Library, Alphine sought to inhale the freedom found in dangerous love literature. She felt her lungs choked by the total emptiness of her cowardly life.
Creaking rusty book cart wheels made her look down the long shadowy aisle at Ralph who pushed a new pile of Victorian vampire romance novels her way. Ralph, who probably topped out at a six-foot and a couple of inches but only weighed at most one hundred fifty pounds, kept his eyes down.
“Sorry to be in your way. Got another load of books to shelve,” he whispered.
“Didn’t you realize it’s quitting time?” she asked nervously.
The crypt silence of the library made their conversation seem conspiratorial, forbidden. Alphine’s breath quickened and her cheeks flushed. At each of their chance encounters she tried to find out more about him, but Ralph tended to answer with only a word or two and then move on. Alphine detected a secret anguish in his face.
“I just feel bad if I’m not actually working right up to five o’clock,” he explained as he picked up a couple of books to put on the shelf right over Alphine’s head. “Excuse me.”
She did not move much, only enough for him to position the books where they belonged. Alphine enjoyed sensing his physical presence–the heat of Ralph’s tall, lean body and the scent of his cologne. The fragrance was nothing special but at this moment it made her mind fog. She looked up into his dark eyes partially concealed by a shock of black hair.
“Do you like to read this stuff?” he asked.
“This stuff. You know, vampires.”
“It passes the evening.” She shrugged. “What do you read?”
“Science fiction, fantasy, you know stuff like Tolkien. Marvel Comics. I know that sounds dumb.”
No, it’s not dumb at all. It’s like vampires. Nothing like real life, which can be so boring. She remained mute. Her thoughts choked somewhere in the back of her throat.
”I like to read about war in places that don’t really exist. I don’t want to think about real people in a real war in ugly countries that really do exist.”
He knew. Real life wasn’t boring. It was frightening. The fact he knew the truth excited Alphine in ways she could not comprehend. Her hand went to her neck, her thin, delicate, pale neck.
“Gotta get back to work,” he muttered and pushed the cart down the aisle and disappeared.
She had to confess just being close to Ralph made her tremble. Alphine inspected the stack of books, pulling one out to look at the cover of a virile vampire leaning into the neck of a nubile young woman. Ralph’s words about real people in real war echoed in her mind, making the novel in her hand seem inconsequential. Ralph, with his few soft-spoken words, tore away the fantasy world she read about. Her own life was too ordinary, too safe. Ralph, without knowing it, confirmed what she feared–her life had always been and probably always would be tepid, dry, stale.
This was Friday, and Alphine sighed as she drove home from the library. She had lived all her life at home with her parents in one of the respectable neighborhoods of New Orleans. Alphine had always obeyed every rule set down by her devout parents. They warned her never, under any circumstances, venture into the French Quarter. Evil people lived there who did evil things. After graduating from Tulane University with a degree in library science, Alphine got a job with the New Orleans library system. Her parents approved. Nothing bad ever happened in libraries, her parents told her. Alphine knew better. She asked to be assigned to the branch nearest the French Quarter. Her parents did not approve. After they had some time to adjust to that decision, Alphine announced she was going to rent her own apartment and live her own life. After all, she was twenty-four years old now. They told her she was a delicate flower that would wither without their protection.
Living in a greenhouse was not living. She had become one of the undead she read so much about. If she were to be undead Alphine would rather be undead away from her parents.
“Mom, Dad, it is unhealthy for you to watch me be undead, so for your own good I’ll go be undead elsewhere.”
Before her mother and father could make any sense out of her proclamation she had moved to an apartment in the garden district, the perfect location to be gloriously undead. However, after a year of living alone, she had yet to venture near the dangers of the French Quarter after dark. Now she was twenty-five years old. How she loathed her cowardice.
At the next intersection, she turned left instead of right. She knew where the vampire boutiques were. They sold the black slinky shrouds, the long black wigs, the death-white makeup and the blood red lipstick needed to integrate into the role-playing shadowy existence of New Orleans underworld nightclubs of vampires.
Vamporium was a black brick store cloaked in dead vines. A tickling bell announced her arrival, and an antique buxom woman wearing a tight, low-cut purple velour gown greeted Alphine. A pile of electric pink hair crowned her head. Her skin was a wrinkled testament to a life spent drinking too much bourbon. Her crimson lips opened in a smile, revealing aged, yellow teeth.
“Entre, my dear. I am Madame Du Baucherie. And may I be the first to congratulate you for escaping the stultifying world of suburbia. Welcome to sin.”
Hearing that pronouncement, Alphine wanted to bolt out of the establishment devoted to decadence, but she felt she had gone too far to turn back.
“I want the proper attire to attend a vampire club. You know, one of those places where people role play—“
“I know what you want,” the old woman interrupted. She firmly took Alphine’s hand and led her to a corner of the store with racks of black satin and lace dresses. Dropping the girl’s hand, Madame Du Baucherie grabbed Alphine’s breasts. “Ah good. Not so large. You will be able to wear our most scandalous gown with a neckline plunging to the navel. Women, such as I, could not wear this particular creation because of the risk of a nipple peeking through. Most inappropriate.”
Madame Du Baucherie thrust the filmy dress into Alphine’s hands and pushed her toward a dressing room. “Go meet your destiny.”
Inside the tiny room Alphine tentatively took off her clothes and wriggled into the black garment. The satin against her skin created a sensation throughout her body that scared her. As she smoothed out the dress, she heard the door open and saw Madame Du Baucherie’s shriveled arm presenting a pair of spiked black heels and a shimmering ebony wig.
“These will complete the ensemble.”
Alphine took the items, and the old woman slammed the door. Gingerly she adjusted the wig on her head. Her own hair was a bland shade of brown, limp, lifeless. Then she realized the wig was actually made with real human hair. The room did not have a mirror so she could not tell for certain if it were straight. Next she slipped on the heels which were surprisingly comfortable despite hurtling her toward Amazon-like stature. Taking a deep breath, Alphine opened the door.
Madame Du Baucherie appraised her without emotion. “One final touch—makeup.” Skillfully, she whipped out an eyebrow pencil and filled in the spaces on the young woman’s brow. She flicked the thin eyelashes with a black brush and applied blood red lipstick. Lifting a powder pad, she paused to consider Alphine’s complexion. “Perfect as is.” She put away her tools of the trade. “Ah to have that deathly pallor again. Flawless.”
She took firm control of Alphine’s shoulders and turned her toward the mirror. “Behold yourself.”
What she saw in the mirror both frightened her and edged her toward spontaneous orgasmic combustion. Alphine could not discern one feature that spoke of her past as a protected fragile flower quivering in the breezes from the foreboding Mississippi River. And she liked what she saw.
“You are my most inspiring creation. Of course you need midnight black fingernail polish.” Without a breath Madame Du Baucherie added, “The dress, shoes, wig, makeup and nail polish come to three hundred and fifty dollars, including tax.”
“Let me get my purse and things,” Alphine whispered. If she had even the slightest doubt about her lifestyle decision, Madame De Baucherie had banished it. She picked up her librarian attire and her purse and headed back to the counter where she handed her credit card over.
With efficiency the old woman zipped the card through, punched the proper buttons, extended a pen to her customer to sign and placed her library clothes in a shiny black bag. Before handing the bag to Alphine Madame Du Baucherie extended a thin withered finger, hooked it into the vee of the neckline at Alphine’s navel, pulled it forwarded and peered down.
“Panties. Tres gauche. Remove them before your evening at the clubs. Sally forth unto war.” She pushed the young librarian toward the door. “Go to the clubs. Find a young man and destroy his soul.”
Alphine got into her car, started the engine and drove down the street toward the infamous French Quarter. As the last rays of the sun disappeared, the garish neon lights in the distance flickered. They seemed to be beckoning her to join the evil celebrations of jazz, vampires and illicit sex. Even the thought of illicit vampire sex set to the rhythms of jazz made her tingle.
She wondered if the tall, pale young men dressed in black satin shirts would stand close to her at a bar and look down into her exposed bosom. Would she feel their body heat? Would she smell the essence of their bodies? Would she hear their long languid sighs as they assessed her fine black gown fresh from the racks of Madame Du Baucherie’s Vamporium?
Slowly driving down Rampart Street, Alphine noticed one particular night club, Club V-Vampire, and its name intrigued her. Club V-Vampire. Why did it have an extra “V”? She concentrated on what exotic words began with a “V” that would be related to the word vampire. Alphine began to become exasperated with herself. She was a professional in the world of books and words, and she could not even think of a good adjective for vampire that began with a “V.”
Have patience, she told herself. She would soon find out once she entered its sinister doors. First she must find a parking space. Less than a block away from Club V-Vampire she found a parking lot under a lamppost. Her parents always told her that if she had to go out at night at least park under a streetlight. Alphine rolled down her window to pay the attendant the fee when a young man with a wan face staggered toward her car. His pale features were not painted on so he would look like a vampire. His bilious cheeks showed he was about to retch.
Leaning into her car window, the young man’s blood-shot eyes widened. He motioned to the parking attendant to come over. “Hey, man, this girl’s dress is so low you can see her bellybutton!”
His chest heaved, and she quickly rolled up her window just before the young man opened his mouth and vomited on her car. His eyes glazed over. He staggered into the darkness. Cracking her window, she informed the parking lot attendant, “I’ve changed my mind.”
“That’s all right,” the attendant replied. “It’s two-for-one beer in all the joints. This ain’t the only car that’s gonna get puked on tonight.”
When Alphine reached her apartment complex in the garden district, she took off her wig and her high heels and deposited them in her shopping bag before she went inside. After she carefully hung her new dress in the closet and placed the wig and shoes in a drawer of her dresser, she changed into her cotton pajamas, poured herself a small glass of milk, put five saltine crackers on a saucer and went to bed where she re-assessed her situation.
No one ever vomited in a Victorian vampire novel. Alphine was not expecting that turn of events. Perhaps dissipation was like any other mission—it needed intensive research and planning. She was good at that. That was what properly trained librarians did. They researched. She decided to recuse herself the rest of the weekend to recover her senses. On Monday, fully refreshed, she would launch a well-organized attack on the world of gothic decadence. Alphine was optimistic. After all, she had already learned one vital lesson—don’t go vamping on two-for-one beer night.
Alphine became distracted every time she tried to research the French Quarter’s lurid nightlife when she saw Ralph shelving books. She walked over to him pretending to read the titles on his cart.
“Did you have a nice weekend?” she whispered.
“What did you do?”
“Oh yes, I forgot. Science fiction and fantasy.”
As much as she wanted to learn who Ralph was and what made him the way he was, Alphine feared his rejection. Perhaps he was not just shy. Maybe he actually did not like her. Did she have the courage to discover? Her heart began to race.
“I thought all weekend about what you said Friday about real people in real wars in ugly countries,” she pressed on, finding her voice—firm but caring. “It made me wonder if you were in the military.”
“Well, thank you for your service.”
“Don’t thank me. I didn’t do anything, just survived.” Ralph paused and wrinkled his brow. “I’m sorry. That sounded mean.” He pushed his cart down the aisle.
Alphine watched him disappear around a corner and felt her heart break a little. The rest of the day when she caught Ralph’s attention, she did not say anything but merely smiled. Every day that week she found a reason to speak to him, even if it were nothing more than a request that he take down a book for her on a top shelf. Friday arrived, and she was faced with another weekend trying to live out her fantasies of reveling in a world of vampires. Alphine chose a proper place and moment to initiate another conversation with Ralph.
“So do you like working in the library?” she asked him in the back room where he sat applying labels inside newly arrived books.
“Not really. But it gives me time to think about what I really want to do.”
Alphine was taken aback that he found the work she loved to be tedious. “So you find this boring?”
“I like boring.”
Alphine shook her head. Perhaps he liked her because she was boring. That did not make any sense to her. “What doesn’t bore you?”
“I think archaeology.” Ralph finished labeling the last book and stood. “I almost had a degree in history before I joined the Army.”
“Why did you leave college?”
He stopped in the door way. “I don’t know. I thought it was better to live life than just read about it.”
Alphine thought about her own urges to seek out real life. She tried to figure out how to ask her next question when Ralph cleared his throat.
“I found out it’s all living. “No matter what you do or where you do it, it’s still all living.”
After she left work on Friday afternoon, she decided to drop by the neighborhood drugstore to buy a new scent of perfume for her escapade in the French Quarter Saturday night. Inside the store, which looked entirely too modern for its surroundings, Alphine found a modest selection of perfumes, none of them satisfactory. An array of the best brands was locked in a glass case.
Catching her eye was a bottle of perfume worn by her mother’s late aunt Ticey. When Alphine and her parents attended the funeral for Ticey’s husband, she asked her great aunt the name of the scent. Cavort, Ticey replied. It came in a black bottle.
Alphine had only met her aunt Ticey two or three times at family reunions. Ticey looked and smelled like she always enjoyed a good time, which evidently was the reason Alphine’s mother had never invited her to dinner at her sanctuary of piety. If that perfume could put such a happy face on Ticey, that was the perfume for Alphine.
Looking around for a store clerk, she spotted an elderly woman, spraying Windex on the next counter and vigorously wiping it off with a paper towel. Alphine walked to her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, I’m interested in one of the perfumes in the locked glass cabinet.”
“Let me get the key,” the clerk said without lifting her head. “I’ll meet you over there.”
The voice sounded familiar, and Alphine could not quite place it. When the old woman arrived with key, Alphine’s eyes widened when she saw the clerk’s face.
“Madame Du Baucherie!”
Unlocking the case, the woman laughed. “Oh dear me. What a name. And which perfume are you interested in?”
“I know you! You’re the lady at Vamporium in the French Quarter!”
The old woman, dressed in a light blue skirt and white lace blouse, lifted her withered finger to her pale lips and shushed the young lady.
“Oh dear me, no. My name is Bessie Jones.”
Alphine recognized the black fingernail polish. “Of course. You’re right. Perhaps I made a mistake. I’m sorry. Let’s see, I want Cavort. It’s in the black bottle.”
The old woman brought it to Alphine, opened it to let her sniff the scent.
“Do you recommend this particular perfume?” Alphine asked.
“My gracious. I’m just a drugstore clerk. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to purchase.”
Alphine handed her the credit card. The clerk ran it through the machine and handed it back with a sweet smile. “Now, you have a blessed day.”
On her way home from the drugstore she drove by the Vamporium where she had bought the dress. The sign was down, replaced with a Realtor sign. For sale. She stopped her car, got out and went to peer into the window. The shop was bare.
Out of curiosity, Alphine also went by Club V-Vampire to make sure it was still there. It was, but rather pedestrian looking in the sunlight. An old man, his long, sparse gray hair dangling over his ears, swept the sidewalk and then rearranged the wrought-iron table and chairs in front to make sure they looked just right for the revelry that night.
Alphine took a long soak in a tub of hot water Saturday preparing herself for an evening as a vampire in the French quarter. She invoked the spirit of the bloodsucking temptresses she had read so much about. They would give her courage to break the bonds of timid respectability forged by her parents. From this moment her life would be her own.
Taking her time, Alphine put on her dress according to Madame Du Baucherie instructions, sans lingerie. She quickly dismissed her revelation that Madame was nothing more than another old woman trying to make a living. Even as Bessie Jones she knew which perfume to recommend to Alphine. Its name excited her imagination—Cavort. Her hands were steady as she applied the lipstick and eyeliner. She knew what she wanted and what she would be willing to risk to attain it.
Shadows had settled comfortably among the buildings along Bourbon Street. Music rang out from every open door, but nothing deterred Alphine from her destination, Club V-Vampire. When she walked in, she appreciated the low, eerie melodies engulfing the room. It was the perfect environment for catastrophic romance. She slowly slung one hip forward and then the other, emulating the stride of a cat. At the bar, an old man, his gray hair slicked back sinisterly, poured a beer for a customer and smiled at her. Two teeth were missing, but no matter.
“What does the young lady desire?”
Alphine looked at the sign listing all of Club V-Vampire’s specialty drinks: Scarlett O’Hara, Bloody Mary, Virgin Mary, Mai Tai, strawberry daiquiri…. She soon caught on that all the drinks were red, blood red. She ordered a Bloody Mary, left a hefty tip and settled at a small table lit by a hanging Tiffany lamp which illumined her bosom perfectly.
Within a few minutes a tall young man in full tuxedo and opera cape swirled up and leaned over Alphine. When he smiled, he exposed perfectly even white teeth with his canines orthodontically transformed into fangs. She breathed in. This was her moment.
“I vant to drink your tomato juice,” he intoned, trying to sound like Bela Lugosi.
Alphine did not protest when he swooped her glass up and drank. So this was saturnine seduction. Her heart was pounding. All her senses were magnified to the point of thrusting her toward insanity. Then she watched his pale face twist in revulsion. He spat the red liquid onto her dress. It was really quite disgusting.
“This isn’t tomato juice! It’s got some kind of alcohol in it!”
“Yeah, Charlie,” the bartender called out in a nasal voice that simply screamed Brooklyn. “That’s why it’s called a Bloody Mary!”
His whole body shook. “I thought this was a vegan place!”
“Vegan doesn’t mean no booze, Charlie,” the old man said as he poured Southern Comfort into a glass of cranberry juice. “We don’t serve animal products. Booze ain’t an animal product.”
“Give me some water to wash this garbage out of my mouth!”
Now Alphine realized what Club V-Vampire stood for—Vegan Vampire. She took her napkin, wiped her dress off the best she could and walked out into the night, passing all the noisy clubs back to the parking lot, hoping no one had puked on her car again.
Another good weekend wasted.
She did not sleep well Saturday night. Nor did she sleep well Sunday night. Her many disenchantments with vampire life in the French Quarter flashed before her eyes. One young vampire vomited on her car but not before commenting on how low cut her dress was. She discovered Madame Du Baucherie was just another old woman making a living as best she could. And then a vegan vampire spat out his Bloody Mary on her because his drink had alcohol on it.
But as morning arrived her thoughts had turned to her fascination with the tall, slender, inscrutable Ralph. He shelved books for a living. His military experience in Afghanistan somehow haunted him. Few words passed his lips, his thin, impassive lips. What was his hunger? Everyone needed a hunger to feed life forces through the veins. He said he wanted to study archeology, but he remained in the library, rolling a cart of books up and down the aisles.
Alphine’s heart raced. A veneer of perspiration kept her from sleeping. No vampire could induce this catalyst in her body. And she did not know if Ralph even gave her a second thought. What a stake through her heart.
Monday morning she went to her closet to select from her librarian couture which her smothering mother had bought for her. Each time she reached for a hanger her stomach tightened, much like the way a poison would cause her organs to spasm. In frustration Alphine grabbed her Madame Du Baucherie creation with the intention of throwing it into a trash basket where all her dreams of desire now resided. Stopping short, she returned it to the closet. She did not understand why but she sensed her very existence depended on saving the black satin gown for another day.
Instead, she took a tight midnight blue skirt which she usually wore with a business imbued jacket. After putting it on, Alphine took an ordinary white cotton blouse from a hanger where it lived with a gray pant suit. After hesitating, she went to her lingerie drawer and pulled out a white lace brassiere which she had never worn and put it on. Then came the blouse, which she left unbutton to give a slight view of the lace.
After dressing she put on the spiked high heels. Alphine took a moment to apply the eyeliner and then the blood red lipstick. As a final touch she lightly daubed a hint of Cavort behind each earlobe. Taking a look at herself in the mirror, she noticed she had forgotten to comb her hair. Her dishwater shade of brown locks looked unorganized after a long night of tousling about in bed. She turned and left for work.
The click clacking of her high heels turned heads as she entered the library. Not acknowledging anyone who spoke to her, Alphine walked up and down each aisle until she found Ralph with his cart of books. She watched him as he looked up at her. A slender volume fumbled from his hands. She stopped unnervingly close to him.
“Have you ever been kissed?” Alphine chose each word and each nuance carefully.
Ralph’s eyes blinked. “No one’s ever been able to reach up that far.”
Alphine put her hands on his boney shoulders and pushed down, causing him to go to his knees. She leaned in and placed her lips upon his. Ralph’s lips were fuller than she supposed. And warmer.
In that split second before he had to react–pulling away or embracing her—she realized this was living. Ralph was wrong. Living was not just living. Her parents were wrong. The goal of life was not security. Madame Du Baucherie was wrong. Living was not destroying souls.
Living was knowing what you desired and not being frightened to fail.