Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 25: New Orleans

Chapter 25
New Orleans

John Eastman, Tennessee’s attorney, knowing his client would suspect him of plotting to raid his bank account if he pushed hard, had been patiently lobbying Tennessee to authorize repairs to his property in New Orleans. Now, John became adamant. The growing damage from water and termites to Tennessee’s house could continue no longer without requiring serious structural repairs. Tennessee had delayed, refusing to authorize anything before he inspected the damage himself, but he made no plans to investigate. Now, at Eastman’s insistence, he agreed to make the trip.
Had water or termites attacked his Key West house, Tennessee would have shrugged. While his stated wish was that his own house would fall the day he died, the property in New Orleans was different—it produced income. The house and slave quarters had been divided into apartments. Except for the one he reserved for himself, all had paying tenants, and they produced a nice income. Although small compared to the royalties he received from his plays, it held great importance to him because of the transparency of the cash flow, and therefore its immunity to embezzlement. He could still rely on income from the house should the rest be lost to thieving management or the total collapse of interest in his plays.
We arrived in New Orleans on the day after Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday. As the last of the tourists straggled out of town, they left behind a sea of trash, now sodden by the cold rain that fell in the French Quarter. Ashen crosses adorned the foreheads of people we passed as our cab negotiated the narrow streets.
When we entered Tennessee’s house on Dumaine Street, his apartment was cold and dank. Tennessee lit fires in the main room and his bedroom. The shallow fireplaces, originally meant to burn coal, had been converted to gas, and were the sole source of heat. More suited to a cool spell than a penetrating chill, their flames danced and hissed merrily, but produced little warmth.  
The furnishings in the apartment were worn and dull, reminiscent of a set for The Glass Menagerie. His giant brass bed might have come from Cat. I traced the baseboards with my eyes, looking for termite damage, but saw no evidence. Then, as Tennessee puttered in his bedroom, I threw my bags on the daybed and began to unpack.
By evening, the rain had stopped. We walked to Galatoire’s Restaurant, picking our way through the mess on Bourbon Street. Tennessee could not decide if he wanted a full dinner or not, but he had been extolling the virtues of oysters-on-the-half-shell since before our plane touched down.
The aroma of Creole spices laced the air as we approached the restaurant—salvation after the acrid street. Inside, a tuxedoed waiter greeted Tennessee as if he had been away for only a few days. We ordered oysters and a bottle of wine. Steam rising from a hundred dishes of shrimp, crab, and etouffee filled the air, exciting our senses; wine warmed our veins.
"Forgot to tell you,” I said. “I caught Jeanne Wolf's piece on TV the other night—your reading at The Sands." Amazingly, parts of the interview and the reading of "The Donsinger Women" had been stitched together seamlessly. Watching it on Entertainment Tonight, no one would guess that Tennessee had been drunk. "Only a few minutes though—maybe five. Looked great."
He chuckled before sipping his wine.
After the last oyster slid from its shell, we ordered dinner, and then stayed for coffee and cognac.
 Sated, we followed Bourbon Street back toward the apartment.
“You know, I’ve known a few bars in New Orleans,” Tennessee said with a laugh. “Let’s stop here a minute.”
We ducked into Café Lafitte in Exile, sat at the bar, and ordered drinks. Two men sat alone on the far side, and a couple more stood in the shadows along the walls. In a dark corner, I saw only the glowing ember of a cigarette. Everyone was smoking.
“Oldest gay bar in the country,” Tennessee said. “Looks it too!” He laughed. “‘Exile’—they added that after they were forced to move. Dispute with the landlord.” He took a swallow of his wine. “Years ago—and common in the Quarter.” He laughed. “I imagine it still is today.”
I looked around the bar. Rigor mortis had set in.
“This isn’t the hour,” he said. We finished our drinks and walked the few remaining blocks to the apartment.
In the morning, the sun rose slowly, drying the pavement and warming the sides of buildings. Crews worked on Bourbon Street, collecting the remains of Mardi Gras. Men wielding industrial brooms pushed soggy debris into piles, while others dumped overflowing barrels into a truck.
“We’ll go to Café du Monde,” Tennessee said, after downing a glass of Metamucil. “Beignets and New Orleans coffee.”
Although the air was cool, colors had a new vibrancy—the first sign of spring.
Tennessee pointed down a street as we crossed it.
“I wrote Camino Real in a house on that block.” He pronounced “Camino” with the accent on the first syllable, and “Real” like the English word of the same spelling.
“I’ve always believed it is one of my better plays—possibly the best.” He looked at me. “But it’s not realistic enough to be understood.”
I said nothing. I had read it, and it had not been realistic enough for me.
We turned down a street and he stopped in front of an undistinguished pink house that was shuttered tight.
“I lived here when I first came to the Quarter.” He turned to the house again. “I’m not sure this was actually the first place, but I lived here a good while.” We resumed walking. “Cheap boarding house—but expensive for me in those days. Owner had a sort of restaurant where she fed her boarders. I waited tables to help pay rent. One day she decided to open the restaurant to outside people, you know—to make more money. I came up with a slogan, ‘Meals for a Quarter in the Quarter.’”
I laughed with him, despite the fact that this was the third time I had heard the story of his brief marketing career.
“We printed up flyers,” he said, “and I passed them out all around the Quarter—did quite well, as I recall.”
By then, we had made a few more turns. The air was warming quickly. Nearby church bells tolled the hour, the tintinnabulation quickening the street.
Tennessee stopped and turned to gaze at a house. “Here,” he said, “is where I wrote Streetcar—most of it.” The house, like almost every house in the Quarter, faced right on the street, barely leaving room for a sidewalk, and had a gallery with wrought iron railing and supports on the second floor. A small tourist shop occupied the ground floor. The proprietor nodded to us, as he pulled a rack of postcards out onto the slate sidewalk.
“I don’t know this town anymore,” Tennessee said. “It used to be you could live here cheaply. All kinds of people came—mostly outcasts. Fantastic people living in the decay of an earlier, more civilized time. Writers, musicians. Artists. Now,” he gestured toward the square ahead of us, “tourists buy bad art or drink themselves into a stupor—both, I expect. I don’t believe there is any art here anymore—there is music.” He glanced up at me. “The quarter will be one big amusement park some day.” He stopped and turned around. “Back there,” he nodded the direction, “Desire and Cemeteries rattled down the street—streetcars. Fantastic. I mulled those names for quite some time.”
We turned and resumed walking.
“Of the two, cemeteries is stronger.” He laughed. ”It’s rather final, you know? But desire is more interesting—at least to the living. It defines the living." He laughed again. "I took some liberties with place, and mixed them with Elysian Fields—but then I always do take liberties.” He laughed once again as we turned and walked along the front of St. Louis Cathedral. He tried the door; it was open. “Wait here a minute,” he said.
After the door closed, I decided to follow him. The smells of Catholicism—beeswax, incense, and starch—brought back childhood memories of nuns, rituals, and incantations. I saw the familiar racks of pamphlets in the vestibule, and the holy water fonts flanking the entrance to the nave. The cathedral was deserted.
“I’m going to light a candle for Rose,” he said softly.
I followed him up the central aisle, but stopped midway. The Catholic Church had a roster of rules for everything, including behavior in church. I almost laughed, remembering my altar boy days and the rituals and Latin I still remembered. I was not going to bow and genuflect—or pray in front of plaster saints again, but I did not want to break the rules either. I was, after all, a guest in their space. I sat in a pew to wait.
The clink of Tennessee’s coins reverberated faintly when he dropped them into the box. He lit a votive candle, and then knelt on the kneeler, praying before the Virgin. Returning, as he crossed in front of the main altar, he genuflected and made the sign of the cross.
We left the cathedral, followed the iron fence around Jackson Square to Café du Monde and took a table. Coffee and beignets soon arrived, and I took a bite. A cloud of powdered sugar flew into the air and whitened me from my chest to my knees. Tennessee laughed. I cupped my hands around the pastry, and carefully took another bite. Tennessee leaned forward slightly and bit into his, spraying more white than both of my bites combined.
He had made plans to meet a professor from the University of New Orleans that morning. "I expect I'll be out all day," he said. "We'll meet back at the apartment before dinner."
When he finished his second cup of coffee, Tennessee stood up and gave his beard, shirt, and jacket a perfunctory brushing. Then, still looking like the victim of a whitewashing accident, he set off in the direction of the cathedral.
The waitress refilled my cup as I sat watching people pass on the street. Elated to have the day to myself, I pulled out a map, and after getting my bearings, set out to explore the Quarter. 

Late that evening, shortly after returning to the apartment, I heard Edmund Perret’s voice outside the door. He had left his lobbying duties in Washington and flown down to join Tennessee and me in his native town. He had arrived early in the evening and gone out on the town with us, but soon disappeared to prowl the bars on his own. Tennessee and I stopped at a couple of bars, but he tired quickly and ambled home alone. Café Lafitte had come alive, but by then, I too was tiring, and walked back to the apartment only an hour later.
Having no key, Edmund knocked. I heard a second voice outside with him. Edmund had picked someone up, and once again, it was my sleep that would be disturbed. Reluctantly, I let them in.
“Hey,” Edmund addressed me loudly. “This is . . .”
“I’m Mark,” his companion said. He shook my hand with just the right firmness. His eyes showed he was not drunk—unlike Edmund, who was listing one way, then the other. Beneath his jacket, Mark’s black T-shirt neither advertised nor concealed his muscular chest. A few dark hairs peered out at the top of his shirt.
“Nice hands,” I said, “Let me see.”
I wanted to touch him, and did not care if he was with Edmund. The only bed available was the daybed. When Tennessee told me Edmund was coming to town, I decided the two of us would squeeze into it together—I was not going to sleep on the floor.
Now we were three.
Edmund was in no condition to compete. I would steal Mark and claim the bed. If in the process Mark freaked and bolted, I would still get a share of the bed.
“I play piano,” Mark said, as he raised his hands, palms down, toward me.
I reached for them, and then moving lightly, explored his wrists before working my fingers under the cuffs of his jacket. He reciprocated, and I inhaled deeply as warmth rose through my body.
“Come over here,” Edmund called. Having dropped his jacket on the floor, he sat sprawled on the loveseat, patting the space beside him. He spoke loudly, unaware of the developing situation or the faint cloud of dust he was raising.
I helped Mark out of his jacket, and he sat next to Edmund. I dragged the ottoman close in front of him and sat on it. Edmund put his arm around Mark, but every time he tried speaking to him, I interrupted and stopped him in his tracks. Each time, after waiting a moment, consternation showing on his face, Edmund began again more loudly. I scooted to the edge of the ottoman, leaned over, and began unbuttoning Mark’s shirt. Smiling, he slowly pulled his shirttail out of his pants.
Goddamn it—stop all this fucking noise!”
Tennessee had banged his bedroom door open, and was standing in the doorway in his briefs. “If you want to act like a bunch of fucking pigs, go back out in the street! I pay the rent around here.” He turned and slammed his door shut.
            Frigid water could not have sobered me more quickly. Mark stood up, tucking and buttoning himself back together. He was not swayed by Edmund’s sloppy pleadings.
After Mark left, Edmund nodded on the sofa a minute, and then stood up and began undressing. He climbed into bed and was asleep by the time I finished undressing. He grunted when I shoved him over and slipped in beside him.
In the morning, we found a typewritten note that Tennessee had slipped under his door.

When treated with contempt, my reaction is not a quiet one. Indifference and negligence increase as does my age and illness. And yet I’ll go on alone if necessary.
I think that better assistance can be had.

            But later, when he emerged from his bedroom, Tennessee seemed to have forgotten the incident. Nevertheless, Edmund and I moved about the apartment lightly, speaking with forced cheerfulness. Edmund needed to return to his duties in Washington, and after coffee, he gathered his things. With a rushed goodbye, he left in a cab for the airport.
Tennessee could delay the inspection no longer. I found the property manager, and she led us to the back of the building. She pried a board from a window frame, revealing the soft, honeycomb evidence of termites.
“You must call the exterminator at once,” Tennessee said. “Get some estimates for repairs—send them to Eastman in New York.” As if she had never needed to inconvenience him in the first place, he waved off her offer to show us more evidence.
He then marched off to spend another day with the professor, leaving me to resume my light-foot meanderings through the Quarter. That night, we ate a quiet dinner at Galatoire’s, and then in the morning, caught an early flight back to Key West.


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