I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It is easy to sleep late in New Orleans. Jason Bordelon, Jay to most, Jayjay to some, never set an alarm clock. On Tuesday and Thursday the Dempster Dumpster rattling garbage from the Napoleon House startled him awake. Other days, he would sleep until the Quarter’s sounds sifted into his dreams, bending them beyond recognition, and he would wake wondering which random ruckus had turned his swan into a speedboat: a freighter blasting its shrill flourish of farewell to the Crescent City, a lost tourist child wailing for his pink mother, a boom box parade? But today no accidental noise interrupted his sleep. What woke him on this day was a longing for Clair.
He untangled from the sheets and turned, groggy-eyed and morning-mouthed, to groan into Clair’s dark, full head of hair, but she wasn’t there. Puzzled, Jay groaned anyway, a little louder than normal, guessing she would hear from the other room and come padding in with a cup of coffee and the bad news that the day was half gone. Jay lay, clutching her pillow, listening for Clair. He heard no rustling of newspaper, smelt no coffee.
“Clair!” he called.
Where on earth? He could not recall her having told him of any errand or appointment.
He groaned again, rolled back over, buried his head in the sour smelling pillow. But it was no good. He was awake now. He kicked a sneaker as he crossed to the balcony door. He stood looking down at the French Quarter, inhaling the acrid odor of stale beer and cooking food and the fresh pungent smell of the Mississippi.
“Clair!” he called once more, loudly. He couldn’t stop a surge of fear that she had gone for good, vanished without a note, without packing, without a word of warning or good-bye. Gone out of his life. But he knew she hadn’t really left. They’d just started, really. Six months. She wouldn’t give up on me already, Jay thought. There’s always time for that. Later. Maybe much later. Maybe.
No matter how much he feared losing her, no matter how much he felt her imagined absence, no matter how much he felt, Jay could not bring himself to state it simply, unequivocally, even to himself.
Okay, okay. Time to get a move on, he thought, but did not move. He stood eye-balling Rue Chartres for a moment: followed a street sweeper, followed a hurried couple of business men, followed an awkward gathering of tourists. He wondered would that same group of tourists appear at his side later in the day, asking the price of his pastel portraits, shyly giggling amongst themselves as they decided which of the group would go first. It was enough to send him back to bed.
“Shit, man, no biggie,” Jay said aloud.
The tourists would be there later, tomorrow, next Spring. He had done enough bad paintings of philodendron-draped courtyards. He had already sold enough this month to cover his half, more or less. Really, he thought, they lived well, well enough, well enough not to worry much.
“I’m a New Orleanian,” Jay invariably replied when asked what he did. If pressed he might say “I’m a local colorist.” He never said “I’m a painter.” To most of his acquaintances the word would only conjure an image of angry black men spattered in white latex balancing on municipal scaffolding, cursing one another in the patois of poverty. He certainly never said “I’m an artist.” Jay was superstitious, always aware of sidewalk cracks.
He struck a match to the pilotless stove and put water on to boil. His morning rituals, only slightly different for Clair’s absence, followed without thought: teeth, shower, shave, assemble clothing and crawl into them, stand again by the balcony window.
The day was bright, the wind irregular and strong. The low slung clouds racing overhead would soon stop and gather and hang there. What was now only an occasional bite of damp would soon be steady winter chill. Jay liked Fall.
The kettle whistled. Jay spooned coffee into the Chemex funnel and poured, waited for the sodden brown grounds to settle, poured again. The smell of chicory and dark bean filled Jay’s head with groggy morning hope.
He watched the lower chamber steam, and tried again to recall if Clair had told him of an appointment, tried to figure where she might’ve gone.
Jay loved Clair at first sight. Easter Sunday. He had stationed himself at the Cathedral side of Jackson Square. Well dressed fathers navigated their families through knots of tourists and drunks toward Mass. The always awe-struck out-of-towners mingled with bands of street people, clutches of last night’s revellers. A solitary saxophone played counterpoint to the majestic Angelus. A negro urchin collected discarded soda cans and stopped to stare with bewildered envy at a little girl in white gloves and bonnet and patent leather slippers. A red-faced man from Nebraska or Ohio munched a foot long hot dog. A spry Creole matron, draped in a white lace veil, clutched a mother-of-pearl missal and scurried to her pew within, longing for the Mass of the Resurrection. New Orleans Easter Parade.
After Mass families might stop for portraits. Later in the day the tourists, temporarily put off by the locals’ piety, would return. Meanwhile, Jay doodled.
Pad propped on his knee, he sketched his loafered, sockless, right foot. He told each wrinkle in the worn leather, suggested each swollen stitch. Jay smiled as he hinted at a Lincoln head penny wedged into the cross patch.
The heavy Cathedral doors closed. The Mass’s muffled organ punctuated the square’s sudden, queer silence.
“Nice foot,” Clair, who was not yet Clair to Jay, said.
“My foot, my tutor,” Jay said, looking up and falling in love.
Clair possessed magically blue eyes, a rich blue, centered in wide white. Her black hair, draped forward over her shoulders, waved slightly all the time, never neatly framing her face, always moving. Her complexion possessed a complexity Jay had never seen, a translucent white through which shone ripples of blush brought on by blood or rough wind, and glimmerings of blue where veins rose perilously close to the fragile seeming surface. Jay felt the breathless tug of love. He found himself thinking that she might be the first human being he had ever laid eyes upon. He heard his heart crack a little.
She was neither tourist nor native; she had neither the nervous, hope-filled eyes of the voyeur, nor the casual indifference of the local charmers. She was neither hung-over, nor pious; neither on her way from a night’s adventure, nor into the Cathedral.
This meeting was unusual for Jay. He forgot to flirt. His critical eye closed. And he followed no fantasy. Ordinarily, he would eye the woman standing above him and, in a single quick glance, grasp her greatest imperfection: the shoulders stooped or rounded, the too full waist, the cinched bust, the crooked jaw line, the laborious hair-style, the features not quite in harmony. And he would forgive their flaws. His fantasy would speed furiously to a first naked embrace, to the awkward exciting sex all new lovers provide. He would imagine their appetites, imagine the blush of their passion, the secret uniqueness of their sex. He would imagine their hopes, their ambitions: plays piano, hungers for a family, still believes in God. He would imagine their disappointments, their failures. He would imagine a life with each passing flirtation, imagine his life changed by theirs, theirs by his. And most curiously, it seemed to Jay, had any one of these fantasies turned more than idle possibility, he would, he was sure, have been happy.
Looking at Clair, Jay could see no future. He could detect no flaw to forgive. He felt shame at the image of this woman naked. He could discern no pattern of despair or hope. His only thought, was, quite simply: I think I could love this face.
“So. How much for a portrait, mister?”
The remainder of Jay’s chipped heart crumbled as the second syllable of that “mister” faded deliciously into the muted organ music.
“Dickel, straight up,” said Jay.
“I can manage that.”
Jay stood and reached a gentlemanly arm to guide Clair into the faded canvas folding chair. He clipped a fresh sheet to his board and stared. Clair did not blink. She seemed to enjoy Jay’s unceremonial examination.
“Look here,” Jay prompted, pointing to a space left of his shoulder.
Only after gathering his heart and deciding “Yes, I love this face,” did he clear his eyes, look at Clair as an object to be traced, and draw his first fluid line.
Onlookers gathered at Jay’s back, admiring his counterfeit of Clair’s beauty.
Jay paused. There was something wrong with the portrait. He tried to discover what moved him so in Clair’s face, what about her presence seemed to command his respect, demand his admiration. The longer Jay examined Clair the less simply beautiful she became. Her nose is too flat, he thought. Her eyes too wide apart. Look at that mole there beneath her ear. Yet there was an openness in her gaze, a directness in her posture, a self-possession in her pose he wanted for himself.
Jay finished. He dropped the nub of graphite into the ridged tray, wiped his hand, and looked at Clair softly again, the clinical stare replaced by a different sort of searching.
“Let me see,” she said.
“Just a second. I’m not done,” he insisted, folding his arms, leaning back, “Hold still please.”
She squirmed. She turned her head to meet Jay’s persistent gaze.
She stood and walked around to Jay’s back. She looked down over his shoulder at the simple charcoal drawing. She was surprised and pleased and just a little embarrassed at the affection evident in Jay’s rendering of her lips and her eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” Clair said.
“Yes,” Jay said, “You are.”
“Do I really look so scared?”
The question startled Jay. She was right. No matter the strength evident in her eyes, the seeming sturdiness of her shoulders, there was a trace of fright upon her lips, a barely concealed quivering which he had felt and somehow captured. She’s vulnerable, Jay thought, not to the world, but to me.
“Look, Lady,” Jay joked, “I jus’ draw what I see.”
“My turn,” Clair said, reaching for a fresh sheet of paper and a stick of blue pastel. She settled back into her chair and propped the drawing board on her lap; she stared at awkwardly smiling Jay. She drew nothing.
“Hold still, please,” she said. “Look here. Here.”
Jay shifted in his seat and then settled back to let her look her fill.
Jay slowly turned his glance into her eyes. Neither moved for a long minute.
“Let me see,” Jay said.
“I’m not done.”
Jay waited a moment, watching Clair watch him, then rose and crossed to her back. He looked over her shoulder at the blank sheet of paper.
“I like it,” he said. “Quite a good likeness. Sign it, please.” She did.
Jay rolled both sheets carefully, snapping a rubber band about the tube. He handed them to Clair.
“Where shall we go?” Jay asked as he began packing his sample sketches.
“You pick,” Clair said.
Easter Sunday grew humid. They spent a leisurely afternoon in the air-conditioned Cafe Pontalba; Jay drinking neat sour mash; Clair sipping iced tea. Ceiling fans buzzed. Tables filled with touring families, emptied, filled again. Clair and Jay talked idly. She watched his eyes; she watched his lips as he told her stories; she watched his neck; she watched his hands: thick, hardened hands, the nails long and filled with colors, the fingertips smudged with pastel.
The afternoon passed into early evening. A summer-like stillness settled. The air hung dull and lifeless and filled with sour smells from a nearby brewery.
Clair followed Jay, enthralled. He led her through the Napoleon House and up creaking stairs and along a gallery.
She turned to face him after being ushered into the shadowed apartment. She closed her eyes and tried to paint his features from memory; tried to understand the small movements of his hands and lips.
Jay palmed the small of Clair’s back, pulling her forward, edging her onto tip-toes, smelling the crook of her neck. After breathing her so, he released her and stepped back and examined her features in the dim dusk light cast through the ceiling high windows.
“Can I get you something?” Jay asked.
“No. No thank you,” Clair replied.
He turned and took another small step. She stood, stock still. Jay reached his hand to her elbow and escorted her into his life.
When, from within a deep kiss, Jay reached to touch Clair’s full bosom, she pushed him away and stood back and pulled her sweater up and over her head, dishevelling her hair, and wiggled out of her skirt. She stood before him beautifully naked, proud, her skin alabaster. She smiled and walked into Jay’s bedroom.
He joined her on the creaking mahogany four-poster, a legacy from Jay’s maternal grandmother. They kissed again, Clair pulling Jay down and atop her already moist front, holding him tightly with both arms locked behind his neck.
Jay broke the embrace. When Clair tried to follow his retreat he held her at arm’s length and gently pushed until she lay back. He studied her body, tracing the contours with a single curious finger. He placed his open palm upon her belly and closed his eyes and felt the soothing rhythm of her blood. He felt Clair rise upon an elbow and reach a hand to the back of his neck and pull.
Clair watched a steady stream of tourists pass the door of the laundromat. They looked through the plate glass window expecting another jazz bar or antique store or tee-shirt shop. Their faces fell, confused, almost affronted, to find the row of Maytag washers, as if some portion of their hard earned vacation had been stolen by the ordinary.
Clair had lived in New Orleans for two years and only recently, since living with Jay, had she managed to chart its complex geography. What chance had a visitor? Without Jay she was still a tourist. Were he to leave, stop loving her, fall for another, would she, she wondered, stay?
“This your sock?” asked an enormous woman wrapped in a faded blue print shift.
“No. I don’t think so,” Clair replied.
“I found it by the washer you was using.”
The woman shuffled closer, a frayed green sock dangling from her fingertips like a rotting trout.
“Not mine,” Clair insisted.
The woman rolled the sock into a tight ball and handed it to a dirty-faced boy-child dressed only in grey and drooping Fruit of the Loom.
“Here you go, Eugene. Go on and play now.” The woman sat and pulled a National Enquirerfrom a shopping bag. Eugene slammed the sock against the back wall and frowned when it failed to bounce.
Clair watched the street again, and the reading woman, and Eugene. She pictured herself sitting, waiting for clean laundry. Who is that pretty young thing, she said to herself, and what’s a girl like that doing in a place like this? Shouldn’t she be in school; in a law office; at the beach; in a dance class; married? She shifted in the metal folding chair.
“I’m not coming home,” she had said clearly, the telephone receiver heavy in her hand, clammy against her ear.
“What?” said her mother.
“I’m staying in New Orleans.”
“What about Philip?”
“What about him?”
“What’s happened, Clair?” her mother asked, calming, concerned.
“Nothing’s happened. I’m staying in New Orleans is all,” Clair answered.
“You come home right now,” demanded her father, who had picked up the extension.
“No, Daddy. I can’t do that.”
Her parents fell silent. They could sense Clair’s resolve. They knew no arguments would move her.
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know yet, Momma. Momma? Don’t worry about me, Momma. I’m fine. I’m happy.”
“If you don’t come home, don’t come home,” said her father.
“Clair? Clair? Come home, Clair. Please.”
Clair could fully imagine their filling eyes. Her mother was standing in the kitchen. Her father was sitting on the bed, looking out the window, past the shed, at the stand of pecan trees. Clair slowly placed the receiver in its cradle and shook herself.
Clair came from a small town in the heart of Cajun country. While the rest of America was watching Vietnam on the nightly news, Clair’s parents tuned Zydeco on the antique Zenith. She grew up in a small world that had more in common with 17th-century Provençal than with New Orleans.
Her people had settled a land no one wanted, an ominous country filled with shadows and pestilence. She traveled now through the fields of sugar cane; the cypress-lined bayous, slow and brown as syrup; walked long lawns dotted with moss-hung oak trees; could almost feel the gulf breeze as her father’s boat skimmed the marshland.
Her father was a shrimper. He and her two brothers were all the crew the 40 foot trawl required. Years ago Tidewater Marine had offered him a supply ship to captain. His refusal was absolute. Unlike many Cajun fishermen, Raymond Mamouso refused to captain a ship he did not own. He refused to carry or catch anything he couldn’t eat. Oysters and shrimp and blue crabs were cargo enough for him. His friends thought him old-fashioned and imbecilic to refuse the oil industry’s wealth. But Raymond was never happier. He was and remained a fisherman.
She remembered her father’s face, his wet blue eyes, the deep lines about his lips and lids; the fine web of red filaments in the hollow above his cheek bone: a blood vessel that had given up under the strain of constant squinting against the Gulf glare. His face was like his land, she thought. He wears his place.
Eugene tugged at Clair’s elbow.
“Hey, lady. Lady.”
The woman slapped the child.
“It’s okay,” Clair protested.
“Go on, Eugene. Get!”
The child wailed. The woman turned back to her tabloid.
When she met Jay, Clair knew, in their first exchanged glance, that he would take her home. She knew that she would want him to take her home. And she knew that the decision, finally, would be hers. Unlike other times, she knew that to let Jay have her, to have him, would mean more than a good time. That’s why she stood so still, with what must have seemed hesitation to him, at the threshold of his apartment, fully aware that to enter would draw her into a new life. And when she did decide “Yes, I could love this man,” she did so without reservation.
The next morning Clair woke with a little fright. She ran through all the beds she’d ever slept in, trying to figure where she was. Then she saw Jay and instantly felt safe and happy and ready for anything.
He made her breakfast. No man had ever made her breakfast. It almost made her cry. She sat in Jay’s tattered terry robe and watched while he cooked.
“It’s all a matter of timing, see. When the bacon’s half done, start the eggs. When you flip the eggs put down the toast. Then you coax the bacon a little, a little more, and … voila, done. Now the eggs onto the plate next to the oh-so-perfect bacon lined up nice and neat … and—”
The toast popped up. Jay delivered a pipping hot plate, toast still moist and warm.
“I’m impressed,” Clair said.
“You should be,” Jay said, smugly. “Butter your toast.” He started another breakfast for himself.
“So, what do you do?”
“At a club.”
“I figured that. Which club?”
“You figured that? You figured me for a stripper?”
“Hey. Calm yourself. I didn’t mean anything by it. This is New Orleans. Most dancers—”
“I could be a ballerina for all you know. “
“True. You could be. Are you? A ballerina?”
“No, damn it.”
“So where do you dance.”
“I’m not telling.”
“Afraid I’ll show up? I’ve already seen you naked.”
“You’re pissing me off.”
“Okay. Change the subject.”
“You dance with Jeannine?”
“You know Jeannine?”
“Yeah, I know Jeannine. I’m not supposed to know Jeannine? I know most people. I know lots of people. Jeannine’s one of the people I know. Matter of fact, Jeannine’s one of the people I’ve known the longest of all. I knew Jeannine when she was—”
“How come I’ve never seen you then. At the Pareé?”
“Because you haven’t. I would remember.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“I know Max the bartender too.”
“You want a prize?”
“Just making small talk.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“That I take my clothes off and dance.”
“Well, it’s true, I was kinda hoping for a brain surgeon, or a nuclear physicist—”
Jay chuckled. He was very pleased with himself. “It’s your body, babe.”
Clair didn’t believe him. It simply didn’t make sense that any man could accept so easily the image of his lover, even his new lover, even his lover of only one night, dancing naked in front of a crowd. What do I know about this guy, Clair thought. Maybe he collects dancers. Maybe he’s a pimp on the side. What do I know? She knew he didn’t act like any pimp she’d ever known.
“You dated dancers before?” Clair asked.
“No. Don’t think any were dancers.”
“I think I better get going,” Clair said.
She was uncomfortable. She had never cared what anyone thought of her dancing. She had met no one in New Orleans who’s opinion mattered. She danced because she had to pay bills, because she was young and beautiful and alone and her body was all she owned.
“Why?” Jay asked.
Jay stood and cleared the dishes and poured more coffee for Clair and for himself. He placed both hands on the table and seemed about to sit again, but instead he leaned into Clair’s face and asked with his eyes that she kiss him.
When Jay walked into the Pareé later that night, Jeannine almost fell off the stage.
“Somebody stop that man!” she shouted over the music, pointing at Jay, winking at Clair. Since she was smiling nobody in the club took notice.
“Hey girl. Looking good,” Jay said.
Jeannine waved dismissively at Jay and continued her routine. Clair and Jay sidled onto stools at the bar.
“Hey, Jayjay, how you been, man?” asked Max.
“Still making pictures on the Square?”
“Yeah, I still make pictures.”
“That’s good,” Max said, meaning it as much as he meant anything.
“You going to stay?” Clair asked.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Jay said.
“I gotta get undressed,” Clair said, grinning.
Jeannine grabbed Clair before she could leave.
“Hey, girl, you know who this is? You know who you walked in with? You know he’s a good for nothing but fun kind of fella?”
“Yeah. He told me.”
Jeannine hugged Jay.
“Good to see you, Jayjay.”
“And yourself,” Jay said.
“Max, give this man a drink. Charge him double.”
Jay watched Clair dance. Her body, the body he had so tenderly loved for the first time the previous night, her body shown in the cheap light, glistened, shimmered.
Jeanine watched him watching.
“She’s young,” Jeanine said.
“She’s older than me.”
“I sort of know what you mean,” she said, patting Jay’s thigh and heading toward the other end of the bar.
Jay turned back to watch Clair. He tried to understand the mix of feelings. He decided it did not bother him. He decided he would not let it bother him. She was beautiful. She should be paid for being so beautiful. He laughed to himself thinking of her eyes, how no one here was noticing her eyes. Even he had a difficult time looking above her shoulders. And he loved her.
“Hey lady,” Eugene tugged at her elbow, whispering, hiding huddled behind Clair.
“What?” Clair whispered back.
“I think you pretty,” Eugene whispered and blushed.
“Why thank you.”
“You got any money?” Eugene asked.
“How much you need?” asked Clair, grinning inside.
“You got a dime?”
“Sure.” Clair snuck a dime into Eugene’s palm. He ran to the gum machine before his mother caught him and made him give it back.
The laundromat crackled and hummed with the relentless knocking of a tennis shoe inside a dryer, the insistent whir of a spin cycle, the slosh, slosh of a rinse. Clair watched her tumbling laundry, trying to stare it dry.
Sitting in the living room Jay spied the bowl of candies by the door. It was the first Halloween Jay had not been tricked by the infrequent costumed kids who wandered through the Quarter in sheets. Clair had insisted they stay home until the last kid came by. Jay had to admit, watching her playing with the trick-or-treaters was more fun than the costume party they went to at midnight. No one was in costume. Costumes are for Mardi Gras, Jay had said.
Halloween reminded Jay of his grand-mere. Jay and his mother would drive by her house early the next morning, All Saint’s Day, the smell of cheap treats still on Jay’s lips, to gather up grand-mere, and her bucket and broom, and her bag of daisies. She would hand Jay the bagged bundle of fresh cut flowers, and the trio would head for the cemeteries.
Grand-mere would visit the tombs of all her relations, beginning with the most distant and least remembered. At each grave they would sweep the walk and steps before the crypts, plucking wild grass from between the stones. Jay had always imagined these small granite mausoleums as tiny fortresses, castles adorned with sword wielding guardian angels. Jay’s job was scrubbing away cobwebs and grime from the marble inscriptions.
They would end the day before an immaculately white-washed tomb. Grand-mere would sit upon the step and talk softly to her husband.
Jay finished his coffee, rose from the sofa, and scribbled a note on the back of a South Central Bell telephone bill.
“I’m at work. Dinner maybe?” it read.
He propped it against the ash tray. He wondered if not signing the note “Love, Jay” would seem indifference to Clair, or would she understand that such a coda did no justice to his feelings. He left the note unsigned.
On his way out Jay paused before the double portrait, the almost beautiful and the blank. He had framed and hung them both.
Guy Gallo writes short stories and screenplays. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia University. This excerpt is from his first novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee