(A variant opening of my novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones)
No oaks adorned the city of the dead. Not even much grass. Just a hodgepodge collection of miniature stone houses on cement slabs divided up by cement walkways. Some of the little houses formed rows; some angled out or blocked walkways entirely, and so the rows became labyrinths.
One white stone tomb had a fresh inscription:
So fresh was this simple inscription that the burial party had not yet abandoned the little house to sink or swim among its neighbors in the labyrinth. It was, however, a hot, southern summer day, and as the priest closed with a “requiem aeternam dona eis,” they walked as quickly as was decorous from among the flora and fauna of the dead to the live oaks of City Park Avenue and the broad, neutral ground expanse of Canal Street, some to ride the streetcar home, some to imbibe a café au lait or small bourbon, to shake their heads and speak sadly of the deceased, while thinking inwardly quite other thoughts, for all we know.
Except for one teenage boy who lingered at the tomb. Unlike most teenage boys, he did not seem uncomfortable in his suit, did not seem pinched by the dress shoes, which he had used not five minutes earlier to crush a military line of ants marching from one little house to another, throwing the whole insect army into catastrophic disarray. His grief at the loss of the deceased, however, was real. He wiped his fist hard into one eye, then blew his nose into a handkerchief, and left.
When darkness fell on the Canal Cemeteries, it seemed to swallow time itself. Ten hours might have elapsed before another drench of sunlight, or ten years, or twenty. The darkness of the little houses spread out in a black tide across the neighborhoods of the city. A president shot, his brother next, and another voice, a great black voice, also shot dead. Closer to the scene, a black woman, first colored teller at the Redemption Bank on the corner of Canal and Carrollton, her white-stocking legs, shoes clip-clopping the floor as her youngest boy played behind her desk, then relieved of her duties and left to raise her two boys on nothing. And then she too was in the grave, a memory waiting to be dug up when called upon.
On another hot, southern, summer day, forty-six years after Robert Marigny was relocated to the blank stone walls of his permanent residence, Mrs. Broussard stepped onto her own screened porch, then turned back toward the house and yelled, “Come girls, Miss Ladybug brought us a peach pie.”
The porch extended across the whole front of the white, wood-frame house. Bees buzzed in the cat’s claw vines grasping insidiously through the newels of the porch balustrade. A faint odor of sweet pea hung in the air, marking the territory of the porch as if in defiance of the upstart azaleas that stood across the thick grass on the easement of St. Peter Street.
Seated on frayed wicker chairs at Mrs. Broussard’s porch table were the acclaimed maker of that peach pie, fragile and birdlike but sprightly for her eighty years, and a portly fellow whose dress and manner suggested an exaggerated attempt to play the part of the southern gentleman. His bushy brows sat above puppy-dog brown eyes, giving him a sentimental and endearing countenance that seemed oddly to complement rather than contradict his pompous manner. The fleshy lips of this grand gentleman, Mr. Claude Marigny by name, seemed pursed into an eternal pout, even when they were moving. He slowly fanned his balloon of a head with a straw hat, and with his other hand wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
“Not just a peach pie,” bellowed Mr. Claude, “but the nectar of the gods. A confectionary masterpiece.”
“Ooh-ooh, Claude Marigny,” piped in Ladybug. “Ain’t you something. I could listen to you talk all day, baby.”
“How you talk, Mr. Claude,” said Mrs. Broussard. “You ain’t even had none yet.” Mrs. Broussard was as loving a woman as woman could get, but also tended a little toward the no-nonsense end of the spectrum, which had an occasional, if not salutary, at least deflationary effect on Mr. Claude. Her small, sinewy arm brushed a strand of gray hair back toward an otherwise neat bun.
“Let the girls sample the wares,” tossed off Mr. Claude, alluding to the two granddaughters who had come to stay with Mrs. Broussard for the summer. “I’m afraid my digestion has been unsettled by my rapscallion neighbor, Mr. James.” He mopped his brow with the weary movements of a martyr.
“As if he had not enough decorative garbage, now, commingling with the decrepit appliances and indecipherable chunks of machinery, is – dear God, listen to this, Mrs. Broussard – a hot dog cart! A broken-down hot dog cart! In the front yard for all to see.”
“Different people keep their houses different, Mr. Claude,” rejoined Mrs. Broussard. “Some people say Mr. Robert’s house” – and her francophone pronunciation of Robert as Ro-bear was no affectation but the common parlance of the place – “your own brother’s house, oughta be torn down, it being empty so long and full of bad memories.”
Mr. Claude bristled but kept himself in check. “You tell them to never mind my brother. Robert’s house is a monument to an older order. Mr. James’s house is a monument to disorder and chaos. The camel’s nose under the tent, Mrs. Broussard.”
Delivery of this fine homily must have miraculously restored Mr. Claude’s digestion, as he shoveled a huge bite of pie into his maw and chewed thoughtfully, watching a squirrel dart along a power cable crossing St. Peter St. It paused halfway to the far side of the street, apparently seized with panic or wonder at how it had gotten there.