Here’s an excerpt from my novel, which will be out in the next few weeks (reading the proofs now).
The city that care forgot. Maybe because it was carefree, maybe just negligent. Maybe just forgotten. From the moss-ridden mansions of Esplanade to the roots lifting and bursting through sidewalks to the best 1950s R&B you ever heard still pouring out of dive bars on back streets, the city seemed since the beginning of time to have been in a state of aesthetically pleasing decay.
The city with street names no one forgets: Mystery Street, Desire Street, Bourbon and Chartres and St. Peter. On this very St. Peter Street, stretching away from the French Quarter and into Mid City, past Bayou St. John, a hand pushed the grass, still wet from heavy rain, back and forth, searching, pausing, looking for something, revealing a slug in the soft mud. “Slug,” cried the 12-year-old Melissa, with the full-throated assurance that might become the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the turn of the grand stairway of the Louvre. The returning sun pulled blonde highlights from her long, straight, light brown hair, and caught her eyes in a way that made it hard to tell if they were hazel or brown or green or all three. Her high cheekbones gave her an elegant look, and combined with her thin lips and assertive expression, presented a slightly imperious air.
“Lizard,” shrieked her 10-year old sister, Annie, as a fat green lizard the size of a Cuban cigar scrambled from a juniper bush to the clapboards of a house and kept running. Annie’s eyes and shoulder-length wavy hair were a definite dark brown. Her face was a softer and rounder than Melissa’s, and the shade of brown in her eyes was rich and deep, and pulled you in like dark pools.
“That’s two slugs and a lizard for me and one lizard for you,” said Melissa more matter-of-factly. “Butterfly,” said Annie quietly, as just such a little beast floated up from the same patch of juniper. “Butterflies don’t count,” said Melissa, her matter-of-factness turning to finality.
“Why not?” Annie shouted, called back into the moment. “You’re just making up the rules so you win.”
“That’s always been the rule.”
While the two sisters pondered the next turn in this great disquisition, Annie, luckily, fatefully, unluckily, or what have you, spotted a boy observing them from two houses down on the crumpled sidewalk. In the swift movements of the unconscious, she pondered whose side he might come down on. He appeared older than Annie, but younger than Melissa, active but a little shy, fully physical but not with that callous physicality that leads some boys to torture crickets or frogs. That he was African-American, as about a third of the residents in the neighborhood were, did not fully register into her assessment. The suburban subdivision where Annie and Melissa had lived with their dad until his recent redeployment shifted them to Grandma in Mid City was nearly all white, but Annie, even unconsciously, could not calculate how this demographic curiosity would bear upon the relative weight of lizards, slugs, and butterflies.
But it was Melissa who spoke first: “Hey, what’s your name?”
The boy came up shyly but with unstifled curiosity and with an easy, jubilant springiness about his gait, as if ready to bounce right or left or leap to the moon if something interesting should suddenly happen there.
“Cedric, what’s yours?”
His black hair, tight curled and close cropped, had a slightly reddish patina when the sun hit it at just the right angle. His eyes, wide and even in his oval face, were large brown almonds, warm and appealing. They had also a trace of something doleful about them, and perhaps for that reason when he smiled the whole world seemed to light up, despite a chip in one of his two front teeth.
“I’m Melissa. And this is my sister Annie.”
Annie noodled against Melissa. “Ask him if butterflies count?”
Melissa gestured with her arm, which seemed all elbows at the moment, as if to keep Annie away.
“So, Cedric, we were counting slugs and lizards, which come out after the rain.” And then, staring at Annie, “UNLIKE BUTTERFLIES…”
“Don’t say it like that,” Annie murmured, her little round face curling into something between a rage and a whimper. “You’re just trying to make him take your side.”
Cedric, eager to socialize but reticent, was a little discombobulated about how to navigate this dispute. He hiked up his pants nervously.
“I like butterflies,” he said, and the three began walking down the wet sidewalk.
“See Melissa!” cried Annie. “Butterflies count!”
“Liking something doesn’t mean it counts,” replied Melissa academically.
Cedric had already lost interest in what counts in this little zoological economy. He saw a lizard and had to chase it, catching it against a broken piece of wood against a house. The lizard froze under his gentle grasp and turned its head to face the colossus that now controlled its fate. But it was the wood that caught the attention of the three kids. It was not just any piece of wood. It was probably a relic of the Great Southern Lumber Company that opened in Bogalusa, Louisiana, in the early 1900s, once the largest sawmill in the world. But more than that, it was an old cracked sign that said, “MARIGNY.” And that could only mean one thing. This was the haunted house of the late Mr. Robert Marigny. Cedric released the lizard in trepidation.
“That’s it,” said Melissa.
“That’s what?” asked Cedric, forgetting just about everything.
“The Robert Marigny house.”
“I heard there’s a ghost in there,” added Annie.
“I heard there’s a million ghosts”: thus, Cedric, recovered.
The awe-drenched moment for these three youngsters, considerable as it was, could not survive the familiar melody of tinny chimes jingling in from pipes and valves of a small vehicle turning the corner.
“Hey, the ice cream truck,” shouted Melissa. “Let’s go.” And all was again forgotten as they chased down the truck, not quite sure what to do once they caught it.
“Got any money,” Melissa poked at Annie.
“How would I have any money?” asked Annie, legitimately.
Cedric was sensitive to the pressure as the two girls turned to him. He pulled some coins hopefully from his pocket. “I got 42 cents.”
As our three disillusioned young heroes walked hangdog away from the ice cream truck, they did not look back at the Robert Marigny house. Had they done so, they would have seen a figure that was not there a moment ago: a gaunt black man not far from the broken piece of wood, monumentally still, gazing fiercely at the house.