The people of New Orleans with French, Spanish, Indian, and Black legacies mixed in a tumble of cultures often live cheek by jowl on tight, narrow streets. Their very breath is a living fusion of their history, their blood the blood of pirates, prisoners, pilgrims, adventurers, mercenaries, scoundrels, speculators, royalty and slaves. Within their breasts beats the hearts of all their forebears, the past barely concealed beneath the surface of present memory, and it can be felt in the scorching summer day, the mellow nights and in the cool mists and fogs that hang low on the back ways and hard against the levee at daybreak. It can be heard in the cacophony of the streets, the midnight bark of dogs, the crow of roosters, and the sounds from the river. The people are at one with all this and the tastes and smells of coffee and chicory, spices, sauce piquante and cold beer, crawfish and gumbo. The stilled passion of the ages sleep, sated with the fatness of the present. But it is an uneasy sleep. Everyone there feels it, knows it, and embraces the togetherness of their past and present as a blessing.
The tired whore counted out four hundred dollars in tens and twenties and laid them on the desk. She sat back and said, “That’s all I got right now.”
Jack Chandler looked at the stack of rumpled bills for a moment and raised his eyes to his client. “You can pay the other hundred later, Queenie,” ruefully thinking any other lawyer would charge three times that to defend her on the petty theft charge. He looked at his watch. It was after midnight.
She stood regally and smoothed her dress as she looked down at Jack. “Sorry I bothered you so late. I had a lengthy engagement. I’ll have the rest tomorrow.”
“You’re good for it,” he said, walking her to the door. She always paid and always came back.
Jack retrieved her umbrella from the hat tree in the hall. “It’s pouring out there. Will you be okay? Let me call a taxi.”
Queenie turned fully around and faced Jack. She grasped his hand in her long, cool fingers and looked him straight in the eye. She broke into a smile that Jack knew was the real paycheck for helping people like this.
“Thanks for the thought, honey,” she said. “Queenie’s always fine. You know, you don’t charge enough. That’s why you ain’t rich. See you tomorrow.”
Shaking his head at the grim truth of her observation, Jack watched her unfurl the umbrella and step into the deluge that made a river out of Royal Street. He returned to his desk, slumped into his chair, and took a deep drag from the cigarette he had left steaming in the ash tray.
The phone rang.
“Not another one,” he groaned.
It kept ringing until he wearily answered. He immediately became alert when he heard his housekeeper’s frantic voice.
“Lawyer Jack,” she wailed, “they killed her! She didn’t commit suicide. I swear to God she didn’t. They killed her!”
“Hang on, Estelle,” Jack interrupted, “Who are you talkin’ about? Who killed who?”
Estelle choked down her racking sobs and gasped, “My baby. Dawn Marie. She’s dead! They killed her! Oh my God! Oh my God!”
“Who killed her, Estelle?”
“I don’t know. They just called and said she was down at Charity Morgue–to come identify her. Oh my lord!”
“What did they say? What happened?”
“They said she was arrested for shopliftin’ down by Holmses Department Store, and they put her into Juvenile Detention and she killed herself. She ain’t done no such thing, lawyer Jack. Oh, Lordy, Lordy!”
Fighting the impulse to be pulled into Estelle’s torrential emotion, Jack asked, “When’re you goin’ to Charity?”
“Me’n Martin, we goin’ right now. I ain’t waitin’ another minute.”
“You ain’t goin’ without me. Come by here first,” Jack ordered, frowning into the phone. “I’ll go with you, okay?”
“Anything you say, Lawyer Jack. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. She’s my only baby.”
“Estelle, listen to me. Pick me up on the way, you hear?”
“Yessir, Lawyer Jack. We’ll be there.”
Jack hung up and stubbed out the smoldering butt that had burned too short to hold. Pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes didn’t relieve the pressure swelling in there. He let out a long sigh. The call from his housekeeper echoed in his head as he stared numbly at the midnight rain beating against the windows of his French Quarter law office.
It was one in the morning and he was going to the morgue.
Page 11, Chapter 2
Knowing it was too early to reach anybody, Jack decided a walk might shake the strange feeling he was experiencing. He pulled on a pair of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, then headed down Royal Street.
The streets were wet and the Quarter slowly woke to an overcast, muggy day. The air was oppressively still. There was little movement so early in the day, and Jack’s spirits lifted as he briskly walked over the uneven, broken sidewalks, allowing the streets to work their spell.
All day the rays of the swollen summer sun licks the Quarter like a mother dog licks her puppies, and the steamy breath of the river fuses with the flatulence of the primeval ooze snoring just below the broken pavements. In the evening, after these elementals punch out following a hard day’s work at suffocating the city, the residents sit on their stoops or balconies and talk, laugh, drink, and fan the steeping day into steeping night.
Behind those closed, cypress casement shutters, denizens of the Quarter live their lives as private as hermits in the north woods. Jack never considered living anywhere else, where everyone’s conduct had to meet certain “normal” standards. He was as normal as any man, but he wouldn’t abide anyone telling him how he should live. Yet he didn’t have the thoroughbred New Orleanean viewpoint that there were only two places in the world: New Orleans and some place totally ridiculous.
He smiled at the Quarter’s pungent fragrance, feeling a deep affinity for its deliberate refusal to join the twentieth century and move in the stream of time. It’s probably as close to Paris as I’m gonna get, he thought.
Jack stopped at the French Market along Decatur, where the vendors were restocking their stalls with exotic fruits and vegetables. A bouquet of bananas, turnips, potatoes, mangoes, huge garlands of garlic, pineapples and cantaloupes blended with the smells of the river just behind the levee.
The big ferry, carrying automobile traffic across the river, blew its sonorous steam whistle, and the ponderous bells of the Saint Louis Cathedral chimed the hour.
They turned left on Bourbon, where packs of little black boys tap danced on the sidewalks around hats that collected oddments of change. A one man band sat on a wooden Coca-Cola crate and tooted “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans,” on his kazoo. Honkeytonk pianos thumped and banjos plunked in several bars, and the keening clarinets and trumpets of jazz bands came from every direction.
Bourbon has ten blocks of strip joints, bars,cheap gift shops, ambulating whores and transvestites, packed each night with drunks and cavorting conventioneers. Bourbon is a land of make believe where you can experience riskless degradation–a one time shot at the shoddy and sordid without getting any on you. An ersatz depravity, it’s a tiny cosmos of innocuous shadows of sin, where you can smell, taste, feel and walk through the seemingly seamy and wild side and return to Witchita to wink knowingly at friends who can only guess what wickedness you had known in the Big Easy. But real wickedness is available if wanted, for a price.