Two young women from California travel to New Orleans in search of redemption after the death of their mother. Carolee thinks she will show her little sister the world, but what they find in the barrooms of the French Quarter at Mardi Gras is more than they know how to handle, or could have imagined back home. This is the tenth chapter of my novel Thirsty Work.
It was worse inside than it looked through the window. Everything was covered with a greasy layer of dirt. But Cathy and I began to unload our bags and pile them on the sofa anyway, swept up in the ritual of arrival. “We can always move out again tomorrow,” I told myself. I could see there would be no way to talk Cathy out of staying that first night. Carl was helping her carry in her bundles. After a three-day trip of mostly sullen silence, she was smiling at every word.
“Well,” I huffed to myself. “It didn’t take her long to forget Rick and Stockton.” But the replacement wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Carl was older, unknown, and more dangerous than the boys Cathy hung out with back home.
“Where should we sleep?” I asked the room at large when I brought in our sleeping bags.
“Cathy can share my bed,” Carl grinned.
“Thanks anyway,” I said with a casualness that I didn’t feel, “but Cathy and I will sleep together.”
Cathy rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mama,” she said in a baby doll voice. Carl chuckled. Now the two of them were in league against me.
“You can use my mattress if you want,” Howard suggested. “I don’t mind sleeping on the floor.” I felt a wash of relief.
“Thanks.” I lightly touched his hand. “That’s nice of you.”
Howard dragged a big striped mattress in from the second room. It wasn’t, I noticed unhappily, the one with the woman’s nightgown on top. So that was probably Doug’s. I made a relatively clean nest of sleeping bags in one corner. Then I put on my best “Earth Mother” voice and asked about dinner. Would anybody be hungry if I cooked us some?
“Dinner? What’s dinner?” Carl said goofily. “I don’t think anybody has cooked me dinner in years.”
“Poor baby,” Cathy smiled.
“I thought I’d just make a little spaghetti,” I said as if I had done it 1,000 times. “But I haven’t got much in the car. Is there a grocery store around here?”
“There’s a Schwegman’s. Just a few blocks down Rampart.”
“Okay. Let me just go check the cupboards and then I’ll make a list.”
In the kitchen, I found a tiny, rusted refrigerator with nothing but a six pack of beer inside. That made the shopping list easy. We needed everything. “Whoever belongs to that white, silky nightie isn’t doing a very good job keeping Doug fed,” I thought smugly. I pictured him coming home to the good smells of spaghetti and garlic bread emanating from the kitchen. I knew the food would remind him that I was a rare and valuable gem. And it couldn’t hurt my “most amazing woman” status if I tidied up a bit. I began to form a plan.
“Is there a broom around here?” I asked the guys back in the living room.
Carl and Howard looked at each other blankly, shook their heads.
“What about a mop?”
“No, ma’am. No mop.”
“Well, Jesus. This place wouldn’t be half bad if it was just a little cleaner.”
“What’s wrong with this place?” Carl looked at me innocently. “Shit, it looks great to me. Tell you what. Why don’t you go over to Schwegmann’s and buy yourself a mop? And some dish soap and floor soap and people soap too. I think I’m getting a little crusty in the armpits. I’m sure they have everything you need to get this place in ship shape.” His eyes glinted in the dark room.
“I don’t know,” I said uncertainly. “How far away is Schwegmann’s?” I didn’t want to leave Cathy alone with Carl. Come to think of it, I didn’t want her to come with me either. What if all our stuff was gone when we got back? I looked at Howard, as if he might have the answer. He looked back at me impassively. Obviously, he didn’t understand my hesitation. Maybe I was just being silly, after all.
“It’s just two blocks down Rampart on St. Anthony,” Carl said. “It won’t take you ten minutes to get there and back. Go on! Get your broom! We’ll take good care of Cathy — won’t we Howard?” he winked at his buddy.
“Sure we will,” Howard said calmly. “I think it’s a good idea to clean this place up a little,” he gave me an approving smile. “I’ll go with you and show you the way if you want me to.”
Now my fears vanished. This was a perfectly nice man. I’d like him to come to the store with me, that would be nice — but I’d rather he stay behind to chaperone Cathy and Carl. “Oh, that’s all right,” I said. “Thanks anyway. Just draw me a little map so I don’t get lost and never come back,” I laughed.
“We wouldn’t want that,” Carl said as he looked sideways at Cathy. “That would be a horrible thing.” I winced when she laughed.
Outside the dark flat, the street seemed too bright for evening. Cars rushed past me on Rampart Street with sun glinting off their chrome. I felt self conscious as I walked the three blocks to the store, surreptitiously checking my tiny map. Could people tell I was a stranger here? Did my clothes look out of place? My hair? I felt vaguely apprehensive as I approached the supermarket, a big brown building with no windows to see inside. The word “Schwegman’s” stood out in big yellow letters across the front wall. The “m” had fallen off, but the faded paint behind it revealed the outline. At least I knew this was the right place — the place Carl had sent me. Litter skittered across the pavement. Some of the cars in the lot were damaged. A white woman in white shorts and brown, greasy hair dragged a crying child behind her. An older black man with white hair walked very slowly toward the door.
Inside, the store was different than the supermarkets I was used to — big glass buildings where people were in always in a hurry and the air conditioning was always on. Here people meandered, aimless, talking to the other shoppers, as if they had no other appointments. Two big ceiling fans made air currents for flies.
I picked up some spaghetti for dinner, a loaf of French bread, a cube of butter, a can of sauce. I could still see myself making a big, delicious meal for everyone back at the flat; creating a homey place amidst the rubble; impressing Doug. “All that place needs is a woman’s touch,” I reassured myself warmly, mimicking the plot of countless Doris Day movies I had watched on TV as a child, not really tracking that at just-turned 20-years-old, I was barely a woman myself. I picked up a scrub brush and a can of Ajax. After looking down every aisle for a mop, I approached the woman at the register. “Excuse me, can you tell me where to find the mops?” I asked while she bagged up a customer.
She turned her head to look at me, but said nothing.
“Do you have mops?” I asked again, more sweetly, waiting a few seconds for her response.
“You know — Mops.” I gripped my hands around an imaginary mop handle and pretended to mop the floor. She still looked at me blankly, as if I was speaking a foreign language. I couldn’t interpret her expression. Was she angry with me? Had I been rude in some way? Then she looked at the two people waiting in line and shrugged.
“Oh, MOPS!” said one man, as if he just now understood me. “Mops!” He nodded vigorously and smiled, mimicking my pantomime of mopping the floor.
“They back in the corner by the wall.” He waved his hand overhead, sending me off to the far reaches of the building. I hesitated at the end of one of the aisles. “Way, way back,” he shouted at me and nodded his encouragement.
As I walked alone to the back of the store, I passed a small card table covered with a stained tablecloth. On top was arrayed a small pile of shriveled oranges, a bunch of spotted bananas, a pancake flipper, a can opener and a handful of limp celery. I’d never seen anything like that in the grocery stories back home. It seemed like I was in another country. When I finally brought my purchases up to the cash register, I was relieved that my money was good.