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 she knows how to handle, or could have imagined back home. This is the first chapter of my novel Thirsty Work.
My sisters gave me Cathy at our mother’s funeral, handed her over like a blouse they were returning because the material was scratchy and the sleeves didn’t fit. Their suggestion that I take her out of Stockton, introduce her to the world, somehow soften her texture and lengthen her reach, was followed by the first moment in the day when I wasn’t tasting ashes and rust.
There was a good turnout for the funeral party. The house was filled with relatives, neighbors, close and distant friends. Women crowded the narrow aisleway in the kitchen, putting yellow and white casserole trays to heat in the oven. The dining room table was covered with dishes they had brought: a thin, golden tea cake glazed with slivered almonds; tamale pie with hamburger, canned corn and black olives; fat, gluey macaroni and cheese; thick slices of honeyed ham. People leaned over the food, spooned it onto mismatched plates, spilled out through the back door into the parched lawn, talking loudly. Laughing.
Their laughter was abrasive after the stark ceremony, my mother’s drawn face on the tiny, white satin pillow. I floated through the party as if in a transparent bubble, watching, but not participating in the proceedings. I poured myself a hot brandy in a styrofoam cup and stood beneath the giant, old oak, which looked beautiful despite the round, rotten oak balls clustered on its branches, signs of sickness it dropped occasionally onto the yard.
It was winter, but the valley air was hot and dense, pressing down on my shoulders like an unwanted shawl. My navy blue, polyester sailor dress clung uncomfortably to my pantyhose, outlining my flat belly, my rounded thighs. My long, reddish brown hair hung in dark, damp clumps. I stood beneath the oak and sipped the soothing liquid, concentrating on the heat it spread slowly down my chest, trying not to notice my aunt scuttling toward me like a crab, her drink held aloft like a navigational tool.
“Your mother was a wonderful woman,” Aunt Vicki said when she finally reached me, only slightly slurring her words. Her big, wide-brimmed hat bobbed up and down in agreement. “You girls have no idea what she did for you. You’ll never know what she went through.” Vicki clutched my arm with sharp fingernails and pushed her face forward belligerently, as if encountering resistance, then peered pointedly over at my father. “She was a saint. A saint!”
I didn’t look at my father. I knew what Vicki thought of him. She had divorced his alcoholic brother Stuart years before. I focused instead on the brown lines outlining her perfectly straight, yellow teeth; the red lipstick traveling up tiny rivulets towards her sculpted nose; the small grains of face powder trapped beneath the fine, blonde facial hairs on her upper lip. I nodded. Tightened my lips in an imitation of a smile. What does she want from me? Walked away.
In the living room Grandma Lillian was holding court. She was wedged into the blue print swivel chair, her bulk in a blue print dress blending into the cushions. I heard her introducing a guest to Uncle Bernie. “I believe you know my son Bernard? Branch Manager at Haywood Bank and Trust?” Her tiny eyes sparkled with the glory of it. Grandma Lillian’s shiny black purse sat sentinel on the floor beside her. Inside it was the telegram from Aunt Viv in New Orleans. It had arrived that morning, addressed to the whole family. But after looking it over brusquely, Grandma Lillian quickly squirreled it away in her handbag, waving off our questions, not wanting to waste a moment discussing that willful, wayward daughter. The only one of her four offspring who wasn’t here. Except mom.
I passed through to the kitchen, filled my cup with water, put it in the microwave, screwed off the cap of the cheap brandy bottle. At 20 years old, I wasn’t legally allowed to drink in California. But the kitchen wall shielded me from Grandma’s disapproving stare. I knew no one else at the party would care.
Through the back wall of windows I could see Johnny laughing, entertaining a group of slightly manic men. My boyfriend was the center of attention: big, well-muscled, blonde, relaxed. His flat, wide face made him look simple, which he wasn’t. He met my eye, raised his chin, broke away to walk toward me. I turned abruptly and headed toward the back bathroom. He caught up with me in the laundry room. His hand fell on my shoulder like a traffic cop’s.
“Where are you going?”
I turned slowly, looked up into his hazel eyes. “To the bathroom,” I said dully, caught.
“I can’t believe you did that to me.”
“What? I have to pee.”
Johnny rolled his eyes, impatient with my stupidity. “I can’t believe you made me be a pall bearer.”
It was like I’d been slapped.
“What are you talking about?” I sputtered. “We needed six men. Who was I supposed to ask?”
Johnny shook his head, disgusted. He wasn’t falling for any crap. “I hated that,” he said. “It was the worst thing I ever had to do.” His face was tense with suppressed anger, the skin over his round cheekbones tight and red. His big body, usually comforting, seemed threatening, malevolent. I saw the way his jeans puckered around his hips and groin, the thin patina of old, washed-in peat in the folds.
I glowered at him for a moment, confused with rage. “Well, I’m really fucking sorry,” I finally spat. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take a big, stinking shit.” I felt his eyes on my back as I turned to twist the doorknob on the bathroom, began to panic when I realized it was locked.
“Anybody in there?” I jiggled the doorknob, knocked.
“Go away.” I recognized my little sister’s voice.
“Cathy, please let me in.” Two spots began to burn on my back, beneath my shoulder blades. I didn’t look back at Johnny.
“I’m busy.” Her voice was slurred.
I leaned my forehead against the door, pleaded with her in a low voice. “Cathy please. I want to come in. I’m drowning out here.”
My sister took a second to open the hollow, pressed wood door, a few more seconds to resume her position kneeling before the toilet seat. “I’m not feeling so good,” she explained. Vomited.
I swept inside, locked the door behind me, moved in front of the mirror, ignored the noise of retching: thick liquid dropping heavily into thin water in the bowl.
I looked at my face as if appraising a stranger, saw the way the dark freckles stood out against the blanched skin, the glittery snail trail of tears down my cheek. I felt myself growing calmer. The sound of retching was somehow soothing, appropriate. This is what everyone at the party should be doing, after all: moaning softly, clutching their heads, emptying their stomachs. I looked at my sister’s white-blond hair spilling over the porcelain, held back by long, delicate fingers, a tiny, birdlike wrist. The skinny white legs sticking out along the floor looked about eight years old. They were just 16. I backed up to the wall, slid slowly to the floor.
“I don’t feel so good either.”
Cathy’s head nodded.
There were just two of us, then. Not a house full of strangers. Just the two of us making our muffled sounds of mourning, mingling them together in the back bathroom.
My ugly little secret lodged hard in my throat.
By the time I left the bathroom, the party had thinned. People clustered around the front door, making their goodbyes. Grandma Lillian, the new official hostess, held each hand warmly, gave her blessing, reminded people of the charity she had chosen which would accept contributions in her daughter’s name. She would keep a list of contributors. Send it weekly to the family. See? See how many people sent money? Here’s a donation from the college president! You girls must write a thank you card.
In the backyard, my other sisters formed a group. Kendra, the eldest, chaired the proceedings in an exotic, feathered hat. Her thin, delicate hands flew around her face like birds, emphasizing some arcane but irrefutable point. Casey, the second child, stood attentively at Kendra’s side, her wholesome beauty muted by her appropriate black shift, her sensible shoes. Candace, the middle child, the designated Daddy’s girl, stood a step back, still bewildered by the swift death of her maternal adversary, her childish brown print empire dress straining incongruously over womanly breasts.
I approached them slowly, my white styrofoam cup held stiffly in front of my chest like a challenge, or a shield. They don’t know what happened, I thought as I moved toward them, the thick valley air muffling my path.
When I stepped up to the group, Kendra’s hand stopped mid-flight. Casey looked up, expectantly. I maneuvered my sluggish body next to Candace. It was this sister I knew best, had grown up tussling with, arguing against, trailing after, yearning toward. It was Candace’s stunned expression which sounded a responsive chord in my gut.
“Well,” Kendra began. “How are you doing, Carolee?”
“I’m okay.” I glanced around restlessly at the party’s remainders. I saw my father brandishing a drink from his white, plastic lawn chair; the amber liquid in his glass formed a small, inviting pool. Two of my brothers-in-law grouped around him gamely, trying to keep him entertained. Johnny was nowhere to be seen.
“How about Cathy? Where is she?”
“She’s in the bathroom. She’s not feeling well.”
“Oh?” Kendra raised a black-etched eyebrow. “She’s not drunk, is she?”
“She’s been drinking, yes. But I don’t think that’s what is making her sick.”
Seconds passed. Candace gave a concurring nod, transferred her weight from foot to foot. Casey squinted in the sun.
“I’m worried about her,” Kendra continued. “Now that mother’s gone, I don’t know how well she’ll do here, alone with Daddy. What are your plans? Are you going back to college?”
A thin vision of my college apartment formed in my foggy brain. I saw my single bed pushed against the wall in the living room. A spindly plant on the windowsill. The refrigerator stocked with bacon, eggs and beer. Four big stereo speakers stood on the floor, blaring music. I heard the barely muffled sounds of my roommates Marcy and Jack making love in the single bedroom.
“I don’t know,” I trailed off.
“You might think about taking a break,” Kendra suggested. “Maybe go on a trip. You could take Cathy with you. She’s planning to graduate from high school early, in January, isn’t she? It would do you both good to get away,” her eyes scanned the back wall of windows, as if searching for someone who was supposed to arrive hours before, “from all this.”
“That’s a great idea,” said Candace, responding reflexively to a call for action. Her shoulders squared and her chin jutted forward. “You’ve got to get Cathy out of this town. That crowd of losers she hangs out with is awful. Her boyfriend didn’t even show up today! Once she graduates, there’s no telling what could happen. She might even marry him.” A small shudder passed through the group.
“I’m sure she could use the attention,” Casey offered reasonably. “This whole thing has been hard on all of us. But especially on you, Carolee, and on Cathy — nursing mother these past months. And you’re the only one who can talk to Cathy. She won’t listen to any of us.”
The realization that I was being asked for help, that my long-admired older sisters thought me capable of a serious assignment, pushed aside the roiling fog in my brain, the vision of my college apartment, the image of my mother’s stone face on the tiny white satin pillow. They wouldn’t ask me if they knew, I faltered. But then twin ideas flowered suddenly like a plum tree in early March. If I can help Cathy, maybe I can be forgiven.
The old oak wheezed and creaked in a thin wind. Rain clouds moved regally into position overhead. “I might be able to do that,” I said aloud, nonchalantly. “Maybe Cathy and I could go on a trip together. See the world.”
As the group broke to take shelter in the house, I hung back in the gathering gray air. Daddy’s bright, white lawn chair stood empty in the now deserted yard. A paper plate leaned against a small tree trunk; two plump, rotting grapefruit huddled under its flimsy brim. The brisk feel of approaching rain opened up my nostrils, raised goosebumps on my arms, made my nipples erect. Looking around the big empty yard, it seemed I was seeing it for the first time in weeks. The grass was vivid green.