Friday was a good day to see Betsy,
to go to bed and let her make him nap,
stay for oysters Rockefeller, the dish
Antoine’s was famous for, but she knew how
the kitchen worked, she had a client there,
and talk for dessert. She asked where he was
staying. She seemed a little shocked. Why not
move in here? The madam has a good room
for you to work in, she loved your mother,
I’ll ask her, I bet she says, Why, of course!
He walked around all afternoon, alone
but not in his head. Lisa was waiting
in Chicago. And somewhere, out in those
Elysian Fields was Mama Nell, her coffin
like an ark perched between lake and river,
or maybe whisked by the Mississippi
out to sea . . . he would do right even if
others thought he was wrong. Like Lisa would
if she had no one new yet she could love.
He wasn’t going anywhere, he knew
this was where he was and where he would stay.
He had dinner at a nondescript place,
tried to find Larry & Katz but couldn’t,
he must have forgotten the way Big John
took him all three times he was here before.
He was walking past a house, shotgun shacks
they called them, and heard a man scream, You whore!
and a woman sobbing so audibly
he paused a moment, wanting to go in
and help her, then he thought better of it,
turned the corner and there it was, the place
called Larry & Katz, still with the boxes
of whiskey filling up the floor, bar stools
for white people to drink inside, the wall
window raised to sell to the black people
who stayed outside, or that’s how it was once,
the first time, Big John of Alabama,
formerly of the CIA and loved
Allen Dulles, he said, like a father,
Kolbs’ headwaiter: Try the Wiener schnitzel,
he suggested, and they did, and Betty
enjoyed it most, he could have had tacos,
enchiladas, refritos, and gone home
happy–but he was not home, and Big John
met them on Canal and showed them the sights,
Larry & Katz among them. Now black men
and women sat on the bar stools with whites.
There were two men working behind the bar.
One of them he recognized, the other
was new to him. But where was the woman?
He drank chicory, talked to the black man
next to him, learned just how tough the times were,
how many of his kin had been wiped out
in the flood, others gone off to someplace
he was waiting to hear from, to know they
wanted to come home, and he would help them
come home. The man looked him square in the eye
and asked what was wrong with the president
who said he gave a damn and then didn’t,
never sent us a penny he promised . . .
He walked the long way back, he didn’t care.
He might get mugged but he had no money
or not enough to turn in a night’s work
for any thief, and pretty soon was back
on Canal, walked down Bourbon, saw Ray Fox,
who wanted to close up early, get home
and be with his grandkids, in town only
for the weekend. He told Ray he was fine
when he asked, and no, no word of Mama’s
coffin–saying Mama because Ray did . . .
And back in Hotel HOTEL he called her,
she was gone, he guessed, there was no answer,
she should have received what he mailed Monday,
the card with its nondescript photograph
of the city, as bland as tonight’s food . . .
He let the phone ring, nothing else to do,
and put the receiver on the table
next to the bed, but so he could hear it
ringing and let it set the beat to which
he brought marimbas in, then drums, then horns.
He woke at three o’clock in the morning,
the real dark night of the soul, someone said,
and the phone was dead. He got up and dressed
and walked past the sleeping night clerk, and out
the door. He didn’t have anything there
to go back for. Let it all stay, to pay
the bill. He walked all the way to St. Charles,
took a cab because there was no streetcar,
directed the driver to the alley,
and entered, as usual, the back door.
(14 January 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander