I kept a pad of drawing paper behind the bar and sketched people from memory. Mostly my mother and her three daughters, my only siblings. Also, some characters I recalled from around the home place, all neighbors except for those who appeared nowhere but in my dreams when I was living there, and they were most visible to me now. Not much got done but work, as you can imagine: I was working full time now with one day a week off, when I took Betty out to picnic and make love and talk about what she was going to do when Johnny returned, when she planned to tell him she was in love with me. We also saw Ira and Adore at the café one night a week sometimes, but mostly one night every other week; we were too busy discovering one another when we had the time.
Ray had this wonderful woman who was a widow with two children, and he was wildly in love with her, and she with him, it seemed. He’d bring her by for dinner at the Absinthe House and afterward they’d cross the street for an Old Fashioned, for her, and a Jax for him. If the place was too busy they had one and left, but usually now, with the fall approaching, the clientele grew sparse before and after dinner time. A lot of drunken tourists were still coming around, but fewer now. And, as you know, dear reader, Hurricane Betsy was not far off.
I got a letter from home from one of my sisters saying our mother was ill and not expected to last and she would surely love to see me before she died. So I was gone when the hurricane arrived. And stayed to settle matters after the funeral and see to it our two most trustworthy neighbors would help the girls around the farm when they needed it, which wouldn’t be too often but still, it was good to get such assurance by the time I left.
The pumps had recovered the two weeks of flood waters Betsy unleashed. Gentilly, the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards, among other places (as you may remember), were inundated. Talk was the levees were intentionally breached to safeguard the Vieux Carre. LBJ came to town and swore the city would be protected by its levees next time: he would build new ones . . . The amazing part was how no one I encountered talked much about what had happened to them personally, though it was big when it was going on, or so I was led to believe. And forty years up the line, as you know, Katrina was waiting (by which time I would not be around to witness it either . . . )
Johnny was back in town almost as soon as I left, or so I learned later, and Betty was suddenly unavailable again, and after all that planning . . . Word was they spent the two weeks of Betsy at Mama Doll’s. Now I put myself into my work, taking over almost completely for Ray, to the point where he only worked one day a week, the day I took off and now I simply kept working every day and he seemed happy to be free, even raised my pay so I could move to a little better place, but I didn’t; for the time being there were too many memories in that dump, and I hadn’t sorted out yet what had happened while I was gone.
One night I entered the café where Ira was playing and Adore standing by the door, as she invariably did when he was on. I walked in and she took my arm and nodded to show me the table where Johnny and Betty were. Now, mind you, I hadn’t had a drink yet. I walked to their table and sat without looking at them and with no invitation. Neither one of them said a word. I sat with my back to them while the set continued to its finish.
Ira came over and Adore too. Johnny and Betty said hello to them and I turned around, as though surprised to see them sitting at the same table with me, telling Johnny I didn’t realize he was in California until I ran into Betty on the street one day. He said, Yeah, J. C., I heard all about it. Rather than ask what he’d heard, I let it go. Ira said I should come around to Adore’s and visit. Adore whispered she could fill me in on what was happening anywhere here. And with that Ira and Adore went outside to take the air. I turned to Johnny and said, Welcome back, and to Betty, I’m happy to see you happy. Neither responded. I didn’t give them much of a chance, I was gone that quick.
Outside the three of us had a great laugh and that night, after work, I went by Adore’s and recognized the place, like she’d said, by the chicken’s foot she’d have hanging on the door. We three got drunk and Ira and I told stories about the mountains and Adore one or two about growing up here. Oddly, Johnny and Betty didn’t come up again, not that night. About a month later Betty left town. No one knew why, but I, for one, guessed Johnny’s wife was somehow involved. I heard this from Ray, mind you, the last person I’d have expected to tell me, but then, he’d known Johnny far longer than either me or Betty. He believed Johnny’s wife was the reason. She wanted him back in San Francisco . . . so when Betty said she’d go back to Sausalito Johnny was all set to have things the way he wanted.
(11 November 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander