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I think it is impossible to change the world unless you are truly evil and so mad for control you never sleep. And it's ridiculous to try to change yourself at all. Scientists have studied identical twins who feel pain in the gut at the same time, as if everything were laid out from the moment they were conceived. Sometimes I figure all you can do is watch yourself, as if you're viewing a simple, dull film; eventually you find out what was going to happen. Unless death catches you by surprise.
So I go to City Council meetings. I haven't missed one in four years, not even for a case of B-type influenza, which I probably picked up from a crowd in the City Council chambers. Sitting in those meetings is the only way I can pretend to feel any breezes of serendipity. Somewhere between the global and the personal, they play out the grandest battles of silliness, and I like to guess at them. When I was twenty-three I lived in Washington, D.C., and sat in regularly on the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives. But they mumbled and shuffled a lot, and you couldn't see their eyes unless they passed close by. It was good to learn about carcinogens in the Iowa corn after the drought and how the turnips in western Montana swelled like giant melons for years after Mount Saint Helens blew, and I believed money should be set aside to study such matters, but I couldn't see the congressmen's eyes. So I came home to New Orleans.
Maxim denies it, but we saw each other for the first time at a New Orleans City Council meeting. It had been going on for four hours, a Thursday, lastOctober, with no break, and the chamber was full of angry people, all brimming with piss and hunger. It was shaping up to be one of the best, with a chance of violence. Whenever you pit selfless green people against hard men and harder women, someone is going to break out and charge across the room with fists flying. The ones who usually broke were the ones who saw themselves as selfless, who were thinking about a fine earth or a lovely city that would be here after they were dead; that meant a lot more to them than the merchant worries of the businessmen. The businessmen could cut their losses, start over, enjoy the process of proving something again.
This time they were fighting over gambling, and I knew what point they were all missing. I felt the way I'd felt in fourth grade, when I'd answered so many questions correctly that the teacher had refused to call on me, and so I'd sat shimmering in my place, waiting to hear someone else figure out what I already knew.
The City Council was willing to line up gambling boats all along the riverfront docks, so each night men in suits could unload sacks of money the way longshoremen unload coffee. The green people wanted clean parks alongside the filthy river, and the short, oily Greek and Indian businessmen wanted gamblers everywhere in the French Quarter, spilling dollars into their shops. They were equally selfish, the green people and the men who sold T-shirts in the front and hookahs in the back of their stores. They all wanted something to show off.
I was considering running over to the public library to do some fast reading so I could get up with popular quotes and tell them all why they were wrong, when he came forward to take the microphone. "Dr. Maximilian Walters, pastor of Uptown United Methodist Church," he said.
He was the whitest man I'd ever seen. I was in the first row of the left section, so I could see his eyes. His hair was silver, his skin as pale as a sunless child's, his eyes white-gray. He could have gone to any dark continent two hundred years ago and startled the aborigines.
He smiled in Mrs. Legendre's direction, having taken the microphone after her, and his teeth were straight and white, too. Mrs. Legendre was a tiny Junior League-haircut woman with the power only tiny women and men can have to come up fierce and unassailable. Mrs. Legendre wanted no gambling boats along the entire stretch of the river where the public School of Music and Dance sat. "Before I begin," he said, "I'd just like to remind Mrs. Legendre that everyone in the arts is a gambler." She gave him a closed-lipped smile, more seductive than appreciative. I sat up taller in my seat. Mrs. Legendre had rich, streaky hair like mine, but I was striking where she was merely serious.
He threw a single phrase at the City Council, and I was undone, though half of them were swiveled around in their chairs talking on telephones. They made me furious doing that, though sometimes they do it when a speaker deserves rudeness. The process of government isn't clean if every word isn't heard. "You are all mired in details that make no difference," he said.
He said nothing then, and the noise level dropped. He waited. "You are all mired in details that make no difference." His voice was low and almost sad, and the room became a more polite place. He repeated himself once more, then stepped back from the microphone as if he were going to return to his seat.
"Go on, sir," the councilwoman from my district said. I hadn't voted for her in the last election; she was too condescending.
"John Wesley," he said, as if anyone in the room other than me knew who John Wesley was. "John Wesley abhorred gambling, and so people in our church are supposed to abhor gambling, too. But John Wesley didn't pass any particular judgments on gambling; he hated gambling because right then, a couple of hundred years ago, all the poor coal miners blew their pay on it. Now I've sorted out the difference between gambling as sin and gambling as good social policy. But you haven't. Don't tell me you have; you haven't. I hear it. Some of you have been downright shrill up here." I looked toward Mrs. Legendre, but she was listening as if in a thrall that only let through what made her want him. "If it's sin, don't have it at all. If it's good social policy, have it on every street corner. A church on one corner, a bar on another, a sweetshop on a third, a casino on the fourth. Line the river with docks for gambling boats. All the way to Baton Rouge. Make every risk-taker in the entire United States feel he has to come down here, right now. With all his money, of course. You want bright, empty parks? How about thousands of trumpet players and tap dancers who can't earn a living? You want the streets filled with fools who'll buy whatever you feel like selling them? It's all one and the same.
"You're mired down in details. And details don't make a difference. Thank you," he said softly and walked slowly away.
I began to applaud, and there was no other sound in the chambers. Perhaps he sat next to me because of the clapping. But I think all along he knew I was there, waiting for the right answer, knew it was time to come to me. He settled gently into his seat, and I continued to clap, my hands in front of his face, for a few seconds. Then the din and rudeness started up again in the room. "You were magnificent," I whispered, a thrill running down me.
He patted my hand, then with one swift movement pushed himself out of his seat from the armrests. "See you later," he said, not looking back. He slipped out the side exit.
I knew then how much he was going to want me. How much he was going to battle with his holy behavior until he gave in. He probably has told everyone—his wife and that damn Ellis Ryan and the police and anyone who'd listen—that he has no recollection of that day he went before the City Council—or was it the City Planning Commission? Or the Zoning Board? Or the Ecumenical Council? They all run together in his mind after a while—he goes before whomever so frequently, on so many matters, that no details stand out. He is lying. I sat in that same seat, front row, third from the aisle on the left side, and I delicately stroked my hand where he'd touched it until the City Council adjourned for the day, at 9:46 that evening. I remember everything.
When I was ten, my mother and father died in the crash of Eastern Flight 66, and for reasons I've never understood my grandfather sent Naomi to tell me. I suppose he had a lot of business to take care of right away. My family will end with me on both sides, a daughter of only children whose parents themselves were only children. That's a great deal of money and genetic potential to filter down to a single individual.
Naomi had told my grandfather she could drive, and he told her to take my father's Mercedes and go get me in Tennessee. Naomi was twenty-three years old, and she could keep a car on the road all right, even at high speeds, but she couldn't read anything that hadn't appeared in the Scott-Foresman primer, so it took her three days to get within a hundred miles of my sleepaway camp. No one had told Mrs. Carlton, the director, she was coming, and when Naomi called collect from the side of the highway, Mrs. Carlton refused to accept the charges. Naomi tried again, this time person-to-person to me. Mrs. Carlton told the operator to hold and waddled on her stocky, unfit legs all the way up to my cabin. "Do you have a friend named Naomi? Who likes to talk like a Negro?" she said to me. It was rest period, and the seven other girls in the cabin strained to listen from their bunks. It was the first time rest period had been interrupted.
"We have a housekeeper named Naomi. And she's black."
"Ah," she said, wisdom in her voice. "Girls generally don't try tricks like that until they're thirteen." I shrugged. Mrs. Carlton put her finger to her lips, as if no one had noticed her terrible presence, and motioned me to follow her.
"This had better be good," she said when we were in her office, her hand covering the phone receiver as she held it out in front of her. It was a heavy black desk model, the paint rubbed off at the edges. She put the phone to her ear, then pulled it away and looked at it, as if some tiny demon had slipped a slender feather out of the earpiece and tickled her eardrum. "Hung up," she said, slamming it into the cradle. It rang again, and I sprang for it. I'd had time, going down the hill behind her, to have decided that my parents, one or both, or my grandfather, or all three were dead. I was sure it was my parents, because they went to New York too often for no reason. My heart was racing so fast that it sent every drop of blood in my body up to my head, and I was heavy-brained and trembling with a funny sort of excitement. "Where are you, Naomi?" I said into the phone.
"Damn if I know. Tennessee, but that's about it." I could hear truck traffic in the background.
"Do you accept the charges?" the operator said.
"Yeh, yeh, yeh," I said, an adult in that split second, without trying. "What happened?"
"Not supposed to tell you until I get there. Tell me how I get there."
I lost logic. I was in Tennessee, and Naomi was in Tennessee, and I had to see her right then, but I was ten years old and knew nothing more about the roadways up there in the mountains than the landmarks I'd passed coming in. A child's landmarks—a Dairy Queen, a billboard for Ruby Falls. Naomi was never going to find me. "I don't know where I am, for God's sake," I said. "Tell me what happened, because you're never going to get here." I was close to screaming.
Mrs. Carlton took the phone away from me. "What is this all about?" she said, the way rich women were supposed to talk to maids. She nodded, impatient. "Beg pardon?" she said, nodding again. "So give me your location." Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. "I have to know more than that." After a minute she covered the receiver with her hand. "This is all very unfortunate," she said.
"Somebody's dead," I said.
"Shh, shh. She's getting the man at the gas station. Of all things."
It took her ten minutes to put Naomi onto the road that would bring her within a couple of miles of the camp, but that was as far as she could get without having to say, "Now stop the fussing, or you're never going to get here." I had time to race forward mentally, to push my parents into a distant haze from which something new and better might emerge. Joys and attentions could come instead. Going to camp already had taught me how to push people away through geography. With camp it had been simple: to tamp down the ache of not being tended, I asked a girl from home to mail me dozens of sticks of chewing gum wrapped in the Sunday Times-Picayune. With terror at the death of my parents, I could shift a grim fantasy to a splendid one, go from sadness that my mother would never see the tray I was painting for her in the crafts hut to a rush of joy, knowing I would become a treasure at school. Friends would be fascinated with me for having no parents, and I would get party invitations and valentines from everyone. They'd walk in a protective circle around me at school, stroking my hair. And the pretty teachers would hug me, give me extra chances. My mother would have taken the tray and shoved it into the back of the butler's pantry. She preferred the finest things; that's why she was always dragging my father onto a plane to Dallas or New York.
Mrs. Carlton was going to wait two hours, then go up to the junction in the camp van and wait for Naomi. I almost said that I wanted to go, but I'd have had to spend two hours with Mrs. Carlton, waiting, then untold amounts of time sitting in the van at the side of a two-lane undivided highway, straining, looking for a familiar car, answering polite questions from Mrs. Carlton, who knew how to run a business but didn't know what to say to young girls. She'd jump out and shush Naomi, and I wouldn't get to ride in with her, wouldn't find out why she was there until she was inside the camp property. I told Mrs. Carlton I had campcraft after rest period. "And horseback riding after that. And I forget what after that. Oh, swimming." That schedule required a lot of clothes changing, a lot of jogging from one end of the camp to the other, and I sniffled.
"Look, you have a good afternoon," Mrs. Carlton said, and I heard her sigh heavily as she gently prodded me out of her office. Annoyance that comes of missing a nap was in that sigh.
I didn't worry that afternoon. I told my campcraft counselor I thought my parents were dead, and she looked at me queerly; she was nineteen, not yet reverent about parents, either. "You're weird, Eleanor," she said, then showed me how to hack a vee into a fat log.
"I might chop off all my toes," I said after a while of swinging the hatchet over one shoulder and then the other. I didn't like the idea of being weird, but I did like the idea of keeping her guessing. "I might chop off your toes."
"You're a little shit," she said pleasantly.
"No, I'm not," I said. She left me alone, maybe to get through the entire log before the hour was up, maybe to swing wrong and hit a major blood vessel. Sweating and furious, I quickly reached that satisfying final chop through the bark and into the dirt while another girl was still missing her log on half her swings.
Naomi came to me at the riding ring. A skinny black woman with the funk of the road all over her, standing at the rail and wondering what the hell white folks were going to do next with their money: I saw her as I rounded the far side of the ring, the saddle slapping my narrow buttocks while the horse trotted along and I paid no attention. I screamed her name, and the rest of the class, spine-straight and posting for all they were worth, stopped and turned to look at me. I jumped down, my foot catching in the stirrup so I landed on my back, and I left the horse standing there, curious about the first rule-breaking girl he'd ever carried.
I set out at a bowlegged run, jodhpurs chafing, ready to throw myself against Naomi so what she told me would be muffled and safe. But Mrs. Carlton was with her, and she held an arm out straight, palm forward, to bring me up short in front of Naomi. "Get that horse," she said to the riding instructor, then motioned me away from the ring, off toward a thicket alongside the path from the stable. I always associate the sour straw smell of horse pee and the acrid odor of preadolescence with the moment when I learned about my parents. "They gone, baby," Naomi said, and I flung my arms around her waist; Mrs. Carlton couldn't make up any more rules for me. I didn't cry, didn't sob, just nuzzled against Naomi's bony chest, squeezing my eyes shut so I wouldn't have to know anything. The smell of me and the horses mixed with Naomi's baby powder that had been sweated through so she had little balls of white paste on her brown skin. We stood there, my hold not letting anything happen, until Mrs. Carlton began shifting from one foot to the other, brushing ever so lightly against branches that overhung the path. Naomi was quick to pick up the signals of irritable, busy southern white women. "Where you want me to bring her?" Naomi said.
"We'll take her to her cabin," Mrs. Carlton said, as if Naomi were suddenly going to break loose in the camp and steal all the girls' radios.
"Where you cabin is?" Naomi said, leading me back downhill toward the main camp, filling the path with herself and me so Mrs. Carlton had no choice but to trail behind. I pointed ahead, my other arm around Naomi's waist, pulling her gently in this direction or that as we walked to my cabin. "You know how planes going to crash when they taking off and when they landing but not in between?" she said. "They plane get all the way to New York; then it crash. I figure they knowed they was going to die. You know you maybe going to die when the plane coming in for a landing." I shrugged a shoulder, steered Naomi up a path away from the lake, and I heard Mrs. Carlton leave from behind us, satisfied Naomi was silly enough to be harmless; she could go rest up before supper. She could take a small gamble with me since I had no parents who were going to wrangle with her about bad decisions.
When darkness wasn't far off, Mrs. Carlton made a decision that had little to do with me and much to do with good business. Every girl in that camp came from somewhere south of Maryland, and Mrs. Carlton had to be cautious about tales that'd go out in letters home. She saw Naomi as a contaminant. "I'll be frank. You wouldn't want me to be less than frank, right?" she said. Naomi and I were sitting together on the bunk below mine, and Mrs. Carlton was sitting across from us on another lower, her thick knees crossed so I could see the tops of her white socks under her slacks. Naomi nodded, tired and resigned. "All our colored help goes home at night. In fact, the only colored person I thinks ever been here at night's the little nurse we had last summer up in the infirmary. And I'm here to tell you she was on her feet all night. You understand?"
"Sure," Naomi said.
"No," I said, and Naomi told me to hush.
"Anyway," Mrs. Carlton said, tight-lipped, "if you'd like, I'll put Eleanor in the infirmary overnight, and you can stay up there with her. The chairs are quite comfortable. I've sat up in one more nights than I like to think." She gave us a hopeful little smile.
"You think maybe you could find me a hotel? I could use me a bath. And probably I been asleep maybe five hours since I been in New Orleans. Total. I could use me a bed, too." Naomi was using the voice she saved for answering the phone at our house. "Rushing residence," she'd say, practically crooning. And when it was someone calling for her, she'd break out of it. "Shoot, man, I told you don't be calling me a hundred time a day."
Mrs. Carlton said she could certainly come into the office and phone around. People can know things even when they haven't been told them outright, and Mrs. Carlton knew Naomi had no way of going through the Yellow Pages of the half-inch phone book. "Never mind. I can just drive around. Probably I passed a million hotels coming up here," Naomi said, patting my knee to reassure Mrs. Carlton. With a promise that my counselors would pack and ship my things, that Naomi could leave with me whenever she was up tomorrow, Mrs. Carlton rose to leave, bumping her head on the upper bunk, her eyes tearing. "Maybe she coming back," Naomi said, offering no sympathy.
"No, I'm absolutely not," I said, looking Mrs. Carlton straight in the watery eye.
No one spoke to me that evening, and I quietly packed my most private things into a duffel. I'd sneaked to the drugstore before I'd left home, spent a month's allowance on sanitary napkins, a pack of razors, and a can of deodorant. Those supplies were to cover all the shames of puberty, things no one would offer to tell me about. I'd only been at camp a few weeks, and I hadn't had the nerve to take them out, though the other girls displayed theirs with zest, shaving their bald underarms in the shower so everyone else could see. I wasn't ready to need those things, and they were still in the paper drugstore sack, under a pile of flannel shirts on my shelf. I packed only my panties and an extra pair of sandals. Clothes that little rich girls bought in bulk to spend two months in the Tennessee mountains were of no use in New Orleans. Any time of year, much less summer. I hoped my camp clothes, all from the list, would disappear. My mother had given the list to Naomi, sending her downtown to D. H. Holmes on the streetcar. Naomi in turn had handed the list to the salesclerk, who wanted to make no decisions on matters of taste. Everything was red, white, navy, or military green. Naomi had sewn a name tape in each item, embarrassing me mightily; I had wanted someone to write my name with an indelible laundry pen in the necks and waists of all my clothes. With neat, slanted, capital letters.
Naomi was going to sleep in the Mercedes a piece of a mile up the road from the camp gate. "You need me, you sneak out, I be to the right, down a little ways, just enough," she told me, and took my sleeping bag with her. I couldn't imagine needing her badly enough to travel that far in the dark. I was lying on top of my stripped bunk, wrapped in a navy wool blanket, so new it had no pills on it, and I shook with cold. I felt it most in my feet, and I could make no contortion that would put my feet into a warm fold where they would not be so icy. The cold became too much, and I felt the way I had once with a hundred-five-degree fever, panicked for warmth, sobbing for warmth. I sat up and curled myself into a ball, rubbing my upper arms with my hands, rocking back and forth. The girl who slept below me did nothing about the motion for a while and then, with a sleepy huff, rolled herself up in all her covers and slid down onto the floor. I knew I was going to be chilled for the rest of my life, and with that notion I sloughed off a thick layer of terrors. I wrapped the blanket around me, slid down to the floor on the side opposite the one on which my bunkmate was lying, scuffed into my sandals, and went looking for the Mercedes. In the dark, I was to be feared, hooded in almost-black, and I could run, making my own heat, until I found the car. I remembered from last winter that the car could warm up in three minutes, even idling. I ran fast, blanket trailing, picking up dust and pine needles, and nothing caught me.
Naomi wasn't in the car. All the doors were locked, and as I ran around from one door to another, struggling with the handles and banging on the windows, I knew only that I wasn't going back to my cabin, that if I didn't find Naomi I was going to throw the blanket off myself and die right there. I screamed her name, and I heard her say "Eleanor?" from a clearing about five yards from the road.
She was sitting huddled on top of my sleeping bag, which was unrolled but not unzipped, one corner folded back over her feet. "Baby, you scare me," she said.
"I'm not exactly unscared," I said. Naomi patted the spot next to herself, and when I sat beside her she began tugging the blanket away so that she could drape it over both of us. She let in pockets of cold air, but I could feel her musky warmth right away, and I wiggled up close to her. "Jesus, girl, I been freezing," she said. I suggested we get into the car, turn the heater on. "You ain't never heard of carbon monoxide? You sit in a running car, you could teetotally die. And I don't trust no car that's off, neither." She slipped her arm under mine, finding my pockets of warmth. Her arm was as cold as a dead person's, and I pushed it out. "We could leave. We could just go home," I said.
Naomi shook her head no. "The way I been figuring, you take a black girl, a white child, and a Mercedes-Benz, and you already got what look like a kidnapping. Going all the way through Mississippi ain't going to be no breeze anyhow, and I don't want that old cow calling up the state police after me." I giggled. "No, I got to get me some rest. And you got to kiss all those little friends goodbye. Tomorrow plenty enough time." At that she lay down her head on her big vinyl purse, holding me in spoons, as if I were a hot water bottle, and I wriggled around until my head lay on her arm, so I took in sour baby powder and ripeness with each breath.
I fell asleep, warm and sure, down into dreams. Naomi touched me, stroked my hair—she always had told me I had good hair, the kind of hair she'd always wanted when she was small, but the kind she'd never have, even with relaxers; I slid back down into my dream, I felt her fingers in my panties, I sat up, she didn't pull away, "What're you doing?" She didn't move her hand, slipped one of her dry, ashy fingers into my pink little crack and I mashed my knees together, and she licked the finger, over and over, as if it were dipped in sugar, getting it as wet as she could, she pressed my knees apart, easily, having more strength than I did, "You going to like this, you watch"; the wet finger slid back in, found my special bump. "Stop it."
She took my hand, pushed it down between us, into the nappiness in her drawers.
Naomi sat up, eyes round in a frown, as if I'd awakened her. Before she could speak, I ran, without the blanket, until I was back in my cabin. I washed my hands until morning, letting the water run, disturbing no one. The warm water took off the chill as each pulse of blood traveled through my hands. But at morning bells, I was still sure that my fingers stank, and I touched no one with my hands, said not a word, the rest of the hours that I was there.