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Delzora Monroe arrived at work one morning and found the woman she worked for dead. The mild, humid New Orleans morning played a pleasant trick on the senses before the sun rose higher in the hard blue sky and the heat descended. Delzora went through the iron gate and walked up the red-brick path to the large Victorian house. The immaculate lawn was still covered with dew. She slid her feet across it, trying to skim along the very top of the thick St. Augustine to keep her Chinese canvas shoes from getting too wet as she went after the newspaper. It was lying underneath the azalea bushes, inside the zigzagged border of bricks, in the damp dirt.
"Damn nuisance," Delzora said under her breath. She talked a lot in this manner, to herself, keeping a running commentary on life's little aggravations, details gone awry.
Althea Dumondville had died in her sleep, but Delzora didn't learn that for a while because she didn't go upstairs right away. She did what she'd done six days a week for nearly thirty years. She picked up the paper, used a key to let herself into the house, went across the foyer, down the hallway, through the dining room, past the kitchen, to a utility room where she removed her wig and put it on a shelf next to the laundry detergent. What little hair she had left on her head stuck up in sparse tufts, a result of bad nutrition and wearing corn rows for too many years when she was young. She took off the flowered shift she was wearing, hung it on a hook on the back of the door, and put on a white uniform. She went into the kitchen and put a teabag on to boil while she swept the kitchen floor. When the water in the pot was tobacco-brown, she put a piece of bread in the toaster oven and got out the strawberry preserves. Then she sat at the kitchen table and had breakfast while she read the newspaper.
By this time Althea was usually in the kitchen harping on some damn thing or another. Delzora's attention strayed from the newspaper. She listened for sounds of life from upstairs but she heard none. She finished her toast, swallowed the rest of the tea, which was strong enough to raise the roof of her mouth and brought her plate and cup to the sink. While she stacked the dishes from the night before on the counter over the dishwasher and sprinkled cleanser around the sink, she talked gruffly to herself, just above a whisper, to express her aggravation at having to break her routine while she went upstairs to see why Althea wasn't downstairs being her usual aggravating self. She let the cleanser sit in the sink. At least it could be doing its work while she went to check on Althea.
When Delzora saw that her employer was dead she didn't become hysterical and run screaming from the room, nor did she faint or begin talking in tongues. She stood over the body of Althea, which was on its back in bed, and examined its face. She thought about the different corpses she'd seen—there had been many—and the various expressions left on their faces as their spirits passed out of this world. Most of the bodies she'd seen had been ravaged by some dread disease or were victims of some act of violence. It didn't seem odd that someone who had suffered a long illness would leave behind a body with an expression of peace and serenity, finally, on its face. Nor that the face of a victim of sudden and terrible violence would show the pain and terror of a violent end. An old man in the housing project had died in his sleep and was found with his mouth wide open, one last gasp, one final effort to delay a journey into the unknown.
But Delzora had never seen such an expression as was on Althea Dumondville's face. There was no way to describe it except smug. It was all in the curve of her mouth, since her eyes were closed. "There!" it said. Here lay the body of a woman who had no friends to mourn her, who'd chased off her only living blood relative, a niece, a good ten years ago. A woman who had reduced her life to nothing but a desire to be dead, one way to assure herself of finally getting something she wanted.
What had Althea Dumondville wanted? It puzzled Delzora. It wasn't right for someone in perfectly good health to want to die. Someone who had so many material possessions she lost track of them all but who still couldn't get what she wanted, whatever that was. Both women were roughly the same age, their early sixties, and both had lost their husbands when they were much younger. Yet Althea considered herself old, miserable, and alone, and so she said she wanted to die, had been saying it for a couple of years. It wasn't right. Delzora meant it wasn't right in a moral sense.
Delzora was a religious person. She bowed her head over Althea's body and said a prayer of peace for her. When she opened her eyes a two-inch-long cockroach was making its way up the white eyelet bedspread toward Althea's head. It stopped and waved its antennae around and crawled another inch before making another probe. Delzora took off one of her Chinese shoes and flicked the roach across the room. It flew high up on a wall but swooped right back down to the bed, landing on Althea's middle. Delzora acted quickly. She swatted it with her shoe, picked up its remains with a tissue, its body crunching under her strong fingers, and muttered with annoyance at the spot it left on the spread. She covered Althea's face with the bedclothes.
She went downstairs and called Mr. Untermeyer, the lawyer. After that she rinsed the cleanser out of the sink without bothering to scrub first. Her routine was irrevocably broken, maybe forever in this house. She went to the utility room and put on her wig. Without tea or toast or the newspaper, she sat at the kitchen table and waited for what would happen next.
The two policemen arrived first. They came into the foyer, the shorter one hanging back as the taller one, who was carrying a clipboard, glanced at her then let his eyes roam around leisurely, taking in the stairway, the hallway that led to the back, the rooms off to both sides of the foyer, even the ceiling. The shorter one stared at her and continued to do so while the other one stepped through the open pocket doors into the left front parlor. Delzora watched him, uncomfortable under the short one's scrutiny. He went no farther than just inside the parlor, made another survey there, and returned to the foyer.
"Where's the body—the deceased, ma'am?" He was looking up the stairway.
"Up there," Delzora said.
She led them upstairs and stayed in the hall while they went into Althea's bedroom. When they came out, the tall one walked the length of the wide hall, his footsteps heavy on the hardwood floors, stopping at the doorway to each room. With his head inside the door of what once had been Althea's niece's bedroom, left as it was when the niece moved out, he asked, "Did she live alone?"
Delzora nodded, then said, "Yes," since he wasn't looking at her.
He lingered for a moment at the bottom of the narrower stairway to the third floor but did not go up. Instead he led the way back downstairs. The short one followed Delzora and stayed behind her when they got to the foyer.
The tall one asked her to give her full name and spell it, writing on his clipboard as she did. He then asked for her address and her age. Next he wanted to know how long she'd been employed there.
"'Bout thirty years," she said.
He paused longer than it took to write, but he did not look up; he would not meet her eyes, and the other one remained behind her, out of her sight. "How'd you get into the house?"
"I got a key."
Another pause. "How long have you had the key?"
"'Bout thirty years."
He paused so long this time that Delzora wondered if he was waiting for her to revise her answer. She was beginning to feel accusation in his pauses.
"Who gave you the key?"
Who the hell did he think gave her the key? But she said quietly, "Miz Dum'ville."
When Mr. Untermeyer arrived, in his seersucker suit, blotting perspiration from his upper lip with a square of white handkerchief, the officer asked him some of the same questions, no trouble meeting his eyes: Did he know how long Mrs. Monroe had worked for Mrs. Dumondville? Was he aware that she had a key to the house? Mr. Untermeyer glanced quickly at Delzora before he told the officer that Mrs. Monroe was not just an employee of Mrs. Dumondville but a trusted friend of long standing.
Awkwardly, this mismatched group waited for the medical examiner. He looked at the body and said he was certain further examination would show Mrs. Dumondville had died from natural causes. The policemen thanked Mr. Untermeyer for his time. They told him they would keep him informed. They said nothing to Delzora.
After the body was taken away, Mr. Untermeyer and Delzora sat in the front parlor, she on the edge of the red brocade sofa, he on a side chair. He was solicitous, telling Delzora he hoped she hadn't undergone too much of a shock; telling her he would call Mrs. Dumondville's niece, who now owned the house; asking her if she would get it ready for the niece.
"It's ready,' Delzora said, her hands folded in her lap. "I work here every day. I keep it ready."
Mr. Untermeyer cleared his throat. "I can't guarantee that Mrs. Dumondville's niece will keep you on," he told her in his genteel southern accent.
Did he think she was a fool? Why would he think she expected him to guarantee her anything? She said nothing to him, but she decided the policeman was more tolerable with his outright dislike than Mr. Untermeyer with his asinine concern.
At five o'clock, as was her habit, Delzora left work. She was picked up by the same young man who dropped her off every morning. He drove up in a gleaming white Cadillac with custom Continental kits built into the front fenders and spiked hubcaps that looked dangerous. He was wearing tight, bright-blue leather pants and a matching vest without a shirt on underneath it.
He opened the back door for Delzora as she came down the walkway in front of the house.
"Don't you never come pick me up again without no proper shirt on, Dexter, do you hear?" Delzora said to him.
"You look like a pimp from the Quarters, all got up like that."
Dexter held the door for her silently while she settled herself like a queen on tomato-red crushed velour behind dark tinted windows. Then her carriage pulled out, traveling a stately ten miles an hour down Convent Street under a canopy of graceful oaks. Behind the oaks were the houses of the rich, set back from the clean street and surrounded by emerald-green lawns and artful landscaping. The white Cadillac was as out of place here as an Iowa prize pig on a stroll.
The canopy of graceful oaks was broken as the car reached the intersection of St. Charles Avenue. The avenue was the buffer zone between the very rich and the very poor. Across it the canopy resumed. A block farther the Convent Street Housing Project began.
Delzora didn't think about it because she'd been this way too many times before, but across St. Charles, Convent Street was darker. The houses on one side, the project units on the other, were set closer to the street and to each other; there were no green lawns for the sunlight to filter through oak leaves and sparkle upon. The oaks themselves were brooding and scary instead of graceful over here. They weren't so much a canopy as good cover— for crime, for poverty, for sadness, for the darker side of human nature. The droppings of the oaks fell to the street and were never swept away by the city or the residents. They stayed, messy, dank, and filling the air with the sweet odor of decay.
Delzora, her head resting against the velour, her eyes closed, knew when the car crossed St. Charles. From dense silence the Cadillac slid into the sounds of people on the street, kids shouting to each other over rap music blasting out of boom boxes, and across the street from the project, rhythm and blues coming in a wave from the open door of the Solar Club, a saxophone riff swinging out over the street and gone.
This continued for a while until there was another wide avenue, another buffer zone. The Cadillac could roll straight across New Orleans on Convent Street, through the inner city with its random and opposite elements that blend into a sort of symmetry, elements dispersed in a rhythmical flow of dark to light, sounds to silence, rich to poor, black to white. This is the rhythm of the city.CHAPTER 2
The taxi ride from the airport seemed overly long in the high-noon heat of August. At one point, traffic on the Interstate stopped altogether due, as it turned out, to an overheated car engine and two lanes blocked for resurfacing.
Even with the air conditioner full on, the backs of Thea's thighs were sticking to the black vinyl car seat. She pulled her short skirt down as best she could and rested her feet on the tips of her toes, her heels against the seat, to raise her bare skin off the hot plastic.
The cabdriver, a genial man with a large moon-round face, jowls beginning to sag, kept turning one ruddy cheek toward her as he talked. It had been a long time since she'd heard such a heavy New Orleans accent, nasal and lazy, not a hint of southern prettiness.
He seemed to be complaining and apologizing all at once for the road conditions, speaking of potholes, politicians, payola, and tourists.
"Gotta keep the tourists comin, no argument there, but wit'out oil, everybody's a special-interest group these days, every pothole's got money-making potential, y'know?"
But Thea was too mesmerized by the city to be distracted by either the heat or the driver's patter. Her attention moved from one side of the expressway to the other, taking in hotels, office buildings, apartment complexes, restaurants, fundamentalist churches, lounges, stores, parking lots. Nothing looked particularly different, yet nothing looked quite the same either, still the helter-skelter trashiness of commercial suburbia, perhaps just more of it. She was eager to reach that rise not too far past the last Metairie exit, to come up over it and see the city dropped slightly below, the skyline of the old city, the real city, not the suburbs.
The driver cut into her anticipation. "Been to New Orleans before, miss?"
"I used to live here," Thea said. "Almost ten years ago." She didn't mention that she'd been to town since then, but only once, eight years ago, she and Michael together. She had wanted to make peace with Aunt Althea, but at dinner the first night Aunt Althea demanded to know if they were getting married.
Michael was arrogant. "Not this year. Probably not next year either."
Across the table Thea felt her aunt bristle. "Well, you're not sleeping together in my house," Aunt Althea said. "My house, my rules."
After that it was a contest of wills, Aunt Althea's and Michael's, with Thea's feelings trampled somewhere in between. They had gone back to Massachusetts after only three days.
"Long time," the driver said. "Lot's changed."
"Yeah, for one thing, since you been here the whole riverfront's different downtown, new aquarium, park, streetcar line right on the river. Casino's comin too."
"Oh yeah, you can bet on it." He laughed heartily.
Thea smiled but she didn't join his laughter. They were coming up on the rise now. She leaned forward.
"For better or for worse, who can say. Won't hurt my business none, but it ain't gonna be any safer drivin a cab, that's for sure."
More of his face than one cheek was visible from this angle. His eyebrow was lifted and his eye darted from the road to her, waiting for her comment, but Thea fixed her gaze on the city that, as they got higher, was spreading out all around her. They rode above the trees and rooftops of uptown to the right; to the left were the high-rise buildings of downtown, and ahead, not just the one she remembered, but two bridges now stretching across the Mississippi. The taxi angled toward the St. Charles Avenue exit and approached her favorite landmark, the golden spire of St. John the Baptist, wet with sun. Thea's throat tightened and her vision blurred.
Excerpted from Glass House by Christine Wiltz. Copyright © 2012 Christine Wiltz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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