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LA MER JAZZ CLUB
Marie could hear the music wailing, bleeding through the spray-painted windows and door. Her body responded her fingers itching to snap, her feet to dance. It would be very nice, too, if she got laid. DuLac wouldn't mind. That was the nice thing about going club hopping with a boss who was also a mentor and friend.
"Safe sex, Marie."
She laughed. "Are you saying I'm a loose woman?"
DuLac, in a double-breasted suit, a diamond in his ear, his hair peppered gray, was elegance personified. He came from an old Creole family; his face fine boned, like his French ancestors. Outwardly, he was genteel, gracious. A perfect companion. Inwardly, he was more complex, his soul steeped in African rhythms, mystery, and healing.
"Be good," he said. "Tomorrow, you and I have a shift."
"Sure thing, boss. You want me to monitor your wine?"
"Just have a good time?"
"Oui. Bonne temps en Nouveau Orleans."
They grinned like conspirators. Work hard, play hard. Marie slipped her hand through his arm.
The bouncer, a wannabe pro wrestler, opened the door, waving them into the club. A cave smelling of sweat, musky perfumes, and tropical rum.
The music was uplifting. Marie stepped lightly, hips swaying as the waitress showed them to their table. Dead center, in front of the musicians' platform. A table, every Saturday night, reserved for her and DuLac. An indulgence. Reward for the shifts battling Charity Hospital's violence, disease, and trauma.
Marie looked around the hazy, smoke-filled room. Votive candles decorated the tables. Dried magnolias hung like ribbons from the ceiling. Candle sconces decorated the walls, shimmering with shadows and firelight.
Waitresses dressed in sleek black satin with bustiers uplifting brown, yellow, white, pink-tinged breasts, offered drinks, roses for couples gay or straight. For five dollars you could have your picture taken, your face burrowing into soft, perfumed breasts.
All in good fun. Music with a little sex, decadence thrown in.
But it was the music that held the greatest allure. Rhythms that spoke to and about the spirit. Saxophones that sounded like cries; trumpets that wailed; drums that proclaimed; and piano scales that cascaded, calling for "mercy."
Music all powerful, knowing. Human. Humane.
Marie had thought there was a rule only handsome people were welcome at La Mer. But she'd come to realize that New Orleanians were always beautiful listening to music. It was as if they let themselves be transformed, opening their souls and bodies so they seemed larger, more infused with life. That's why she loved La Mer rarely was it filled with thrill-seeking tourists. Just music-loving locals. Who understood the mating sounds. The life-in-death sounds. The excruciating pleasure of being alive.
Marie swayed to the moaning sax, her body answering the sound. She searched the bar for interesting men. Most were already paired; some she'd already enjoyed.
DuLac murmured, "Night's still young."
She blushed. "If you were younger "
"I'm your father figure."
"True." DuLac had taken her under his wing. She hadn't known her father, but she couldn't imagine one better than DuLac. Only in New Orleans did fathers party, encouraging their daughters to have a good time. In a city filled with so much sin, holding tight to passion was a requirement for survival. How else could a people outlast slavery; Spanish, French, and American invasions; yellow fever; and hurricanes?
Live life large. Let the good times roll. New Orleans her adopted home. The city where she felt most herself.
The song ended. Climaxing in a vibrato that left the audience breathless, whistling, stomping their feet, demanding more.
Charlie, the piano man, stood, his mouth slyly upturned, shouting, "Everybody...everybody welcome doctors Louis DuLac and Marie Laveau. Visit Charity Hospital. They'll fix what ails you."
The drummer hit the bass.
DuLac bowed. Blushing, Marie slid down in her seat. Charlie always liked embarrassing her.
"Dr. Laveau descendant of the great voodoo queen yes, that Marie Laveau, buried in St. Louis Cemetery number one, some say number two. But regardless of where she's buried, this here" he pointed at Marie "this here is her great-great-granddaughter. The beautiful, badass, turn your world around, upside down, Marie Laveau."
The quintet launched into a ditty:
Marie Laveau, wicked as a snake, strong as a bear.
Conjure woman, turn your life around. Upside down.
She'll put an evil spell on you.
Customers were on their feet, applauding. Even DuLac stood, smirking.
Reluctantly, Marie bowed, blowing a kiss at Charlie. She'd told him that one day she'd hex him if he didn't stop embarrassing her. But Charlie had just grinned, like he was doing now, his left hand rolling with the bass line.
Someone sent over a hurricane dark rum mixed with sugar, grenadine, and passion juice, topped with a lime.
She gulped the drink down. "If a man had been interested in me that surely would've turned him off."
"Tell me another lie," said DuLac.
Marie scanned the bar. Maybe one of the single men had sent over the drink? But none of the men caught her eye. They were all watching Charlie as well they should. He'd launched into "King Porter Stomp" by Jelly Roll Morton. It was one of her favorites: a mixture of ragtime, blues, African and Caribbean rhythms.
She leaned back, enjoying her night off from the ER its sutures, IVs, and multiple stab wounds.
DuLac ordered champagne.
No worries. She let the music carry her. The drum and snare tat-a-tat-tapping in three-quarter time; the sax punctuating the pulsing bass; Charlie's fingers flying across the ivories. The song was joyful, upbeat. She studied the musicians' faces. Ecstasy. Charlie, eyes closed, shook his head side to side. Big Ben played his upright bass, his body and arms curving, cradling the wood like a lover. Aaron blew his heart into his sax.
The drummer was new. She didn't know his name. Rail thin, sandy colored, he expertly kept the music from spinning into chaos. His drums restrained the sound, then pushed, encouraging the musicians to let loose in their solos; then his snare quieted them, unifying the sound until, once again, it was time for Charlie, Aaron, or Big Ben to improvise, making the song new again.
Drumsticks sliced the air. Every part of the drummer's body moved. Feet on the floor and the bass pedal; head nodding; hands and arms, swaying, teasing more sound from the drum skins; his body, rocking, leaning forward and back to emphasize or lighten the rhythm. Sweat beaded his face. His eyes followed his hands. He was speaking as drummers had from the dawn of time. Pounding out a story. What needed to be said.
The room erupted in applause as the drummer shifted the swing into a more urgent, insistent rhythm.
Marie caught her breath.
"You all right, Marie?"
She didn't answer. The drums echoed the power of ceremonial drums. Calling on spirits from another world.
She looked around patrons were transfixed, even Billy, the bartender, had stopped making drinks, the waitresses in their thigh-slit skirts had paused. Everyone watched the drummer, including his band mates.
DuLac watched her. "What is it?"
She blinked. The drummer was possessed. He was looking at her, his eyes unnaturally bright. He was communicating, telling her to pay attention, to bridge this world and the next.
He pounded the bass pedal once, then twice. The rhythm changed. The melody was gone. But the beats were staccato, shifting into Agwé's song.
Never before had she witnessed a spirit possess without being called. Agwé, the sea god, or Ogun, the warrior, even the great Damballah, the serpent god, the god of creation, appeared after offerings, chants, after Legba, the guardian, opened the spirit gates. Then the spirit loas entered human bodies. But Agwé was here. Now. In the drummer, in his music; and everyone in La Mer sensed the magic.
The drumming stopped. One second, two. No sound, no motion. Workers, patrons, held their breath, expectant. The drums swung back into tune. The pianist pushed forward the melody of "King Porter Stomp," then dove into its famous riffs. Lightning chords celebrating the black presence in the New World.
Activity resumed. Waitresses took orders, placed drinks. Men snapped their fingers, tapped their feet. Two women left for the powder room. Billy was a blur, pouring Johnnie Walker and rum and coke.
Amazing, Marie thought, everyone seemed to have forgotten what they'd seen and heard.
Big Ben played his bass; Charlie, lovingly, stroked chords; Aaron blew softly, seducing his sax. The drummer grinned, urging his brother musicians to finish the tune. Charlie inhaled, letting his hands rise, then he pounded down, striking C-major chords, launching into "Moon River."
"Did you see it, DuLac?"
"You know I don't have your gifts."
"But you felt it?"
"More that I felt you. Saw the change in you."
Marie knew DuLac desperately desired her spiritual gifts. "They're yours to carry," he often said.
Times, like now, she felt unbearably alone.
"Agwé was here. Something in the world isn't right."
Why would Agwé appear? And so only she could see him? She knew it had to be a warning. About what?
"Take me home, DuLac."
She headed out of the club, knowing DuLac would whisper apologies, make their excuses. It was rude to leave in the middle of a set. But Marie felt dread settling in her bones.
She unbuckled her seat belt, kissed DuLac good night.
"Let me come up, Marie," said DuLac. "Make sure you're safe."
"I'm all right. Need sleep, that's all." She stepped out of the air-conditioned car, into the humid night.
Marie couldn't help turning toward the Mississippi, its water lapping hungrily for miles. Something was stirring in the water. She smelled brine. Oil staining the shore. And something else. Fetid. Ancient.
DuLac rolled down the car window. "Are you sure you're all right?"
Marie stooped, poking her head inside the car. "Fine."
"Call me, if you need me."
"I always do."
Reluctantly, DuLac shifted his car into Drive.
Marie forced a smile, waving her hand. When the car rounded the corner, she entered her apartment's courtyard dreary, a few potted plants, a cracked fountain with a gargoyle spraying water from its mouth.
Marie focused on each step, climbing the stairs to her second-floor flat. All she wanted was some quiet. To hug Marie-Claire.
"That you, Miz Marie?"
Kind Dog barked a welcome, his whole body wagging.
Louise a grandmother at forty never minded babysitting Marie-Claire. "My children are too grown," she'd complain. "My grandchildren, hooligans. Now Marie-Claire is all that a child should be."
Marie knew Louise didn't mean it. Missing a few teeth, with strong arms and hands to cradle a child, Louise loved the toddler stage. Soon as Marie-Claire turned five or six, Louise would be calling her a "hooligan," too.
"Did she eat well?"
"Bien. Like a champ. Black beans, rice, applesauce. Mashed bananas."
Marie smiled. Sometimes she wondered if Louise didn't need the mashing more than Marie-Claire. "Thanks," she said, slipping her cash and a hug.
"Dog ate, too. Licked Marie-Claire's plate clean when I wasn't looking."
"Dog!" said Marie.
Dog laid down, his ears flat, his eyes droopy.
"See, he knows he's bad."
"'Night. Bonsoir," Marie murmured, locking the door behind Louise.
Marie stooped, hugging Kind Dog. She scratched his ear. "Did you take care of Marie-Claire?"
Marie slipped off her heels, tiptoeing into Marie-Claire's room. Kind Dog padded behind her.
Wind lightly stirred the blackbird mobile. Only in the Deep South did folks believe blackbirds were good luck, carrying souls of slaves who'd escaped slavery by growing wings. Some went back to Africa and became people again; others, preferred being birds, flying through clouds, across seas, and into forests.
She looked down into the crib. She really needed to get Marie-Clarie a bed. Three years old. Her tiny feet touched the rail. Barely enough room for her curl-tousled head.
Tomorrow, she'd buy a bed with a partial railing.
Marie still remembered, as a child, waking up on the floor, her hips and arms bruised. "Nightmares," her mother had said. She knew it was always the same dream that pushed her over the edge. Awake, she never remembered what had frightened her.
Maybe Marie-Claire would have only sweet dreams? She stroked her downy black curls.
It never ceased to amaze her how much love she felt for her child. Small amber fingernails; a hand tucked beneath her cheek; a fat baby belly rising and falling beneath the yellow blanket. There was nothing more beautiful.
She still remembered the chaotic ER, slicing through a girl's abdomen and womb to deliver Marie-Claire. She'd thought the mother was dead. But that was a horror she didn't want to think about not tonight. She'd had enough trauma for one night.
She needed to hold Marie-Claire. But that would be selfish. Let her sleep. She should be asleep.
Marie tiptoed toward the door.
She turned back.
Slats made shadow stripes across Marie-Claire's body. She was breathing evenly. The blackbirds were jangling, as if someone was jerking the strings.
"Who's there?" Marie hissed. "Agwé, is that you?"
The blackbirds stilled, no motion.
Marie opened the French doors, stepping onto the wrought-iron balcony, a perch from which she could see the cathedral and Cabildo, the alleys and cobblestone streets leading into the French Quarter. She should get a new apartment. A city walk-up with no yard wasn't a fit place to raise a child. She hadn't moved yet because she loved the water. Beyond the ancient buildings, she could see Riverwalk, see steamers lolling on the Mississippi, see clouds hanging low over the muddy water, and a moon rising, changing every twenty-eight days from a sliver to a full moon. Tonight, it was almost full. In a week, all the crazies would be out including those convinced they were werewolves. She'd see the damage in the ER. Stabbings, gunshots, assaults.
Now all she saw beyond the merchant and cruise ships was a ripple of waves blending with an indigo horizon. The quiet before a storm? Agwé, warning her? Why? About what?
Kind Dog barked.
He sat, ears perked high.
They both looked out across the skyline to the water. A whole world of water. "Mississippi" derived from the Ojibwe "misi-ziibi," "great river." Water journeying from Minnesota. Freshwater mixing with salt. Seeping into the Gulf of Mexico.
To the southeast was Lake Pontchartrain. Brackish. Black with algae. Refuse and eels skimmed the surface. During hurricane season, the lake rose, menacing. Tonight, it was calm. A skein of glass. Agwé's kingdom was miles deep.
City levees kept water at bay. Spirits, too?
Marie smiled wryly. She knew better than anyone that mysteries always multiplied. Boundaries of time, space, were only imagined. Spirits were ever present.
She closed the French doors, padding softy by the crib, looking at Marie-Claire with longing. She started stripping her clothes before she got to her bedroom. She preferred sleeping naked. It felt good to shake off restraints, to have clean cotton rub against skin.
As her head lay on the pillow, she shuddered. Most days, she loved being who she was. But, tonight, she feared what tomorrow would bring.
She sighed, cupping a hand beneath her breast. Kind Dog hopped on the bed, laying his head on the second pillow. Silky black a cross between a Labrador and a golden retriever, she blessed the day Kind Dog had come into her life.
Still, she couldn't help sighing. It would be wonderful if Dog were a man if she could bury her body in flesh, connect, for a brief moment, and remind herself that she wasn't only Marie-Claire's mother, a doctor, a voodoo practitioner. She was also a woman. Longing for the essential pleasures of being a woman.
Copyright © 2008 by Jewell Parker Rhodes