Nora Jane: A Life in Storiesby Ellen Gilchrist
Since receiving the National Book Award for "Victory Over Japan in 1985, Ellen Gilchrist has developed a fervently devoted readership. This collection's new novella is vintage Gilchrist, taking on the continuing joys and perils of Nora Jane and company.
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By Ellen Gilchrist
Little, BrownCopyright © 2005 Ellen Gilchrist
All right reserved.
NORA JANE'S GRANDMOTHER lived in a blue frame house on the corner of Laurel and Webster streets. It was there that Nora Jane was happy. There was a swing on the porch and a morning glory vine growing on a trellis. In April azaleas bloomed all around the edges of the porch, white and pink and red azaleas, blue morning glories, the fragrant white Confederate jasmine, red salvia and geraniums and the mysterious elephant ears, their green veins so like the ones on Nora Jane's grandmother's hands. Nora Jane hated the veins because they meant her grandmother was old and would die. Would die like her father had died, vanish, not be there anymore, and then she would be alone with only her mother to live with seven days a week.
"Let me set the table for you," she said to her grandmother, waking beside her in the bed. "Let me cook you breakfast. I want you to eat an egg."
"Oh, honey lamb," her grandmother replied, and reached over and found her glasses and put them on, the better to see the beautiful little girl, the better to be happy with the child beside her. "We will cook it together. Then we'll see about the mirlitons. You can take them to Langenstein's today. They said they would buy all that you had."
"Then I'd better hurry." Nora Jane got out of bed. If she was going to take the mirlitons to Langenstein's she wanted to do it early so she wouldn't run into any of her friends from Sacred Heart. She was the only girl at Sacred Heart so poor she had to sell vegetables to Langenstein's. Still, they had not always been poor. Her grandfather had been a judge. Her father had gone to West Point. Her grandmother had sung grand opera all up and down the coast and auditioned for the Met. She kissed her grandmother on the cheek and swung her long legs out of the bed and began to search for her clothes. "You cook breakfast then," she said. "I'll go pick the mirlitons before it gets too hot."
She put on her shorts and shirt and found her sandals and wandered out into the backyard to pick the mirlitons from the mirliton vines.
A neighbor was in the yard next door. Mr. Edison Angelo. He leaned over the fence. "How's everything going, Nora Jane?" he asked. "How's your grandmother?"
"She's feeling fine," Nora Jane said. "She's fine now. She's out of bed. She can do anything she likes."
Nora Jane bent over the mirliton vines. They were beautiful, sticky and fragrant, climbing their trellis of chicken wire. The rich burgundy red fruit hung on its fragile stems, fell off into Nora Jane's hands at the slightest touch. She gathered a basketful, placing them carefully on top of each other so as not to bruise them. Mirlitons are a delicacy in New Orleans. The dark red rind is half an inch thick, to protect the pulp and seeds from the swarming insects of the tropics, for mirlitons are a tropical fruit, brought to New Orleans two hundred years ago by sailors from the Caribbean. Some winters in New Orleans are too cold for mirlitons and the fruit is small and scanty. This had been a warm winter, however, and the mirliton vines were thick with fruit. Nora Jane bent over her work. Her head of curly dark black hair caught the morning sun, the sun caressed her. She was a beautiful child who looked so much like her dead father that it broke her mother's heart and made her drink. It made her grandmother glad. Nora Jane's father had been her oldest son. She thought God had given Nora Jane to her to make up for losing him. Nora Jane's grandmother was a deeply religious woman who had been given to ecstatic states when she was young. It never occurred to her to rail at God or blame him for things. She thought of God as a fallback position in times of trouble. She thought of God as solace, patience, wisdom, forgiveness, compensation.
Nora Jane's mother had a darker meaner view. She thought God and other people were to blame for everything that went wrong. She thought they had gotten together to kill her beautiful black-haired husband and she was paying them back by staying inside and drinking herself to death. Still, it wasn't her fault she was weak. Her mother had been weak before her and her mother before that. It was their habit to be weak.
Nora Jane's grandmother came from a line of women who had a habit of being strong. One of them had come to New Orleans from France as a casket girl, had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean when she was only sixteen years old, carrying all her possessions in a little casket and when she arrived had refused to marry the man to whom she was assigned. She had married a Welshman instead, a man who had been on the boat as a steward. Each generation of women was told this story in Nora Jane's grandmother's family and so they believed they were strong women with strong genes and acted accordingly. When she was about four years old Nora Jane had looked at the strong story and the weak story and decided to be strong. It was the year her father died and her grandmother sat in the swing on her porch and watched the morning glory vines open and close and the sun rise and fall and believed that God did not hate her even if he had allowed her son to die in a stupid war. Many of the men who fought with him had written her letters and she read them out loud to Nora Jane. One young man, whose name was Fraser, came and stayed for five weeks and painted the outside of the house a fresher, brighter blue and put a new floor in the kitchen of the house. Every day he sat on the porch with Nora Jane's grandmother as the sun went down and talked about the place where he lived. A place called Nebraska. When all the painting was done and the furniture put back in the kitchen, he kissed Nora Jane and her grandmother good-bye and went off to see his own family. After he was gone Nora Jane and her grandmother would talk about him. "Where's Fraser gone?" Nora Jane would ask.
"He has gone to Nebraska," her grandmother would answer. "He went to try to find his wife."
"Where's his wife?"
"He doesn't know. She got tired of waiting for him."
"She's sad, like Momma, isn't she?"
"I think so, some people get sad."
"But not us, do we?"
"Let's walk over to the park," her grandmother said, and got up from the swing. "Those Emperor geese are dying to see you. They're waiting for you to bring them some bread."
"Then do I have to go home?"
"Sometime you do. Your mother doesn't like it if you stay here all the time."
"I'll go tomorrow. In two days I'll go back over there."
"We'll see. Put on your shoes. Those geese are waiting for you by the bridge."
Of course sooner or later she would have to go back to her mother's house and watch her mother cry. Although the older she got the less she had to put up with it. Her mother's house was seven blocks from her grandmother's house. Her mother's house was in the three hundred block of Webster Street and her grandmother's house was in the five hundred block of Henry Clay. By the time she was six years old Nora Jane was allowed to walk from her grandmother's house to her mother's house anytime she wanted to as long as the sun was up. She knew every house and yard and porch and tree between the three hundred block of Webster Street and the five hundred block of Henry Clay. She knew which fences made the best sound when she ran a stick along the railings. She knew which dogs were mean. She knew which people got up early and which ones were sleepyheads. She knew who took the Times-Picayune and who did not. When the golden rain trees bloomed and when the magnolia blossoms opened. Hello, Nora Jane, everyone would say. How you keeping? How's everything with you?
Nora Jane carried the basket of mirlitons up the wooden steps to the kitchen. Ever since she was a small child she had sat on those steps to dream. She dreamed of elves and fairies, of ballet dresses and ballet shoes, of silk and velvet and operas and plays. There were photographs of her grandmother in operas in a book in the house. Photographs of long ago before her grandmother's face got old. In one photograph her grandmother was wearing a crown.
Nora Jane paused on the stairs, resting the basket of mirlitons on the rail. A fat yellow jacket buzzed past the door, a golden Monarch beat against a window, a blue jay flew down and sat upon a yard chair. Nora Jane walked on up the stairs and into the kitchen. It was seven o'clock in the morning. Already the sun was high. It was time to go to Langenstein's. "I'm going right now," she called to her grandmother. "I'll eat breakfast when I get back."
"Have a piece of toast then. Take it with you."
"I'm fine. I want to get these over there while they're fresh." She kissed her grandmother on the cheek and walked out through the rooms. It was a shotgun house with one room right behind the other. Her grandmother let her leave. She knew why Nora Jane wanted to get to Langenstein's so early and she approved of it. It was the same reason she swept her porch at dawn. Ladies didn't do housework. Ladies didn't sell vegetables to the grocery store.
Nora Jane proceeded down the street, down Webster to Magazine and over to Calhoun, past Prytania, Camp, Coliseum, Perrier and Pitt to Garfield, past the Jewish cemetery and into the parking lot of Langenstein's, which is the richest grocery store in New Orleans, perhaps the richest grocery store in the world. A few ladies were already parking their cars and going in to wheel small old-fashioned carts through the narrow aisles. Past shelves of exotic imported foods and delicatessen items, past chicory coffee and avocados and artichokes and stuffed crabs and seafood gumbo and imported crackers and candy, past wine vinegar and Roquefort cheese and crème glacée and crawfish bisque and crawfish étouffée and potage tortue and lobster and shrimp ratatouille.
An old lady was being helped from her car by her chauffeur, a young woman in a tennis dress bounced by with a can of coffee in her hand, a fat white cat walked beneath a crepe myrtle tree, a mockingbird swooped down to pester it. Nora Jane ignored all that. She hurried across the parking lot and into the office and found Chef Roland at his desk. He was a man who loved the world. He loved food and God and music and all seven of his children and the idea of Food and God and Music and Children. He cooked all day and listened to his employees' troubles and then went home and listened to his wife's troubles and drank wine and talked on the telephone to his brother who was a Benedictine monk in Pennsylvania and wrote long impassioned letters to his brother who was a Jesuit in Cincinnati. Dear Alphonse, the letters would begin. Put down your apostasy and your rage. Please write to Maurice. Maurice longs to hear from you.
It concerned a religious schism that had split Chef Roland's family. For seven years his younger brothers had battled over the matter of birth control. Look at little Nora Jane, Chef Roland told himself now. No family, only one old grandmother and a mother better left unsaid. No brothers or sisters or aunts. A family which has died out. This one little blossom on the vine.
He got up from his desk and wrapped the little girl in his arms and kissed her on the top of her head. "Ah, these mirlitons," he said. "What a casserole I will make of these. Is this all? Only one basketful? You will bring me more?"
"I'll bring some more over later. If mother gets up. We wanted to bring you some early in case you needed them."
"How old are you now, Nora Jane?"
"I'm fourteen. I'll be fifteen pretty soon. This summer. You like them? You think they're beautiful?"
"Magnificent. Always your grandmother's vegetables are magnificent. I want the asparagus this year. All that she can spare." He was writing out a receipt for her to cash at the checkout stand. He knew why she was in a hurry. The Whittingtons were proud. The grandmother had sung with the opera. His father had heard her sing. He handed the receipt to her. She folded it and stuck it in the pocket of her shorts. Such a lovely child, he thought, a lovely child.
"You will come and work for me this summer?" he asked. "I will teach you to cook for me. You think it over, huh?"
"If I can," she said. "I might help the sisters with the camp at Sacred Heart. How much can you pay?"
"Four fifteen an hour and you will learn to cook. That's worth something, even for a pretty girl like you, huh?"
"I know how already. Grandmother taught me. We made a Charlotte Rousse for her birthday." Nora Jane giggled. "And we made an angel cake but it fell, because the stove is old. We need a new stove but we don't want to waste our money on it."
"I will call your grandmother and speak to her. She will tell you to come and work for me. Better than little children all day. I'll teach you a trade."
"Okay," Nora Jane said politely. "I'll think it over. I have to go now," she added. "Is there someone up front to cash this?"
"Yes, they're open. Run along then. But let me know."
"I will." She left the office and went into the store, down between the aisles of imported foods to the checkout stand. She collected three dollars and seventeen cents and put it in her pocket, then she started home, up the street of crushed-up oyster shells, past a line of azalea bushes that grew out onto the sidewalk. A black and white cat moved lazily along beside her, then disappeared into the open door of the Prytania Street Liquor Store. I better go by Momma's and get some clothes, Nora Jane decided. If I go now she won't start calling Grandmother's all day and driving us crazy.
Chef Roland stared down at his desk. Poor little girl, he was thinking. Of course she doesn't want to come work in the deli, but it's all I have to offer her. Poor baby, poor little thing.
The phone was ringing. Chef Roland pushed a button and answered it. It was his brother Maurice calling from Pennsylvania.
"So you're back from Rome," Chef Roland began. "Well, did you tell them what I told you to tell them? Did you, Maurice? Did you or not? Answer my question."
"I want to come visit you when I get through here," Maurice said. "Can I come down for a few days? I want to talk with you, Roland, bury the hatchet, smoke the peace pipe."
"What did you tell them, Maurice? Did you tell him what I said or not?"
"What's wrong, Roland, how are you in such a bad mood so early in the day? Is Betty all right? Are the children okay?"
"I just had a visit from the daughter of Leland Whittington, your old schoolmate that died fighting for the pope in 'Nam, Maurice. It broke my heart so early in the morning. Poor little fatherless thing. Poor little girl."
"No one with Leland's heart and will could be an object of pity. God, he was a beautiful man."
"Leland is dead, Maurice, and I want to know if you told the pope what I told you to tell him. It's the modern world. We have to move with it or be responsible for all this sadness. It's our fault, it's on our shoulders. The edict was preposterous."
"I'll be there this afternoon. Is that all right?"
"Of course it's all right. I'll tell everyone you're coming."
"I have to go now. We have prayers."
"Pray for sanity," Chef Roland said. "Pray to have some goddamn common sense."
Nora Jane crossed Prytania and walked down Camp to Magazine, then turned and went down Webster Street into the Irish Channel. The sun was higher now, people were coming out onto their porches, opening their Saturday newspapers, people jogged by in jogging suits, rode by on bicycles headed for the park. Maybe she won't be up yet, Nora Jane thought. And I can just grab some clothes and leave a note. She's getting worse. She really is. She's worse than she was at Mardi Gras or on their anniversary. Well, forget that. It doesn't matter. It isn't my fault. Remember Sister Katherine said never to think it's my fault. It's not my fault. It's not my fault.
Nora Jane passed her godmother Leanie's house, hurried by so she wouldn't get stopped and have to talk. She hurried on down the street and turned into the yard of her mother's white frame house. It wasn't a bad house. Only Francine never cleaned it up right and it smelled like furniture polish and cigarettes. It smells like a bar, Nora Jane decided. That's what it smells like.
"Nora Jane, is that you?" Her mother was up, walking around in a bathrobe, her hair tied back with a string. "Oh, honey, I just called your grandmother and no one answered. I was so lonely. I had bad dreams all night. Oh, I'm so glad you're home. Look, could you go down to the corner and get me a package of cigarettes?"
"I just came by to get some clothes. I have to go to school today. They have a special day."
"No one told me about it."
"I'm in a hurry. Didn't Grandmother tell you? Why didn't she answer the phone? Well, I guess she was in the yard." Nora Jane swept past her mother and went into her room and began to fill the basket with clothes, socks and underwear and cotton shirts and a dress for Sunday. She threw the things into the empty basket. Her mother stood in the door watching her.
Excerpted from Nora Jane by Ellen Gilchrist Copyright © 2005 by Ellen Gilchrist. Excerpted by permission.
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