Shirley Ann Grau is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Keepers of the House, four other novels, and three story collections. She lives in New Orleans.
Twenty-year-old Joan Mitchell has lived her entire life in the stately New Orleans house on Coliseum Street, where her mother and half sister have steadily undermined her self-regard. To Joan, her fate seems sealed and strangely inconsequential. Then a brief affair with Michael Kern, a man she knows to be a cad but is drawn to anyway, unfurls for her a surreal… See more details below
Twenty-year-old Joan Mitchell has lived her entire life in the stately New Orleans house on Coliseum Street, where her mother and half sister have steadily undermined her self-regard. To Joan, her fate seems sealed and strangely inconsequential. Then a brief affair with Michael Kern, a man she knows to be a cad but is drawn to anyway, unfurls for her a surreal sequence of events -- pregnancy, an abortion, and eventually withdrawal into a numbed existence. Only a growing obsession with Michael and a yearning to fill her cavernous loneliness spur Joan to any premeditated action. An intricate psychological novel that plumbs the pain and rage born of identity and volition suppressed, The House on Coliseum Street is an arresting, somber story that transcends period and place even as it so immediately evokes New Orleans in the late 1950s.
Shirley Ann Grau is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Keepers of the House, four other novels, and three story collections. She lives in New Orleans.
Joan Mitchell sat in the green painted gazebo that stood in the far corner of her great-aunt's lawn, the corner overlooking the Gulf. She had been there most of the afternoon, playing one game of solitaire after the other, shuffling the cards in fancy river-boat gambler fashion. Now she stopped her game to watch a rainstorm move up out of the Gulf. She had been aware of it for some time. Even without looking she had felt its approach, had felt a change, that was really little more than a quiver in the air.
She tossed the cards aside; some of them slid across the table and dropped to the floor. She glanced after them but didn't bother picking them up.
She turned and knelt on the padded bench that lined the octagonal house and peered through an opening in the crisscross lattice that formed the walls. Beyond the gazebo, some thirty or forty feet of slow slope, was the low iron fence that edged the property. Beyond that the ground dropped sharply to the four-lane coast highway, the beach, and the Gulf.
She could see the rain, a grey haze like smoke, at Dolphin Island, some five miles off shore. She could smell it now too, the wonderful exciting smell of coming rain. The quiver in the air grew stronger.
The island disappeared in the haze. And the little tendrils of Virginia creeper that streaked the outside of the trellis began to shiver slightly. Joan got an extra pillow and shoved it behind her knees and settled down to watch.
In ten minutes the first drops came, big tadpole-shaped drops that plopped and exploded with sharp, distinct sounds. And then the rain itself—windless sheets, straight down, luminous grey, fish-colored. The roof began to leak. She counted the places, three, four, and some bubbles near the edge that would soon be a steady drain. She glanced over her shoulder and saw a little stream pour down on the cards. She saw a jack of diamonds jump and shiver.
There was the smell of settling dust now, and all the different noises of the rain—rattles and drips and hisses.
The small rain, she thought. And the poem she had read only last night came popping into her head:
O western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
It was such a silly thing to think of. "Damn," she said aloud. Reading too much. When there was nothing else to do. Nothing but sit. When talking was too much trouble. And your body was so light and hollow that you wondered sometimes whether the wind would get inside it, behind it, and blow it over and over. It was so light, it was so dry ...
Joan held out her hand and looked at it, and she felt a little tingle of surprise. It wasn't dry or withered, but it felt that way ...
"Damn," she said aloud again. It wasn't making sense ... Come back, old girl, she told herself, before you get into orbit.
She looked at her body, carefully. It was round and plump (I've been eating too much, she thought) and tanned a dark brown.
Water was dripping on her head. She lifted one hand, absent-mindedly. Then jumped. And giggled. And moved aside, settling down finally in a dry spot.
The squall passed over slowly. On the other side the sun was bright and hard and the sky was brilliant cloudless blue.
There was a burst of traffic on the highway below her. The rain would have held them up, and now they'd be driving like crazy to catch even. And who would they be, she thought, the people in those cars—kids from the air base, most likely, she answered herself. Thin-faced kids in grey uniforms, heading for New Orleans on a week-end pass. And other people going into the city for something—a game maybe. There was always some sort of athletics on week ends.
Lots and lots of people moving along the highway. Her mother, Aurelie, would be on the road. Coming to take her back to New Orleans. Of course. She lived there. She had always lived there. In the house on Coliseum Street. She had been born there twenty years ago. Her great-great-grandfather built that house, way back a long time ago, she'd forgot just how long, but one year when the price of sugar was high.
It was her mother's house now. It was Aurelie Caillet's house. (She always thought of her mother as Aurelie Caillet, always by her maiden name.) And someday it would pass to her, Joan Mitchell. Because she was the oldest ...
She didn't want to go home. Maybe because she had the funniest feeling that the house wasn't real, wasn't there at all. Nor the people in it ... She felt different here on the coast. Not happy, perhaps. But sure. She hadn't been this sure since she was a child and had gone into the library (a small dark room, its air laced by the carbolic smell of bindings and the sweet odor of mildew, and in a little secretary, carefully locked against the children, the family-written books: one or two on law, three volumes of travel, some of devotion, one of poetry) and had puzzled over a big globe, turning it carefully around and around until she found the spot she wanted. She put her finger on it and said aloud: "I am here. Right here."
Years later, one evening—just last year—when she'd felt particularly confused, she'd remembered and gone back to the globe. And turned it and looked at it. But it wasn't the same. The names of the countries were different. All the possessions were different. And though she'd stood looking at it for a long time it didn't do any good.
She felt that way in the house on Coliseum Street. Maybe it was because her four half-sisters lived there too. Her mother had been married five times and had had a daughter by each husband. Joan had to stop sometimes and figure out just whose father was who. When she was little she'd even had trouble remembering her sisters' last names.
On the coast the air seemed lighter and clearer, especially when a wind blew from across the Gulf. Even now, in September.
She remembered New Orleans. The close windless heat of a river town. The swamp smell after the daily rain. The oleander bushes with their glossy thriving poisonous leaves. The grass and vines that grew so frantically you could see them move—the way you could see the heavy white moonflowers open on summer nights, the way they unfolded in the heat, stretching until their backs were broken and they flopped open and died. And the sky was like a teacup fitted overhead, close and hard and shiny as china.
But she lived there. In the house on Coliseum Street.
She was Joan Claire Mitchell, daughter of Aurelie Caillet and Anthony Mitchell. She had been baptized that way in the Cathedral, and she had been confirmed there. Her name was written on the back of the cross on her crystal rosary. Somewhere. She had put that away the morning she came back from the confirmation ceremony, wearing her white taffeta dress and long white stockings, and her veil like a bride's on her head. She had taken everything, including her specially made slip, all tucks and embroidery, folded them in a box and put the cover on. She did not look at them again. She had not even thought about them until today.
More cars swooped by on the road, weaving, tooting madly. In one of them, she thought, Aurelie will be coming over. To take me back.
I could have taken the train. Or maybe she didn't think I would take the train by myself. Maybe she thought the only way to get me back was to come get me ... But that isn't fair. It's mean, and it isn't fair at all. I must be sick or something. Thinking like that.
She's been real great. For sure. All through the mess. There wouldn't be many mothers'd take it like that. Not a complaint.
Just a little finger tapping silence. And a trip to the window to stare out, even though the outside blinds were closed tight and bolted against the hot afternoon sun.
Just a question. Only one: "How long has it been?" Two and a half, nearly three, months. Then another close inspection of the closed blinds.
"It will have to be done at once. I'll call Aunt Ethel. You can stop there. Over at the Pass."
She remembered every word. Even the way her mother said stop for stay.
And she remembered how relieved she'd been when she no longer had to figure things out alone. Her mother did not even bother asking her. She went ahead and arranged.
Not many others, Joan thought, would have taken it like that.
The cards on the table were soaking. Their edges were ruffling out with the water. She gathered them up and wiped them on her skirt. She pressed them together between her fingers, trying to get the layers of paper to stick together.
She sat very still, listening as she had come to do over these past weeks. Listening to the caverns of emptiness inside her. Listening to her heart beat out, echoing in the arches of bone and flesh. The empty arches.
She felt so light. Her feet just brushed the ground. She reached out one hand and held fast to the doorjamb so she shouldn't float away up and out of reach. She stood and watched her fingers holding on. Until a little brown lizard ran up the frame and crossed over her knuckles. And she felt his hard scurrying little feet.
She heard the sound she had been waiting for, the sound that stood out above the noisy dripping of the leaves, and the steady sucking of the sandy ground, and the fluttering of the birds. The sound of tires on the graveled drive.
They had come. It was time to go back.
She took the cushions and piled them all together on one corner of the bench. She would have to bring them in. The dew would leave them blotched with black mold by morning.
A couple of blue jays came to peck at the lawn, their feathers brilliant and glossy as they stabbed about in the blades of grass. And her aunt's old woman's voice called over the dripping garden: "Joan! Company for you!"
"I'll be right there."
She gathered the cushions in her arms and started back.
There were so many, they were piled so high, that she could not see the ground over them. Somehow she got off the brick path and was walking over the soaking soggy grass. She shrugged and kept on walking. She even remembered a little tune to hum under her breath as she went.
She saw Aurelie first. But then you always saw Aurelie first—saw her tall thin figure and great head, heavy head, with masses of reddish brown hair pulled straight back into an old-fashioned roll, and a face with clear high cheekbones like an Indian, a hooked Creole nose, and large dark brown eyes streaked with bright yellow.
Aurelie was hugging her: "Child, you're brown as a berry!" And over her shoulder Joan's eyes were looking for the other figure she had known would be there. She found him finally: Fred Aleman. He kissed her politely on the cheek. She caught a quick smell of starch and shaving lotion. His shoulder felt good to her hand—solid, strong. He was more handsome than she remembered—tall, heavy, with olive skin and straight black hair.
"Fred," she said, "I'm so glad you came."
"My pleasure, ma'am." He was mocking her gently, smiling, and she felt the way she always did with him—familiar, comfortable as if she had always known him.
Standing there with the two of them, she found it hard to believe that she had ever been away.CHAPTER 2
Late that evening they drove up to the house on Coliseum Street.
Like all the others on that street the house was narrow and three stories tall, white painted and black shuttered. The first two floors had porches straight across the front, narrow porches edged and ornamented with light lacy ironwork. A slender delicate house of the sort that had been popular in the 1840's. In front was a tiny lawn divided exactly in two by a brick walk and edged by the scrolls and feathers of a low iron fence. In one of those smooth tiny patches of grass, misplaced and hideous, was a fountain, a bubbling fountain.
Its tile basin was mottled with garish blue and yellow mosaics of fish and shells. In its center stood a young mermaid, a pitcher spilling water over her shoulder. From the sides of the circle four bronze dolphins spat short streams of water at her feet.
Her father's fountain ... Anthony Mitchell had built it during the year he had lived in the house, the single year of his marriage to Aurelie. He had designed it himself and watched over its construction carefully. He had protected it in his divorce settlement. He had protected it even more securely in his will. The fountain would stay. Aurelie's regular—and very large—monthly check depended on it.
"The neighborhood looks the same," Joan said.
"Did you expect a change?" Aurelie asked.
"I guess not." Joan asked: "Are the kids home?"
"My dear," Aurelie said, "you really have lost track of time. Only Doris. The others are at camp."
"Oh," Joan said. "Of course. How silly of me."
She scarcely saw her three youngest sisters. They were away at school, they were away at camp. She saw them only on holidays. When they were all children, when the youngest was no more than three, they had a song to sing on those days. A song made up of their names that they sang to a kind of Elizabethan round Aurelie had taught them: Joan, Doris, Phyllis, Celine, Ann. Aurelie's friends were tremendously impressed.
It sounded really very nice ...
"The same house," Aurelie was saying, "and the same people in it!"
The tiny fountain winked at Joan as they went up the front walk. The brilliant yellow tiles gleamed even in the half light of the evening.
Fred took her suitcase into the hall and put it at the foot of the stairs. Joan put her train case beside it. She asked: "Don't you think we could have a drink?"
Aurelie's eyebrows went up in mock horror. "And you, my dear?" she said to Fred. "Will you join us?" As she spoke, she had already slipped an arm through his and was leading him into the living room. Joan followed.
The living room was on the east side—the shady side—of the house, but even so the blinds were kept shut. It was always quite dark and there was very little air moving. But it was cool. A damp cool coming from the large tubs of fern that were fitted carefully into the corners off the edges of the rug.
"A gin and tonic would be nice, don't you think?" Aurelie opened the old-fashioned secretary that had been turned into a bar. She mixed the drinks swiftly with all the assurance of a professional bartender. She fixed a plain tonic for herself; she did not drink. Alcohol, she said, made lines in women's faces much too early. She preferred to miss the exhilaration and save her face.
She wrapped the glasses, which had immediately started to drip in the damp heavy air, in little embroidered napkins. "You know," she said, "great-uncle Henry would just die if he could see what we have done with his secretary. He was a teetotaler, you know."
"That right," Fred said. "He was, wasn't he?"
He knows that as well as I do, Joan thought with a sudden rush of fierceness. He is only saying it because she would like him to. He's always doing what other people want him to do, to make them feel better.
Fred was sitting on the little rosewood sofa now, the one that had just been reupholstered in a tapestry design of diamonds and flowers. He was saying politely: "I've never had a chance to look him up, not in any complete way. Not the way I want to. He was a remarkable man, and I know something about him, of course. A pioneer. A man of real vision."
Joan heard Aurelie's voice making some answer, but she closed her ears and talked angrily to herself. Horse shit, she told herself, he didn't do anything. Except get to be governor on bought votes during the Reconstruction. And live to be eighty. And make a little money on sugar cane. And survive a couple of depressions. And outlive all his children. And see his great-grandchildren get married.
Her mother's voice jarred her back. "Dear child," Aurelie was saying, "you are sitting there with a frightful frown on your pretty face. And you are talking to yourself in a most animated fashion."
The edge in the tone warned her. She certainly did not want to endure her mother's temper. "I am sorry," Joan said. "A car trip always leaves me a little groggy and far away."
"The drink would help," Fred said gently.
He's heard that note in her voice too, she thought. It's sweet of him to give me a way out.
He was talking to her mother again. I wonder, Joan thought, does she know that he doesn't hear a word she's saying, that he's watching me? That he's worrying about me, wondering if there's anything wrong?
Excerpted from The House on Coliseum Street by Shirley Ann Grau. Copyright © 1961 Shirley Ann Grau. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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