Sheila Bosworth’s enthralling debut novel is a vibrant, heartrending story of love and loss set in “the City That Care Forgot”
Constance Alexander and Rand Calvert fall in love on Mardi Gras night. She is eighteen years old, the beautiful, privileged daughter of a Louisiana Supreme Court justice. He is a dashing young artist, the son of a family “long on name but short on money.” Their desire for each other is intense and irresistible, and when they marry and move into a shabby old house on Camp Street, it is the beginning of a lifetime of happiness together—or so they hope.
Decades later, Clay-Lee Calvert seeks the truth about her parents’ turbulent romance: their passionate courtship, the resentments created by their impoverished lifestyle, the fatally disruptive influence of Rand’s rich, manipulative, and unscrupulous uncle. Clay-Lee also seeks to come to terms with her own role in the tragic events which brought an end to the love story of Rand and Constance, events which have cast a long, dark shadow over her life.
A masterful tale of enchantment and anguish in the grand tradition of Southern literature, Almost Innocent sublimely captures the enigmatic allure of New Orleans in the 1950s.
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By Sheila Bosworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Alan Dean Foster
All rights reserved.
I saw my father yesterday. He was downtown in a short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants, coming from a new dentist probably. My father dresses down for the dentist, to keep his bill at a poor man's level. It usually works for two or three appointments, then he slips and says something like "I wrecked that back filling on a deep-fried ball bearing the Louisiana Club was passing off as an oyster." And the next bill he gets, sure enough, that particular dentist has upped his fee considerably. The funny part is, my father probably makes less a year than the waiters at the Louisiana Club. All he can really count on is the closetful of expensive, wrong-size suits my Great-Uncle Baby Brother left to him, along with a lifetime, dues-and-fees-paid membership to that club, which is an old-line Mardi Gras organization. He also has his meager dividends from some La Dolce Vita sugar stock. Uncle Baby Brother — who was his mother's change-of-life child and bad luck from the word go — willed everything else, his entire self-made sugar fortune, to the Home for the Incurables on Henry Clay Avenue, where his wife Ida Marie had died in the 1950s of a progressive genetic disease. The rumor was, she was strapped into an indoor hammock at the time, watching The Big Payoff on Channel 6, just as happy as if she'd had her right senses.
My father shouted "Clay-Lee!" and caught up with me on the Canal Street neutral ground, after nearly sacrificing his life, he said, sidestepping a turning St. Charles streetcar. My mind was elsewhere, I told him. "I've just been over to that real-estate office, that Latter and Blum, for the hundred and tenth time. Another buyer for the Bogue Falaya property fell through. Nobody's got the money for a summer house right now."
"Rosehue could be a year-round house," said Daddy, looking hurt, although he knows as well as I do the place is ready to fall in on itself. I only said "summer house" instead of "wreck" to spare his feelings. He was proud of Rosehue; he painted the inside of it almost single-handedly, one summer many years ago. The house is in the town of Covington, on the Bogue Falaya River, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. Once it was my favorite place to be, but my father never set foot in it again after he moved his clothes and things out, several months after my mother died.
"This house belongs to you, Clay-Lee. It's entirely yours," he told me then, dragging a loaded clothes tree across the porch. He was crying at the time, and had apparently forgotten I was only eleven years old.
"Mama would have wanted us to stay!" I begged him, not so sure of that; I'd never known exactly what my mother wanted, but what was the alternative? Spending all year round in our alleyway-shrouded, half-a-double house on Camp Street in New Orleans, where most of the sunlight shone through the windows on the rented-out side? It wasn't until after I finished Sophie Newcomb College of Tulane University, B.A., scholarship, in English literature, that I moved to Covington again by myself. That was years ago, and the daily drive across the lake to teach an eight o'clock class and then back home, seems, at times, to be too much for me. I put the house on the market again, late last spring.
Standing on the darkening neutral ground, my father asked me to have dinner with him; I knew by that it must be dividend day.
"I'm driving back to Covington tonight," I said. "So why don't we just go around the corner to Felix's and eat some oysters?" A pneumonia-weather wind was coming up and when I looked at my father's thin, half-covered arms, my knees shook.
"I can do better than that!" said Daddy. "We'll stop by St. Peter Street for my coat and tie, and then walk up for an early dinner at Galatoire's."
So we went down Bourbon Street together, past Galatoire's near the dust-blowing corner of Iberville Street, all the way to St. Peter and back again to Galatoire's. By then I wasn't even hungry. My father's little wooden house always saddens me, with its river damp, and unfinished canvases, and all the unopened mail. The unopened mail frightens me. I wish I had some good news to write to him.
At Galatoire's we were taken right away — it was still early for the dinner crowd — to a table near the little bar where the waiters mix the patrons' drinks. "Mr. Rand, Miss Clay-Lee," said Vallon, his thin face smiling at us atop the black tie of his waiter's tuxedo. "What can I bring you?" Vallon is old now, almost eighty. He used to give my father's father red beans and rice in one of the upstairs rooms, generations ago.
As I leaned back in my chair I saw several women looking at Daddy and at me, wondering, I guess, what our connection was. Because our coloring's so different, strangers never take us for parent and child. I have brown hair, like my mother had, but none of her beauty, and my father has the kind of blond good looks that don't betray his age unless the room is lit from overhead. I'd have settled for looking like either of them. Sis Honorine, who still cooks for me in Covington, told me I had the promise of becoming a beauty till about the time my mother passed away. I remember feeling beautiful just once, when I was about ten years old. My father was angry with my mother, a rare state for him, over a little sailboat, a Rainbow, that she had committed herself to buy and that he couldn't pay for. Uncle Baby Brother had to bail him out, of course, and then my uncle made my mother a present of the boat. I was delighted, and kept running my hands over the glossy colored photograph of it that Mama had placed on her little oak lady's desk. Daddy took the photograph away from me and put it on the top shelf of the bookcase. "Clay-Lee," he said, his gentle hand on my head, "on the night you graduate from Sacred Heart, I'm going to buy you a white convertible to match your dress, and we'll drive up St. Charles Avenue, the two of us. We'll leave your mother standing at the curb." To my knowledge, she didn't hear him tell me that. It didn't matter, as things turned out, if she had heard. My father spent my graduation night "not himself" in a bar on Napoleon Avenue, a block from the ceremony, and my mother had by then been dead a long time, past caring who left whom at the curb.
At our corner table with its good white cloth and heavy silver, I had a Ramos gin fizz and my father a Jack Daniel's. While I drank, I looked into the mirrored wall opposite my chair and picked out familiar faces in the early dinner crowd. Just behind us was the only son, middle-aged now, of a prominent coffee-importing family. He's in the process of dying from anorexia nervosa, that self-starvation ailment supposedly restricted to affluent young girls, but I guess nobody's passed the word along to Roger Addison, Jr., that he doesn't qualify for the disease. There he sat, enjoying his entrée, a double portion of cracked ice. At another table I saw the sad, olive-toned face of a woman who is the second wife of a third-generation heart surgeon. She met her future husband one night five years ago, while handing out menus at Brennan's, and as of two years ago she holds the current title of first woman to survive a leap from the Huey P. Long Bridge. ("Not crazy enough, you see, to leap with her coat on," Sis Honorine told me when it happened. Sis's brother Orville was a member of the bridge police. "Folded it up on the front seat of the car. Sealskin. Wouldn't wrap herself up in nothin' less, that one." Sis had been baby nurse to the first Mrs. Heart Surgeon's infants, and remained bitterly loyal.)
At a table for four with his elegantly dressed sister-in-law was a noncrazy, a famous writer who lived in Covington. I suddenly remembered that when we were twelve years old the writer's older daughter and I had planned to petition the pope for early entrance to the Carmelites, a religious order famous for its romantic iron grilles and nervous breakdowns among the novices. I caught myself smiling at nobody in the mirrored wall, and stopped.
"You can smile. I'll let you," said my father. "How do matters stand among the nontenured at Sophie Newcomb College?" He was already on his second Jack Daniel's and was saying a few words just to be polite. Daddy is a painter, a good one, and has always faded away during dinners; I like to think he retreats to some intricate new canvas in his mind. When I was a child and there was a noisy group at the table, my Uncle Baby Brother and my mother's cousins and aunts, all talking at once, he never had any idea what the conversation was about. If my mother tried to pull him in with a "What do you think about that, Rand?" he was likely to look up and answer, "Well, yes and no."
I looked at him now and saw the yellowness in the whites of his eyes. The sight of it gave me a sick, startling rush, like being retold without warning bad news I had managed to forget. I thought of Uncle Baby Brother on his deathbed, many years past, his face yellow as an old squash. Daddy had coerced me into visiting him, no doubt in the expectation I'd be remembered in Uncle Baby's will. I could've set him straight on that score, all right, and spared him one more terrible surprise. I didn't, though. The setting straight would've cost us both too much. ...
Uncle Baby's bedroom. The perpetual gloom, ceiling fan noises, and the mahagony four-poster with a sunburst canopy in eggshell damask, the tucked and swirling design that made me sick to look at the time I broke my ankle skating on the hilly sidewalk in front of Uncle Baby's house. It made me sick to look at Uncle Baby, too.
"Your father's getting to be a drunk, same as me," he was saying. Tremendous revelation. "Lucky for you. In a few years he won't be able to find his way home to his turpentine-stinking hole in the Quarter, much less haul himself across the lake to bother you."
"What do I have in Covington to be bothered, Uncle Baby? Easy-crying infants and a husband who needs his peace?" Shutters banging someplace, and a smell of boiled brisket and vegetable soup.
"Don't try to stop him drinking," continued Uncle Baby. Who are you to warn me? I was thinking. "If you stop and consider, he's entitled. Then again, I don't have to tell you not to interfere. You've always known how to let nature take its course." I pretended not to hear, not to hear, not to hear.
"I declare, but Rand's impossible, at that," came Aunt Mathilde's unconcerned drawl from some gloomy corner of the bedroom. She apparently felt compelled to sit there all the time, as if it had been she instead of my mother who was related to my uncle by marriage. "Was he drinking last New Year's Open House when he referred to your poor little step-cousin as the whore of Mount Holyoke?"
Uncle Baby gave a rattling gasp intended to be a laugh.
"Couldn't forgive Cousin Megan, goddamn him, for wearing that gold ankle-bracelet and going on so proud about her Yankee women's college. Goddamn it, she is a Yankee woman! What was she supposed to've done, gone and pledged Kappa Delta at Ole Miss?"
Another terrible gasp-laugh; this one brought Leatrice, the Negro factotum, in from the kitchen with a forbidden cigarette still in her lips and brisket grease on her apron. He laughed a lot, my Uncle Baby. Laughed the whole time he was writing out his will that made life sweet for the Incurables. You don't have to be strapped into a hammock to be an Incurable, was Sis Honorine's remark. Bitterly loyal. ...
"Cousin Courtenay was in town; she telephoned me yesterday," I said to Daddy. "She told me she looked in on you at St. Peter Street last Sunday afternoon, but you were sleeping like a little log." "Passed out" floated overhead, unspoken, on the scents of Trout Marguery and a more distant rum sauce. He looked up, back for a moment from the invisible canvas. "Don't hold it against me," he said, and smiled. He's got no right anymore to a smile like that. It's the smile of a young man, a man with his life ahead of him still, full of pleasure and expectation. The way he was when he first knew my mother, Constance, when the beginning of their life together must have seemed to him unmatched for reckless sentiment, and for love.
She was Constance Blaise Alexander, Queen of Comus, the most magnificent of the Carnival balls, on the night they fell in love. Just eighteen years old, her debut pushed ahead one year so that her father, Louisiana State Supreme Court Justice Thomas Alexander, whose health was failing (and whose wife had failed altogether and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. One), could be there to see his baby on her night. The photographs show a fine-boned beauty, her brown hair shoulder-length, dark against the silver collar of her robe. James Rand Calvert was a Comus duke that night, one of the privileged horsemen, masked and velvet-cloaked, who rode in the flambeaux-lit street parade before the ball. The floats stopped as always in front of the draped and purple-billowing balcony of the Pickwick Club, so that Comus could toast his Queen where she awaited him. As Constance leaned forward to greet her consort, Rand Calvert, far below, defied tradition by throwing aside his mask to see her face more clearly.
Unfortunately, it was apparent almost from the start that Judge Alexander didn't think much of the match.
"What's his future?" he shouted repeatedly to Constance.
Daddy says he can see him yet, propped up stiff as a corpse in an old leather wing chair in his study, clenching his fists and flinging off the restraining arm of Skinner, his manservant. "What's his future, I asked you? The whole goddamned bunch of 'em's either an artist or a cellist! A cellist, for Christ's sake!" (The Calverts, with the exception of Uncle Baby, were long on name but short on money, a condition common among certain New Orleanians since General "Beast" Butler came to town and confiscated the household silver of the Confederate aristocracy. Worse yet, to the Judge's way of thinking, the Calverts were politically liberal, and they were "artistic") And so Mama's daddy continued to cry out and go on till his face darkened, and Skinner had to half-carry him to bed. The Judge was worried, as Mama told it, that no one could take care of her like he had. She was small, delicate, her lungs unsuited to the Louisiana dampness. Why, her father had taken one look at her, when she was just three hours old, and called her "Lamb."
When she married Rand Calvert, Constance brought with her to her new husband's house only a few of the Alexander treasures. The old, elaborately carved cypress four-poster that had belonged to her mother, Solange Mallard, a bed so high on its legs you needed a footstool to climb onto it, its headboard scarred with hairpin scratches where generations of Mallard ladies had rested against it. The circa 1780 rosewood secretary with the scent of an exotic, persistent perfume in its secret drawer. The Woodward oil portrait of Constance's father, its canvas cracked from decades of exposure to New Orleans heat and damp.
Tommy Alexander's last birthday present to his daughter had been a purebred, Russian wolfhound puppy, which she named Mishka; Mishka, too, went with Constance to the new place of residence on Camp Street. (Mishka would eventually become Constance's close companion, her protector. I see Constance so often in my memory now with Mishka at her side, Mishka's watchful eyes following her mistress's every movement, as if my mother were a child left in her care. I envied Mishka; I longed to learn the secret ways that would make my mother's white fingers touch my hair in conspiratorial affection, as they did that regal dog's.)
With Mishka in Constance's arms, the newlyweds went to live in Rand Calvert's half of the two-story, two-family, frame house he owned on Camp Street, a shabby old house on a shabby block, the place that would become my first home.
The waiter, Vallon, had brought our appetizers. I could see my father wasn't interested in his; he was waltzing his Crabmeat Maison around on his plate with his fork, while he gazed off in the direction of another table somewhere behind me. Suddenly he leaned forward in his chair.
"On our way out, I want you to glance at the last table near the door, and look at what's left of Phil Harris," he said in an undertone. "Remember when your cousins took you to see Phil Harris perform at the Blueroom, for your birthday? What were you then, nine? God Jesus, baby, then how old does that make Phil Harris now?"
"I would guess about two years younger than you."
"Very funny. I don't believe you're even concerned about poor old Phil Harris. You've got that 'don't bother me' look you were fortunate enough to have inherited from your father."
Excerpted from Almost Innocent by Sheila Bosworth. Copyright © 1984 Alan Dean Foster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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