Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’m a bonafide southern fried hunting and fishing machine. I’ve gotten up before dawn and bagged an 8’ gator, went right up to dusk to put an arrow in the heart of a tusky razorback, and I’ve got a few ten pointers mounted on the basement wall.
Oddly enough, I’m a transplant who tarried away part of my youth in the Midwest until the great fate moved me to Virginia. I left the flat sprawl and picked up my glorious southern drawl. Nowadays I live in Maine, but country roads will always take me home…
Traces of Grit
The audience stood in a semi-circle around the street performers and Deveraux milled among the enthralled faces searching. Some girls were much prettier than others and fit what he liked better. He dismissed these beauties because they had company with them or acted as if an impenetrable shield surrounded them.
The dark brown-haired girl was with her mother and grandmother, the same face in different generations. A tawny blonde and her butch female lover held hands and ignored the snooty looks from many others in the mixed group. Her large wedding diamond sparkled in the strong sunlight, and it gave Deveraux a good lusty chuckle. The Midwesterner with a red handkerchief around her neck kept pushing her cowboy’s hand off her ass cheek after batting her eyes. This cute young woman with proud hazelnut eyes was there all by herself.
She smiled at the street performers when they cracked their jokes and gushed when they flipped numerous bowling pins high into the air. Her great interest made him snort because it was what most vacationers did while visiting New Orleans for the first time. After the juggling troupe stopped to take a break, she dropped a few dollars into their metal bucket and moved on to take in the many sights and sounds around Lafayette square. Deveraux made his most reliable move near the famous statue of Andrew Jackson, the founder’s horse rearing in historical effigy.
When dozens of trinkets on a small wooden table distracted her, he bumped into her, then apologized. Before she could react, he drew his thumb across her cheek and told her how beautiful she was in French. His mother’s dialect would force her to ask him what he had said and divert her attention from his invasion of her personal space. The perfected approach was so pat he expected the success garnered. Occasionally, his marks flinched from the brazen touch, but not this girl. She stood as if hypnotized.
“Le merci, mais vous devez vouloir dire quelqu’un d’autre.” A coy smile turned to haughtiness as she spoke perfect French, marred by a Northerner’s accent.
“I assure you; I meant the words for you. You’re intriguing and attractive. I’d like to know you better. Perhaps I could show you a part of the city that’s not so—touristy?” He exaggerated his look around the area as if the wonders couldn’t be more common.
“I bet you say that to all the girls you meet by chance near the cathedral.”
“Oui, but they are far and few between as I’m often too busy to stop and smell the beautiful roses as the saying goes.”
“You’re a silver-tongued charmer.” Her cheeks, already sun-fired ruby, brightened.
“I find honesty is the best way to make a budding connection.”
“You have honest looking eyes; I’ll give you that much. They’re a distinct color of blue.”
“Yes, I’ve been told they’re a striking color of blue.” He shrugged, hoping to impress upon her he was humble, but aware the Lord had blessed him with fantastic eyes.
“Hmmm, so what’s your plan to sweep me off my feet?”
“Nothing too grand. Dinner and dancing.”
“Oh, that’s impossible. I’d have to freshen up before going to a restaurant, fancy or otherwise.” She looked down at her clothes to confirm they were messy from sight-seeing.
“You look well attired to me and there’s no need to bother with freshening up. We’ll dance as if tomorrow was a thousand days away.”
“But you’re dressed for a night on the town, and you smell—wonderful.”
“We southerners often overdo our casual wear and fragrances.” He gave her his well-crafted smile, which showcased an exact amount of perfect white teeth.
“Come with me, you’ll see.”
Picking up girls came easy and being a ladies’ man became part of his charm at a young age, but spotting visitors was crucial information. He’d met many young women showing signs of the South’s heat while living in the hustling bustle of New Orleans. Her visible discomfort, dampened pits and beads of perspiration on her brow, declared this was her second or third day in the “deep south”. There was little doubt he’d be having dinner at the quaint eatery with the sexy sightseer once he spied her in the crowd.
Elizabeth looked ready for anything, and the awareness of his most hounding question became amplified. How much effort would this one take? She seemed different from all the other women he’d ever picked up, and his wariness grew. Devereaux forced himself to believe she was the same as all the rest.
His go-to restaurant in the oldest part of the French Quarter was a hidden gem that eluded most tourists. Shadows stretched and danced behind them on a full wall mural depicting a jazz scene. The bar area became a hot dance spot on certain nights after regular dining hours. This knowledge, executed in refined calculation many times before, had worked its magic on her all night. The enchantment of newness and related excitement were all around her, like the bright neon lights on the signs on Bourbon Street.
The eyes looking at him through the drafting candlelight and overhead bulbs, dimmed to enhance the mood, shifted to different colors of henna. One moment they were orange, then burgundy, and sometimes reddish brown to black. Her hair was an alluring color of auburn that reminded him of Spanish moss when the air plant’s colors were tones other than light gray. The two attributes had become more eye-catching than what he’d focused on as they wound their way through tight, car-jammed streets to the bistro. The longer he was in her company, the more she dug into his soul.
Her fork fished through soupy red sauce on a fancy plate with a gold rim trying to find another shrimp. Disliking her quixotic laughter was proving hard to do, and the melody of her merriment became a song he wished to hear again and again. Her supple milk-white cheeks kissed pink-red by the scorching sun tantalized him. The smoothness coupled with the soft, yet firm feeling had stirred him in unexpected ways when he had touched one at the square. An urge to touch her face again shook him more than it should.
Their half-eaten meals sat on the small table for two as the band began setting up. The doubt and turmoil of his earlier come on lines were still present in her ever-changing eyes. Gaining her complete trust concerned him, but his success rate pushed the feeling aside. He won most of the girls over while dinner was being worn off on the dance floor. Her fluency in French was another element he tried to make distasteful and focusing on the horrible accent didn’t work.
“I understand the tourist thing. Burlington is an over-visited college town. It’s just not as big, humid, or sinful. Lake Pontchartrain sort of reminds me of Lake Champlain, but there’s nothing like the gulf up there.”
Lake Champagne? “I’ve always wanted to visit Burlington and I suppose there’re few places like the gulf. My folks are from Barataria, well, truly Bayou Perot, but Barataria is the closet town.” He had a vague idea Burlington was a city in one of those northeast states, all smashed together and small.
“I’ve never heard of those places. I assumed you were born and raised in the city?”
“I’m not surprised as most people have never heard of either. I’ve lived here for ‘bout ten years. I ran to New Orleans when I turned sixteen.” The image of a lake filled with golden liquid full of rising bubbles remained stuck in his head.
“You never finished school?”
“No. A common thing for most shrimpers, I assure you.” He was lucky to leave the family’s mainstay behind because they were struggling worse than ever.
“Your family are shrimp fisherman, like in the movie Forrest Gump?”
“I’m not sure, I’ve never seen the movie.”
“You’ve never seen Forrest Gump?” Her look of skepticism caused his face and neck to twinge. The feeling of losing ground with her came and went.
“No, I don’t remember the last movie I saw.”
“I guess you’re too busy sweeping out-of-town girls off their feet.” His cringe seemed to go undetected by her.
“We couldn’t afford the movies growing up, so I suppose they elude my inner child.”
“Oh, I’m sorry I never meant to…” Her entire body reacted from the faux pas, and he downplayed the upper hand feeling.
“It’s okay. I came from poverty, but that’s not who I am anymore.”
“I don’t know what to say.” He turned to look at the band right as her eyes were shaping into greater distress from her mistake.
“Say yes, to sharing some bread pudding with me. This fine establishment has one of the best versions of the standard in all of Louisiana.”
“Yes, bread pudding sounds good, I think.”
“You’ve never tried it?” He gave her a quick glance and then looked back to the stage as if the band’s warmup session was the major draw.
“No, but I’ve seen it on all the menus.”
“I think you’ll find the dessert to be decadent, even though it has a humble name and beginnings.”
“I can’t wait to try some.” She picked up an unused spoon and acted as if she’d dipped it into an imaginary bowl, then put the tip into her lips. A sultry lick of her lips followed her mock smacking sound of enjoyment.
“You’ll lick the platter clean.” A smile broke across his face.
“We’ll see about that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that candid of a smile in all my life. Where’ve you been hiding it?”
For the first time in years, he had no response to something one of his dates had said. A strange feeling of vulnerability flushed through him. Whenever their chatter fell into a lull, he missed hearing her voice. The longing to create conversation just to hear her speak was abnormal.
Keeping the babble going with all the other young women he brought to dinner was often painful and exhaustive. Most of them were boring, airy, and presumptuous whether they were rich or middle class. Coming from abroad or being American seemed to be of little consequence.
Many of these women came to the anything-goes-city expecting it to rectify whatever was wrong with the asinine men from their hometowns. They believed the land of Mardi gras would reveal them as the magical belle of the South the snide world had overlooked. A belle of the ball with dozens of beaus fighting for their attention to get one short spin with them on the dance floor. They were clueless that some flawed personality trait existed within themselves, and the riverboat city did not differ from another vacation spot.
The pretty girl sitting across from him seemed to have no such misgivings, and her pragmatism was another appealing virtue in his running tally. Elizabeth Nuemacer was down south for a weeklong holiday. She would return home to her world knowing everything would be the same, including herself.
When something out of the ordinary happened, she went with the flow, yet her expectations from eating dinner with a dignified, handsome stranger appeared to be low. If dinner, followed by dancing, was the on-ramp to a foreign exotic highway, then she might speed up and merge into traffic. Sharing a night of loneliness in a faraway place and then bidding the smooth-talking devil adieu would also be enough.
After they devoured the plate of white chocolate bread pudding, he had them in the mix dancing. The blues band riffed out fast-paced songs to get the crowd up and moving. He’d seen the band play dozens of times before. He sang along to every song and mingled with the band members at the right times.
Over the years he had become an accomplished dancer and people stopped to admire his moves many times during the night. She matched his skills better than anyone else had in quite some time, if ever. Once again, he caught himself enjoying her company. He could ill afford to like any of the girls in that way. As all ladies’ men must do, he took no prisoners and made sure of the same for himself.
The night became a full lather of sweaty innuendos and other people’s funky overheated body odors mixing with their own. The sultry evening air was cooling down just when the people were ready to match the southern heat’s intensity. Her mood never changed, unlike all the other girls he’d dined and danced with before. She had been in the right frame of mind from the onset.
The others always went through the normal gambit of emotions before mellowing into a ready for anything vibe. Their willingness to do whatever comes next was what he looked for and banked on. She must’ve had that sense about her long before he approached her at the cathedral.
Did he even have to go through all the motions with her? Maybe he could’ve taken her right to the hotel? He was happy he’d avoided the shortcut, but the thought zipped through his head out of habit. Searching for the quickest, easiest way to the finish line in everything he did was habitual since youth.
As part of his routine, they sat at the bar sipping low end brandy with the bartender Jacques, a “good friend”. On some nights, a few members of the band would hang out longer and give the ladies an additional thrill. Chilling time with the band helped build his clout with the women and always put the proverbial icing on the bread pudding. Tonight, the three of them were all that remained after the place shut down. Elizabeth seemed enthralled by the entire evening but acted like he could dazzle her all night.
Once the ladies had the time of their lives in ‘Nawlins he encountered few problems taking them to a hotel and she was no exception. He used the same room every time, #227 at the Le Richelieu. Another “good friend” always made sure of the room’s availability whenever he required its use. Most of the other French Quarter hotels could put a lady in a strange land out of the mood and back on guard. The Le Richelieu was picturesque and avoided haughtiness or seediness. He believed the word rich in the hotel’s name helped keep many of them at ease.
The next step to his process was getting them to have one more night cap. He’d slip them GHB or a similar drug. After placing them on the bed, he’d undress them and then take all their belongings. When he found their hotel keys, he would place them on the writing desk next to the one from the Richelieu as his trainer had instructed so long ago. Then he would walk out of the door and never look back.
His next actions could vary, but he most often took the short walk along Dumaine Street to the waterfront. He’d tie a rock to the worthless items and toss them into the roiling muddy waters of the Mississippi, lost forever in the endless silting bottom. The rest of their stolen property was used to make his frugal life.
In two days his “pension” from the strange man who wore bright colored suits would slip him a manila envelope at the original Café du Monde, ten o’clock in the morning, sharp. He’d wait for the showy man to disappear while he ate beignets and sipped chicory coffee. Then he’d do the same as the strange man had done, slip away, back to his paltry life.
Whenever the quiet voice would call him on his home phone, the process would start again. This could be the next day or more than a week away, but the next call always came. More than a few times he’d vowed to stop his sordid life of shame. The fear of those who’d trained him always got the better of his reformation.
The faces and names of the women collided with his conscious more than the Louisiana sun burned up the muggy atmosphere. He used a million different coping mechanisms for the guilt, but hard liquor was the preferred method. The money sent home every month to Barataria helped ease his conscience, yet the booze remained flowing in endless numbing waves.
Once again everything was in line and on time. He’d swilled the rest of his untainted drink before doing the dirtier business at hand. Two different looking hotel keys lay next to one another on the old mahogany desk. He’d bundled her things in the small, thin plastic garbage bag from the little trashcan in the bathroom. The bulky, flimsy sack tucked under his right arm slipped a bit and he shoved it deeper. Then he went to sneak out the door like he’d done every other time before.
Right as his hand grasped the doorknob, something stopped him and held him fast. He turned his head. Her naked body, lying on top of the comforter, glowed in the shadowy yellow light from a lamp in the far corner left on because of routine and training. Beautiful perky breasts, a wonderful flat stomach, and short bristles of pubic hair beckoned.
Once more her melodic laughter and magnificent voice rang in his ears. Her perfume and sweat were a flowery tang that still intoxicated him with every breath he took. Gooseflesh erupted on his skin as their dancing bodies pressed and slid upon each other in memories time had yet to fade. Seeing her doubt filled henna eyes light up from the first taste of bread pudding snapped into his mind like an animated photograph.
For many moments, he stood there clasping the doorknob.