Claim the Disappearing: Chapters 1-5
(I invite you to enjoy this free New Orleans novel, courtesy of the wonder that is the internet, unrolled a teensy bit at a time. For your convenience, I’m unrolling chapters 1-5 in their completeness in this post. Let me know what you might like to see next—there’s still time to influence the story!!)
The ancient Chartres decree that the Royal Dauphine drink Burgundy while seated on the Rampart until St. Claude rises from the dead.
I taught myself that ditty to remember which rickety street followed which in the maze that was the Bywater of New Orleans. I had no more sense of direction than an old fart wandering with hands outstretched as he relived a psychedelic flashback from his swinging Sixties. That is, none. So I created the rhyme, unaware that rhymes shouldn’t be created, much less repeated, in susceptible New Orleans, not if the author wanted to stay firmly planted in the world she started out in. Which is to say, it was ignorance, not malice, that brought me up short at the base of the stone castle, neck craned against the last slanting beams of sunlight as I struggled to decide if that was truly a man lounging on the rampart as he swigged from an upturned bottle of cheap red wine.
Lord, protect the ignorant, because the rest of the world sure as hell won’t.
I was not merely the creator of rhymes. I created my whole damn life, including my name—Etoile, which I thought sounded French and exotic, and even in my most woebegone state, I understood New Orleans respected the exotic. Of course, I didn’t understand the city respected only the authentic exotic and could distinguish between that and posers as naturally as hot air rising to a clear blue sky creates a breeze, a wind, a tearing hurricane. “Aurora Etoile,” I’d answer when pressed, and then add, “I go by my last name.” Good God, the pretense. Sometimes, looking back, I believe the Bywater chose me because the neighborhood was full up to its neck with the hoards of us, gagging on the conceit of those who invade in search of the cool but by their very presence evaporate whatever was therein worthy to begin with.
The man on the castle’s rampart was in clear danger of rolling off. The leaves of the giant maple growing aside the stone fluttered, exposing their silvery undersides. Caterpillars had woven webs in its branches, and for a moment, I thought the industrious larvae were determined to protect the drunk man by providing him with the proverbial cradle should he loll a bit too far. I was wrong. Nature doesn’t stick its neck out for us. Nor, do we for it. We both roll along following our own selfish desires (yes, nature is selfish—just ask the child wailing in front of her hurricaned house) and when things go wrong, we backpedal as fast as we can, making excuses of our good intents.
I intended to call out to the man, warn him that he was getting precariously close to the edge of his rampart.
But then St. Claude appeared, his pleated linen robe billowing against the orange clouds of the setting sun.
The Dauphine (because by then I was aware of what I had done) eased down his half-empty bottle of Bugundy, and we both stared at the Jesuit priest descending gently onto the wide Rampart. When his black silk slippers scraped the stone, his gaze traveled from the open-mouthed Dauphine to me. “Are you ready, Etoile?” he asked, his English tinged with a French-lilt but otherwise perfect. “The time has come to declare yourself. Are you in or out?”
I think I need to back up and tell you how I came to be in New Orleans at all. I gotta warn you, though, it means backing all the way up to the three women who gave me life and deeded me purpose and bestowed their ill-gotten gifts on me. Stolen, all of it. You should jump off this train right now if you want a story with a worthy narrator. I am unworthy at every turn.
You’ve been warned.
All bad things start in Alabama. That’s not talking ugly. It’s geographical fact. Alabama is a topographical sinkhole out of which the earth burps. The onion-tinged belch rolls east, carried mostly by the earth’s orbital spin but also blown by the puffed cheeks of easily-offended Mississippi.
At least that was the story my grandmother told me when I was young enough to yawn at eight o’clock in the evening, worn out from a day of riding horses and hiding in the hayloft where straw stuck in my wool sweater as I ran like hell from the mean-ass geese who claimed the barn as their own as soon as the weather turned cool. We would be in her bedroom, my Tippy and me. She sat on the edge of the bed with the popcorn bedspread slipping to the floor, its weight pulled sideways by the dense quilts she took to making in the evenings after my Pop-Pop left her for a woman in Mobile (only much later did I realize this was probably why Tippy maligned Alabama.)
The room smelled tangy like Ben-Gay and, because I stayed with Tippy in the winter when gas heaters hissed, scorched dust. My stomach was full of the salty boiled peanuts Tippy set aside for my snack in front of the TV while, behind me in the gold throne chair, she pieced her quilts and murmured against the idiocy on the screen. Afterwards, already in my pin-tucked nightgown, I sprawled on the bumpy bedspread and and sucked on a slick strand of hair as Tippy talked trash about Alabama, my favorite thing.
Mississippi was way better than Alabama, Tippy assured me as she plaited her hair into a braid thick as a water moccasin. How much better? I asked, rising to fetch the silver-backed mirror with the tarnished mermaid riding a wave on the sea. We could beat Alabama with one hand tied behind our back, she replied, examining the neatness of her handwork in the angled mirror. Fair fight. No Alabama-cheat-‘em rules. Alabama, she flipped her plait over her shoulder and squinted at me to make sure I absorbed her point, was good for nothing but running away from.
We were from Mississippi, my Tippy and me. Her mother, too, and her mother’s mother and—after she ran away from Alabama—Tippy’s mother’s mother’s mother (I refuse to make a joke about all those mothers.) The bedtime tales Tippy told me weren’t exactly an origin story, but she did get it from that long ago great-grandmother of hers, the one she called Tip-Top. The first of us, I always thought, at the very tippy top of the Tippy heap.
Tip-Top is the one I want to tell you about. She’s the first of the three women whose inheritance I snatched into my fist as I ran away from Mississippi, hellhound on my heels, exactly the same way Tip-Top had run away from Alabama, a theft that eventually sent me stumbling down Rampart to watch St. Claude rise from the dead. Again.
I feel bad about leaving the drunk Dauphine lolling dangerously on the rampart.
You know what a rampart is, right? The walking ledge that circles the highest part of a castle where the guards keep watch, searching the horizon for dust clouds that signal the enemy’s approach. Except this gray stone castle was only two stories high. The rampart jutted over the cracked sidewalk like a beetlebrowed bouncer on Bourbon Street. The Creole cottages on each side—one painted orange with scarlet shutters, the other a solid purple with black and white awnings—seemed to lean away from it, appalled.
The Dauphine stirred, and St. Claude, who had been staring at me as he awaited my answer to his invitation, turned his attention to the young man. The Dauphine had one leg slung over the parapet (you gotta look that one up yourself) and coughed, pitiful, as if he were on his way out of this world.
New Orleans did that to you. Made you drink more than you intended, eat more than your stomach cared for, feel sorry for yourself afterwards. Wherever you went, in the velvet napped bars or along the French Quarter sidewalks thick with tourists or just walking the streets dotted with orange cones to warn of moon-crater potholes, partiers swirled around you. The carousers sucked you in, like water molecules yanking on other water molecules, an inescapable attraction. You staggered against the pull, but if you hadn’t been in the city long enough to be inoculated against the false laissez le bon temps roulerethos, you gave in. Water, drink. New Orleans.
The Dauphine’s closed eyelids fluttered. He was a good-looking man (is there any other kind in a story such as this?). His wavy black curls kissed the collar of his gold-laced cloak. He wore stockings. This whole thing could be a tableaux, the fever dream of someone who truly belonged in New Orleans, who eagerly spent untold hours sewing a thousand red beans onto their Mardi Gras costume or rigging up a bike-cart-Godzilla-basket to tote their groceries home from Rouses Market or simply walking down the street naked on stilts because, hey, it was New Orleans!
Except the castle hadn’t been on the sidewalk on my earlier walks. Never.
St. Claude sniffed, his gaze locked on the poor Dauphine. The once-dead-alive-again saint knitted his white, plucked eyebrows. Claude de la Colombiere. Writer, confessor, prisoner. Perhaps lover to St. Mary Margaret Alacoque, but historically the nun’s spiritual director who spent hours closeted with her in the bare wood sacristy—the same room where the priest donned—and removed—his scratchy linen vestments—knee to knee, hot exhalation mixing with hot confession.
The saint’s lace-trimmed robe caught the orange sun and glowed, aflame. He was resplendent. He sneered at the supine Dauphine.
With a groan, the Dauphine leaned over the rampart and spewed red vomit like blood gushing from a man knifed in the stomach. We can always feel others judging us.
“Hey!” I yelled at the saint, mad at him for bullying the poor Dauphine. “I’m in.”
“Very well.” He lifted his palms as if to raise every demon that had ever been imagined to inhabit the most libeled city in America. Instead, his own toes rose off the rampart.
The Dauphine sat up on one elbow, wiping his mouth. “Wait,” he croaked at me.
Too late. I was in. I mean literally in—inside the castle.
The darkened foyer stunk so badly I almost gagged—rat turds, wet mold, and what else was that? Glue? Or dough left in a bowl in the kitchen, slowly expiring in yeasty bubbles? As my eyes tried to adjust to the dark, the last ray of light I might ever see caught on a suit of armor and glanced me a blow. I stepped to the side for a better view.
Three staircases rose in front of me. One swept to the left, one to the right, and a final one straight up to a landing backed by a stained glass window. At the foot of each staircase stood my three ancestors.
I could have predicted this. I always knew one day I’d be forced to choose something bedsides a fancy fake name.
My ancestor Tip-Top was Cherokee. Please be clear about this. I might be a gentrifying jerk who steals atmosphere for her stories, but I am not claiming I’m Cherokee. I was raised a white-bread child of two alcoholic parents whose one act of kindness was farming me out to my various grandmothers for care. I went to Tippy’s farm in the winter, because she would see that I got to school, and to my grandmother and great-grandmother’s falling-down Jackson mansion for the summers. I am poor white trash. Poor enough to enjoy commodity cheese. Trashy enough to sweat on Tippy’s upholstered couch on the front porch. White enough to have my crazy Jackson grandmothers called ‘eccentric.’ This fact is central to the story. I am white.
Tip-Top was Tippy’s grandmother. She was born in Georgia in 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended. When Tip-Top was fifteen, she migrated with her mother, Dancing Water, to Look Out Mountain, Alabama. Sounds romantic, but think of it this way: Look out!
The white man who accompanied Dancing Water was in the army. What army? A remnant of the Revolutionary Army? Or the army that was running Dancing Water’s Cherokee tribe out of the new state of Georgia so white settlers could steal the tribe’s gold and their women? These type of details get lost when a story is boiled down to its essence: Tip-Top was the child of Dancing Water who left Georgia with a white army man. The make-shift family entered Alabama the day the land was named as the Mississippi Territory. That’s why, Tippy would declare as she brushed her silvery hair until it sparked, you have always been from Mississippi. She overlooks the Georgia part. Tippy had life beginning and ending where she wanted it.
Here’s the tricky part. The migration put Tip-Top, a young Cherokee woman with no discernible father, right smack on the disputed border between Cherokee and white man’s territory. Borders are agitated places. I don’t know exactly what happened next, and Tippy would never elaborate to a youngster like me, but I gathered Tip-Top had too many “suitors.” Ill-suited suitors. Aggressive suitors. The family decided to keep moving west. Quickly. They loaded their possessions into an oxcart and trundled from northeast Alabama to the black dirt of the Mississippi Delta.
Except apparently my sense of direction was present even back then. The tiny family drifted off-course. Wound up in the southwest section of the southwest territory of Mississippi. Not the fertile Delta, but the poor hill country of the Piney Woods. Pine away, you ain’t gonna get rich in the Piney Woods. The Native Americans living there were Choctaw, and Tippy said therein lay the confusion in our family tree: we were of Cherokee heritage, but the memory got cross-hatched with the real presence of the Choctaws in the land where Tip-Top survived the Civil War, lost her right foot to a bear trap, and birthed nine children to a man named—I kid you not—Smith.
I’m sure Smith was a criminal absconding to Mississippi to escape prosecution. Hence his alias: John Smith. I swear to God. John fucking Smith.
It doesn’t matter (but surely you can see why I needed Etoile? I mean, how embarrassing). The point is, nothing about me is connected to the males in my heritage. All of me—along that strand—goes back to the woman called Tip-Top who arrived in Mississippi in a mad dash. Before long, Tip-Top would set the tone for every female that would come down her line, including me. She killed. Once in self-defense. Once accidentally. And once, back in Look Out! solely because the son of a bitch deserved killing. Or as Tippy would whisper when the sag in the mattress rolled me next to her until I awoke nearly suffocating from my mouth pressed against her nightgowned shoulder, gasping for air like an ill-equipped sucker fish, “Killing is sometimes the only option left a woman.”
Tip-Top was the ancestor standing at the foot of the left rising staircase, protecting one path to the endangered Dauphine.
The light slicing through the open castle door slowly contracted. The creaking of the shutting door that accompanied it was so comical, I laughed. What the hell? Had my life become a Scooby Doo movie?
I glanced over my shoulder, but no one was there. Oddly enough, I could see through the door’s millioned windows all the way to the end of cobblestoned Montegut Street where the metal tail of an oil tanker glided above the concrete flood wall. Montegut dead-ended at three palm trees. Then a swath of sewer-soaked grass. Then the wall protecting the city against an overflow of the Mississippi River. I was looking up at the moving tanker tail, looking up at the river, looking over my head at the water snaking past the city.
Before I ran from Mississippi to the Bywater, when Hurricane Katrina hit the city, the flood wall wasn’t there. Didn’t need it; the river levees held. The horrible destruction of the city wasn’t from breeching levees but because poorly built canal walls collapsed. Big fucking deal, right? A distinction without a difference. But levees breaching sounds romantic, and the moment I laid eyes on the castle hunkered at the end of my daily walk, I swore I would give up romance. The tanker tail moved quickly out of sight.
A song strummed down the staircases, splitting at the top and tripping down the treads in three-part symphony. The Dauphine on the rampart. Not a drunken roaring. A lament. He had a beautiful voice. The notes rose and fell. The boy had quite the range. I started toward the stairs.
That was one of my choices too. To march right past the three women guarding the staircases and wind my way up to the Dauphine. Hang out on the rampart with him in the silken night. Share his burgundy. Forget about preachey-judgey St. Claude with his nice threads and will-of-God devotion and really just all of the nonsense that made me conjure him in the first place.
As if called by name, the saint appeared on the landing above the middle staircase. He perched on the edge of a marble table, hands dangling from his knees.
“Etoile?” he asked, and I could have kissed him for using my made-up name.
“Are you telling them about your ancestors?”
“As I know it.”
“Don’t fudge.” He produced a peach from the folds of his magnificent robe and bit. Peach juice sluiced down his chin. He swiped it off before it could splatter the robe. “And yourself? Are you telling the truth about your own life?”
“I’m working up to it.”
I nodded, because while I have not told you about the evening I lay in the grass beneath the rattling pecan leaves and formulated a plan while the needlelike proboscis of a mosquito drew blood, its feathery feet kissing my cheek, I have told you my Tip-Top gifted me with an understanding of necessary killing.
“You better make it quick.” St. Claude nodded over his shoulder. “He’s serious up there.”
“What’s his problem?” I asked, because even though I had obviously conjured him, not everything conjured in New Orleans arrives as planned. The Bywater had assented to my subconscious dreaming for reasons purely its own.
The saint sighed. “I failed, that’s what. He doesn’t intend to assume the throne. It was my job as his tutor to feed him that pap about the burden of the crown being a suffering pleasing to God, the rich man’s duty of leadership, blah, blah, blah. He refuses to ‘play the game,’ as he puts it. You might be able to convince him, if not to govern, to at least not take his own life. Or”—he flipped his palm back and forth in a ‘who knows’ gesture—“you might not. But you won’t get the chance if you don’t hurry.”
At the risk of his telling me exactly what he thought of me (“You are the worst kind of poser—the observing, sarcastic kind.”), I asked, “Why me? Why do you think I have sympathy for a spoiled brat heir to the throne?”
He chomped into the peach. The sound of his chewing echoed off the stone walls. When he had swallowed, he said, “I don’t. In fact, I think you might want to see him die. But I don’t want to pre-judge.
“Either way, his decision will wash over him in an instant, and if his choice goes bad, like the cetacean he’s named for, he’ll simply arch into the air, and even two stories up is high when your landing spot is jagged chunks of stone thrust upward by tree roots.”
I glanced at my ancestor standing at the foot of the middle staircase. The first Bigmama, tall as a sequoia. The dull thrum of an overhead helicopter vibrated the castle windows. Army, no doubt. “We better pick up the pace, then.”
TO BE CONTINUED….