by Cathy Clay
Sounds of instruments along with soul clapping echoed from the 1958 Joseph S. Clark High Schoolís marching band. The majorette squad twirled batons showgirl style; some hoping to catch their future husbandís eye. Baseball players rooted each other on as though practice were the major league. Laughing children played and chased, swinging lunch pails. Older people stepped off buses squinting at a sun that seemed to unveil its glory solely for New Orleans.
Rita strolled on enjoying the after school sights that she seldom witnessed because of cheerleader practice. Mrs. Adair had dismissed them early as reward for rehearsing overtime all week. As Rita neared home she noticed Cici, her younger sister, in the front yard dancing with friends. "I could do better than that," Rita called.
"Come on over here," Cici challenged.
The others dared her with their hands on their hips. "Strut your stuff."
Rita walked over to them with the supreme air of older girl confidence.
"Watch me blow your minds." With her head thrown back, she started off with a burlesque sway. One hand landed on her hip, the other finger popping, occasionally fanning her face. Her little sister and the others cheered. "Ah yeah! You got it!" She approached her finale as their mother peeked outside.
"Rita, Cici, come inside. Your Aunt Marie is here."
They waved goodbye to their friends and followed their mother.
Marie reached out gathering both girls in her arms. "How are my girls?
Whew!" she said, kissing each of them on the forehead. She stepped back, observing her nieces. "Look at youóboth of you. Looking just like your mama. Well ladies, I have surprises for you." She pointed to a bright pink shopping bag on the sofa.
Marie gave a large white box with red ribbons to Cici and a palm-sized gold box to Rita. Cici unwrapped a lilac ruffled dress. "Auntie, I love it," she said, rushing over to hug Marie.
"Honey, Iím glad you like it."
They all faced Rita as she stared at her gift.
"Sweetie, do you like them?"
Rita looked up mesmerized. "Auntie, Iíve never seen anything so beautiful." She went to the mirror near the hallway, and put the earrings on. The stones were pear-shaped smoky topaz drops, suspended from tiny sterling Ionic columns. They seemed destined for Ritaís bronze complexion, subtly dangling from her delicate earlobes, giving a mysterious radiance to her flowering beauty.
Ritaís mother came over and looked closer at the earrings. "They really compliment you." To Marie, she said, "These gifts are beautiful."
A wide-eyed Cici approached Rita. "Theyíre so pretty on you."
"Thanks. Maybe Mama will let us go show Vicki and them."
"You can go, but put the earrings in the box so you donít lose them."
Rita carefully placed them inside the box before embracing her aunt. "Thank you so much."
"Youíre welcome, darling."
"Come on Cici, letís go."
"Hurry back! Itís almost time for supper."
Cici was as eager as Rita to show off the earrings, grinning and slinging her ponytails as they walked. Rita laughed, "Youíre crazy little sister."
"Hope I get some pretty earrings. Iím tired of these itty bitty pearls."
"You will when youíre older."
They reached the corner of Ursulines and North Villere. A bus passed. Rita looked both ways and held Ciciís hand. They walked a few paces from the curb when Rita noticed a rusty pickup moving toward them. "Here comes a truck!" She braced Ciciís shoulders, urging her across the street, "Hurry up!"
Before reaching the grass, she felt her sisterís hands slip away. The truck halted to a piercing shrillness as she turned to see Rita roll from the hood onto the pavement. Her eyes were still open. Blood-drenched hair clung to her face. Cici knelt tear-blinded and cuddled Ritaís head.
An old man wearing ragged overalls stumbled from the truck. "Yíall alright? I canít hardly see." He stooped over Cici reeking of tobacco, ointments, and whiskey.
Passersby gathered around the accident.
Crazy Hazel drifted near the truck unnoticed, mumbling with her eyes cast down toward her bare battered feet. "What done happened here?"
She discovered the box glistening near the rear of the truck. She staggered over, grabbed it, and opened, to much delight, something of use. Gratified with the find, she walked on until reaching an antiques shop on Toulouse Street.
Hazel gazed at her reflection in the storefront window. She held one of the jewels to her earlobe. The beautiful adornment looked distorted next to her ashen skin, rotten teeth, and hunched back. Disenchanted, she returned the earring to its box.
After fumbling with the knob, Hazel eased the door open. An elderly man stood behind a small cluttered jewelry display with a condescending sneer. "How may I help you?"
"I wanna see what I can get for dese," she said, removing the top from the box then sliding the earrings across the counter.
The clerk observed them through thick dark spectacles resting on the tip of his nose. "Where did you get these?"
Hazel leaned toward the shopkeeper, answering in a rough dry voice, "I comes by em. Nah, what you giving for em."
"Well, I could give you ten dollars."
"What! Pretty as dey is. I can get fifteen, twenty dollars for em."
"Iíll give you thirteen."
Raindrops fell in mellow unison as dusk gave way to night. Passersby never saw panting lovers showering passions in the alley outside the Raven. For over a century that obscure alley provided a measure of discretion. Duke and Jewel used that diminutive space for romantic interludes that could not wait.
"Baby, I got one more set. Then Iíll be right over."
"Duke, you come straight to my place. I got a surprise for you," Jewel said, through muffled kisses.
"I will darling. You take my car."
He walked her to the car, holding the umbrella above her until she was inside.
Jewel drove to her apartment in the French Quarter as she thought of Duke. They met when she started singing at the Raven. Theirs was the kind of attraction that came naturally and felt right from first glance. For the past five months she basked in a romance that brought joy instead of encounters that reaped sorrow. If I had known Duke was in the cards, I would have waited, she thought.
She parked beneath the balcony. Rain dripping from the black wrought iron evoked images of her and Duke making love there, christening it their way. She walked to the gate glancing for puddles. Without her usual intuitive caution, Jewel stepped behind the bars. Locking the gate, she saw a shadow appear. She turned slightly to the cold drawl of "Umh, you looking good for him too?"
Duke and the band put away instruments while waitresses swept, wiped tables, and emptied ashtrays.
"Say Armand, did you go to Gressoís to pick up those earrings?"
"Let me see them again."
Armand reached inside his jacket and passed a small black velvet box to Duke.
"Theyíre almost as pretty as her." His eyes lingered on the smoky dangles; he imagined Jewel wearing the earrings. He pictured her dancing, rolling her head, playing in her hair, and pursing her lips.
"Come on man, drop me off at Jewelís."
As they turned onto Royal Street, they noticed lights flashing. A police car was parked in front of Jewelís building. Duke ran from the car; Armand followed. They approached the gate where two cops, an elderly couple, the student who lived next-door to Jewel, and the teacher who lived downstairs were gathered around a fountain. Duke cleared his throat enough to ask, "What happened?"
The student recognized him. "Heís her boyfriend."
One of the officers moved away from the courtyard towards Duke, allowing him to view Jewel slain on the ground. Blood stained her beige satin dress from her breast to her navel, where the knife protruded.
The officer opened the gate. "Please step inside, sir. Do you know this woman?"
Duke walked closer to Jewel, wiping tears on his sleeve. He was struck by her expression. She appeared neither frightened, nor astounded. Jewel looked sad.
He knelt, gently touching her face like he was trying to capture her suffering in the palm of his hand. The fading warmth of her flesh summoned memories of them together.
"Sir, do you know her?"
"Yeah . . . sheís my girlfriend."
"Could we ask you a few questions?"
"Yes," Duke answered, rising to face the officer. Then shielding his eyes with the back of his hand.
Armand went to him, and stroked his back consolingly. "Iím with you man. Youíll be alright."
Duke cried somberly while feeling in his coat pocket. He gave the black velvet box to Armand. "Take these back."
Morning dappled its splendor on the tall steeple that crowned Sojourner Temple. The glowing copper cross was but a reflection of the glee inside the house of worship. With its Doric columns, sweeping veranda, and raised foundation, the brick church embodied the enduring legacy of the freedmen who dared to dream and build.
The choir exalted a spirited version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the congregation joined. Front pew worshippers shook tambourines. Pastor Williams and the deacons left the pulpit to sway, clap, and inspire the musicians. The deacons gathered around the drummer, pianist, and trumpeter. Brother Victor romanced an old steel guitar while the pastor roused him. The instrumental break was jubilant. Everyone sang along. Some shouted; others danced in the isles. Ushers even got the spirit. Some women fa nned themselves and dried their eyes with handkerchiefs. Though small children witnessed this spectacle every Sunday, they looked around in awe; excited by soulful "amenís" and passionate "hallelujahís."
Teres enjoyed services at Sojourner Temple. She came from Baton Rouge to work during the summer while staying with her Aunt Rose.
After the benediction Pastor Williams and the deacons stood in the foyer to shake hands and bless souls. Deacon Glenn Jones anxiously rubbed his palms together as Teres and her aunt neared the entrance. He wanted Roseís permission to visit Teres again.
They had seen each other every Sunday for the past month. They went to the picture show, the park, and the French Quarter. Often they held hands; she let him kiss her once. "Good afternoon, ladies."
"How you doing, Deacon?"
"Fine maíam, just fine. Ms. Rose, I wanted to know if I could see Teres this evening? I meanóif itís alright with you and her too," he said, smiling at Teres.
"Itís fine with me." She asked her niece, "You want to visit with Deacon Jones?"
It was dusk when Deacon Glenn Jones neared the pink shotgun cottage with roses and lilies lining the walkway. The front door was open. Before he could knock, Teres appeared behind the screen carrying a small pitcher of lemonade in one hand and two glasses in the other. "Hi."
They sat on the swing talking and laughing. When too shy to make eye contact, they studied the skyís majestic darkness.
"Glenn, you ever wonder how many people are like you?"
"Yeah. Supposedly, weíre all connected."
"I donít mean like that. But sometimes, some people get to . . . you know, maybe they cross the same bridge and have the same thought. They might come from the same place at different times. Maybe they just get to be alike in some small way."
"I reckon thatís more like sharing a fate."
"I suppose so."
They idled in silence until Glenn fumbled in his pocket and said, "I really like you." He gave Teres a black velvet box.
She looked inside; joy flooded her face, but soon vanished. "Glenn, theyíre beautiful, but I canít keep them."
"Iím going to be married in September. I came here to work while my fiancť works in Lake Charles. We want to save enough money to buy a house in Baton Rouge. I apologize. I should have told you at first."
Solemnly, Glenn responded, "I understand."
The mellow sound of Louis Armstrong crooning "St. James Infirmary" waxed from the Colvis house. Their yard was a colorful medley of bright streamers lacing all the trees and hedges in front of a pristine white two-story house. Petunias basked in the celebration along with a luminous sky.
Jeanine Colvis was setting the table when her daughter, Seraphia came downstairs wearing a short yellow chemise. Long jet waves dusted her shoulders. Sheís a woman now, Jeanine thought.
"Hey, birthday girl! Come hug your mama."
She wrapped her arms around her petite mother in a sheltering embrace. "Thanks for giving me a party."
"Baby, you donít become a woman everyday. This is very special." Folding a napkin, she winked and asked, "How does it feel to be eighteen?"
"I donít know." She followed her mother around the table. "Iím nervous about starting college, maybe working."
"Thatís part of growing up. Thereís much more, and Iíll be here for you."
Franklin Colvis entered the dining room with a proud smile. "Hey there, baby girl!" He stepped back, studying Seraphiaís appearance. "Pardon me, I meant young lady."
"Call me what you want, Iím yours." She kissed him on the cheek. "I love you Daddy. Thanks so much."
A car door slammed. Seraphia looked out the window and saw Brian coming toward the house. She ran to the door to meet him with a kiss. "Hey, I didnít think youíd arrive this early."
"Baby, I couldnít wait to give you these. I was down in the Quarter and I found this shop." He gave her a gold box. "As soon as I saw them, you came to mind."
While her mother looked on, Seraphia opened the gift. She was spellbound. Sadness came over her face; tears clouded her eyes. She went the mirror near the hallway and held one of the smoky dangles to her earlobe. A strange peace absorbed her as she remembered her sister admiring their charms in the same mirror, eight years before.
Mrs. Colvis went over and softly braced her daughterís shoulders. "Oh, Cici . . . itís alright baby."
Seraphia heard only a whisper, a pure whisper. Not too close, not too far.