Last Match in New Orleans
When he asked at the desk for change for ten dollars, the young black woman
said cheerily, “Don’t spend it all in one place.” The man next
to her at the computer smirked. This was his first stay at the Drake Hotel,
although he had played matches in San Francisco before. He remembered the last
one at a condo in Pacific Heights, and the memory was pleasant.
He took a leisurely stroll down to Fisherman’s Wharf. The sun was cheering despite its being early spring. Back
home there had been nothing but icy drizzle for weeks on end. He realized he
had been mildly depressed all this time.
He ignored the surge of shoppers crisscrossing his path. He decided to watch the harbor seals cavort around the pilings or sunning themselves oblivious to the human
beings tossing scraps of food. He remembered a restaurant down there with a lot
of glass and sunshine streaming through. His appetite sharpened because the langostinos
in their piquant sauce returned as a welcome olfactory memory.
A little way off from a crowd of Chinese-American children, he watched the
seals twist their tapered bodies near the pier. He was slightly repulsed by a
dozen of them all packed together sunning on a pile of rocks supporting a buoy. Their
thick bodies were wedged together in a gelatinous mass where the eye could barely discern a snout here or a fin there. He
forgot what families of seals were called.
A young child’s crying nearby disturbed his reverie about the last
match he had played. It was the way she cried, not as bratty children cry for
attention but mournful, too old a sound for such tiny lungs. He turned away from
the harbor breeze with its reek, and saw a young woman reaching down to grab the child by her hand. The mother’s short chestnut hair was feathered off her head and fell across her face. The light breeze was enough to lift it.
David was struck by the spectacle despite his desire to return to the chess
game in his head. He noticed two other children, an older boy, maybe six or seven,
and another girl, who must be hers as well, clustered around the young woman’s legs.
She looked in her early twenties and she was obviously well along in her pregnancy. The older children looked on with
blank stares while their youngest sibling cried. The mother caught the child
by the wrist and gently pulled her away from the curb. Another breeze lifted
her hair and David was struck by the sheer prettiness of her distressed face in profile.
She did not look poor. The children
were dressed well, a little unkempt, but not unusually so. The mother’s
clothes were neither fashionable nor worn for comfort, but he was never able to distinguish between expensive dishabille and
a slovenly chic that aimed for that effect.
The child’s crying revved to higher tones and he felt his space invaded
as moan became screech, then climbed the scale toward dog whistle. It made him
feel a squirmy distress—he wasn’t sure why—so he left the jetty and headed for the shining restaurant.
Waiting for the waiter, he wondered where the father of this family might
be. A good meal and a glass of pinoir would fix this darkening mood.
He had never challenged Tommy V. on the sixty-percent share of the winnings. After all, Tommy fronted the money and had the contacts. They were supposed to split travel expenses, although it wasn’t the even-steven he promised. David was no good at negotiating whereas Vacca had a natural bent for it. You could drop this paunchy, florid-faced white man into the Lost Quarter of the Arabian Desert, and he
would be bargaining with the toughest blue tribesman for a camel inside of fifteen minutes.
David easily imagined Vacca’s thick hairy fingers wiggling numbers into the palm of some nutbrown Toureg.
He called Tommy at the Renaissance Center downtown and said he would be staying
at the Drake for a few days. Tommy shrugged off his disappointment. “It happens,” he said. Excepting one seventy-five
thousand dollar loss two years ago, he had made just short of a million in almost nine years, invested most of his forty percent
in T-bills and money-market certificates. The stock market was recovering from
this past brutal year, but he was worried because his desire to play chess at this demanding level was waning. He told Vacca never to book him unless very big money was at stake.
When he reached the Drake, he saw the woman again with her brood trailing
slightly behind at the same instant a maroon Escalade at a high rate of speed was approaching from the opposite direction. David’s heart lurched, and his brain took a crazy snapshot, freezing it just
as the mother reverse-clutched and snapped her two children’s arms back before the big car mowed them all down in the
middle of the street.
When time resumed, the car had passed with a contemptuous toot of its horn;
they all stood on the median, mother and ducklings temporarily safe. David
thought, “The woman will get them all killed.” The Beefeater grimaced politely and nodded to David as he stepped
past. His lunch had been satisfying and he felt that a nap after his brisk walk
and trolley ride would be a good thing. He liked the décor of his room—the
burnished old furniture, a handsome mahogany armoire, and the striped sheets and patterns of his curtains.
He called Tommy V. and learned the match in New York was canceled because
his opponent had a relapse of his thyroid cancer. He told David to spend an extra
day in town, take the Alcatraz tour, and come home. He was lining up something
promising in New Orleans. David said he’d catch a later flight back to
Dearborn, maybe Wednesday.
The neighborhood where his foster parents had raised him was now an Arab
enclave with ethnic restaurants, newspapers, and mosques. David didn’t
know anyone left from the time he had lived there. The brownstones were still
there and the maple trees lining the street looked the same in the fall, but the surrounding neighborhoods had flipped long
ago and were now all black, showing the ravages of poverty and neglect like open sores; many abandoned or boarded up houses
dotted both sides off the street. Tommy mocked these “sentimental journeys”
of his and David would flush with embarrassment.
Freed of the anxiety he always felt before a match, he found himself restless
and unable to stay put inside his room. Coming down in the elevator, he was undecided
between a long taxi ride about the city or a stroll down to Market Street where the sex clubs advertised their wares in a
glitzy miasma of neon. The light was turning a golden color beyond the taller
He was waiting for the traffic signal to change when he became aware of her
in the small crowd standing with him at the corner. Then she was suddenly standing
beside him with her children clutching at her hands and legs, all in preparation to cross the intersection. David’s pulse rarely rose even in the heat of intense combat when he knew he was about to vanquish
his opponent. He flushed. It was
like watching a ballroom couple burst out of stately sarabande into a frenetic tango.
He face burned when she accidentally brushed his side. He shivered and
felt heat rising to his face. When they crossed en masse, he lingered back to
watch her move ahead with her children.
The children were listless, standing around unlike before, but their willingness
to be herded by their mother was offset by a stupefied calm that made them reluctant to budge and made her task all the harder. David would soon be past her, and his heart began thumping ever louder as he approached. She ducked quickly toward one well-dressed man in a suit with a hand out, palm up,
and David realized with a shock she was begging. The man made a brusque gesture with his own hand and picked up his pace to
move past her.
David knew in the instant before she did it that she would turn to the next
stranger, him, and make the same appeal.
But he was wrong. She flicked
her eyes to his and cut them to a group of three women chattering amiably just behind him walking closer to the curb. She was about to dash for them when David reached out his hand and caught her firmly
by the upper arm.
“Wait,” he said. “Please.”
He began fumbling in his wallet. His
tongue was thick. She stood there a foot from him, eyes downcast, shrunken in herself, cocooned in her own public humiliation. Her unabashed sensuality caressed David with the warmth of her body scent. Her breath was minty.
He struggled to open his wallet and when he did, he realized he had no money
in it. After his shower, he had forgotten to extract some of the bills he carried
in his money pouch for taxi rides, meals, and tips. The money belt was sitting back in his room safe.
“I left my money in my room,” he said. “I’m sorry, I—”
She was gone like smoke. She
regrouped her children and moved off farther down the street. David stood rooted
to the sidewalk and watched her recede into the swarm of late-afternoon shoppers entering and leaving stores. He felt as if he had been struck across the cheek with a whip.
He ran back to his hotel oblivious to everything but the anguish descending
over him. An older couple in the elevator slowly inched to the rear as if he
were contaminated; he realized he was talking to himself.
Back in his room, he stooped over the tiny safe in the closet and cursed
as he overshot the last number. Twirling again, he missed the three-number sequence
and the tumbler refused to drop the bolt. He tried again and a fourth time and
still failed to open the safe. He staggered backwards and kicked his foot against
it, which shot molten pain up his leg. A litany of filthy words he never used poured from his mouth. These were the same words hissed by an exasperated opponent he had defeated easily in mere minutes and
stripped of fifty thousand dollars. David’s demeanor never changed, and
his calm never betrayed him; he didn’t flinch at the man’s unexpected vituperation because he wasn’t a coward
and on his battlefield, he could afford to be generous to his enemy.
He slept until four in the morning.
He awoke with a headache and his mouth was parched. His clothes were still
on and his shoes pinched his feet. He felt nauseated and ashamed. He was baffled by the abrupt descent into a state of mind he felt was uncanny and unnatural to him like
peering into a dark, unfamiliar room.
He got off the bed like an old man waking up in the middle of the night. He bent over the safe and twirled the three numbers effortlessly and the door popped
open. He took out his money belt and felt its familiar heft. He had sensitive hands. He could tell the difference between
a face card and a numbered one based on the extra weight of the paint.
He dressed and went downstairs past the main lobby desk where the same woman
who made change for his ten was looking at her computer screen. Still logy, he
almost stumbled into the Beefeater. Traffic was mostly taxis and limousines. The streets were almost empty except for a woman jogging past in a yellow-and-black
spandex outfit. He watched her thigh muscles bunch beneath the shiny material
and the bouncing stride of her run; her white running shoes made a slapping wish-wish
against the pavement. Her firm rump barely jiggled with the motion. David remembered an ancient biology teacher back in Dearborn who said that anything in nature that’s
yellow and black will sting you, or bite you, or try to eat you.
A breeze of pungent smells met him in the open air and made his skin prickle
with gooseflesh. Bile churned in his stomach, threatening to scorch its way up
his esophagus. He began walking left almost by instinct. He ached to stand on the spot where she had stood before him, her children in a loose orbit around them
He felt himself being tipping over a precipice like that scruffy, mentally
ill man on the trolley yesterday, jibbering nonsense, wetting himself. He returned
to his room and ordered a sandwich named for a comedian with a name he didn’t recognize.
David’s ignorance of celebrities and popular culture was profound. He
devoted ten hours a day to his chess. He once stunned Vacca by not knowing who
Angelina Jolie was. He ate half the sourdough sandwich with Hollandaise dressing before he regurgitated.
He placed the Do Not Disturb sign on the latch. He stayed up watching television nonstop until the bill that management sent up between three and four
in the morning was slid under his door. He waited for it, an albino insect making
its nocturnal entrance each night on cue. Until he saw it, he couldn’t
get to sleep. He ignored the phone. Tommy
V. must be worried about his errant money-maker by now. He became afraid.
It must have been a Sunday, for he heard church bells in the distance. He stopped pacing and went to the window and drew back the curtains. He blinked at the intrusion of the light. He saw tourists
and traffic—then something familiar coming from the opposite side of the street toward the Drake. His heart bumped. He felt her before he recognized her. She controlled the serotonin levels in his brain just by walking down the street with
her pack of children trooping behind her.
He rummaged through the pile of clothing. He threw on pants and a shirt,
found his loafers in different corners of the room.
He fled through the lobby and dashed past the white-bearded Beefeater and
took in his open-mouthed reaction. She was gone . . . He hollered at the man, “Where did that woman with the kids go?” The man stuttered but nothing coherent came out and then he pointed around the corner.
David ran in the direction pointed, and as he made the corner, he saw the
older girl, trailing the rest, turn into an alley. A sob or a laugh burst out
of his chest and he dog-trotted happily toward them. He had never sung since
elementary school, never even in the shower, but he almost did then. He wondered
what strange notes would have come out of his mouth.
When he approached them, he saw the panic in the young woman’s face. A mother sensing danger for her young, no doubt. He saw the two bigger children slip
behind her legs for protection, while the youngest crouched, half-hid, behind a big slab of cardboard covering someone had
propped against the side of the Drake’s back wall.
He could have wept with frustration and joy at the thought of her hiding
inside this flimsy protection in a filthy alley while, all these last torpid days, he was a stone’s throw in his comfortable
room. He did something he had never done before in his life with any child: he cooed reassuringly at them from a distance. He approached carefully and let soothing
words tumble out of his mouth.
“W-what do you want?” she asked him. Her voice was girlishly high.
“I want to give you something,” he said. “That’s
“Why?” Her face
was slightly smeared with grit and her clothes didn’t look fresh. The children
started to whimper a single word: “Mommy.”
He held out his money pack. “For
you,” he said. “For the children.
To get—to get something to eat.”
Her eyes were red-rimmed. She wobbled on her feet. David rushed to her and caught her in his arms and they both went down to the ground in a heap. Before he knew what he was doing, he was stroking her face and smoothing the hair
over her brow.
When she came to, he lifted her to her feet and half-carried her back to
the hotel with his arm wrapped around her waist. The children, amiable ducklings
who sensed the strange man was not going to hurt them, followed in their wake.
The Beefeater’s expression urged David toward hysterical laughter. People standing in front of the elevator stood back as David commandeered it for his
Inside his room, he helped her over to a padded armchair. He asked the children if they would like to sit on the bed and he gave the bigger girl the remote. She was a tiny clone of her mother with blue veins showing through her translucent
skin. She took it without hesitation and immediately scanned to a show which
caused the boy to erupt in a yell of glee and then look sheepishly at David. David
smiled at him.
The phone rang. Someone identifying
herself with a triple-word title was enquiring about unregistered “guests” in a voice that between friendly and
“Mind your own business,” David fumed, careful not to let the
children sense his anger. “I’ll pay for them. Don’t call this room again.”
David returned to the young mother, whose eyes were closed. He knew she was awake and listening to his every word. He
asked her name and told her his. During the next hour Emma told him how she and
the children had come to be abandoned. Children’s Services were on
her trail, she said wearily, so she was forced to keep moving. Her husband was
long gone, she said. He had abandoned her the day he learned he was being laid
off and she was pregnant again .
“I’m here,” he said, slightly aware how false this must
sound. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
When she asked to use the shower for herself and the children, David nodded,
barely able to contain his ebullience. “I’ll be outside,” he
told her. “I’ll go for a walk.”
He checked his watch.
She smiled at him. David felt
a surge of love wrap itself around him that was almost narcotic. When he returned from a walk that seemed more like hours
than minutes, they were all well fed by then and the children lay asleep in different places on the bed. Silver trays were stacked outside the door, many still laden with untouched food. David laughed when he saw what the waiters had rolled into the room on trolley carts.
David went down to the lobby and paid for two rooms’ worth, although
he didn’t want them to leave his room. He bought what he needed at a drug
store on Van Ness and tipped the driver twenty dollars. He was giddy with happiness.
When he was shaved, he walked down the hallway to their room. He was suddenly panicked at the thought she might have(had?) second thoughts and left. When she opened the door to his room and stood there refreshed from her own shower, her dark blonde hair
hung in caramel strings along the side of her oval face.
Something clicked in David’s brain as soon as he hung up from his call
to Vacca: the name of the residence in New Orleans where the next match was proposed: Belle-Garde or Belle-Grande—something Tommy had let slip in their conversation
before he left town. Vacca was always careful to keep every detail of the contests
between David and his opponents until the last minute as a way of justifying his big percentage. David’s announcement of his new intention rattled him.
He formulated a plan as he lay in bed.
Emma and the children would fly with him to New Orleans. David would set
up the match, his last. He had enough money to start a new life with her. If she were found by authorities, her children would be placed in foster homes. He had close to a quarter-million dollars invested. Persuading her to leave with him was going to be the most important thing he had ever done in his life. The alternative, to lose her now, was unthinkable, a black vortex opening at his feet.
He bought them all clothes and gifts.
He sang songs with the children and laughed along with them while they sat around the television set in the evenings. Once, he turned and caught Emma glancing at him, and he saw real fondness in her eyes.
The next day Vacca called David’s cell from a bar, but he slammed the
phone down as soon as Tommy launched into a threats and pleas to think about this “sudden insanity” of his. David made immediate plans to leave the city.
Tomorrow he would ask Emma to go with him.
The hotel staff was glad to see them leave.
He left a pair of fifty-dollar bills on the polished dressers beside the bed of each room.
* * *
In contrast to the brisk sunshine of San Francisco, New Orleans was humid
and rank. Clothes stuck to them in the taxi cab ride down Interstate 10 into
the city. For the first time since he had left Dearborn at nineteen, he felt
a dread of motels. He told Emma they would rent a house as soon as he had his
bearings. The taxi took them to a Ramada at the edge of the Vieux Carré, where
the smells were, if anything, ranker and the humidity close to unbearable. The girls, Sarah and Ally, quarreled and slapped
each other until they both started to wail.
Emma was silent all the way to the motel, but once inside their rooms, she
quickly bathed and washed the children. David left her to shower and called her
from his adjacent room. After a few minutes’ desultory conversation, they
hung up. She didn’t invite him over.
He barely slept that night. In the morning over breakfast, things improved
and moods were restored. It had been an exhausting flight, Emma said, and David
understood in her way she was apologizing for spurning his company last night.
She was almost as beautiful as his first impression of her but something was still not quite right with her beyond
the exhaustion and the maternal claims. David saw a hollowed sadness behind her
eyes. He knew it would take time for her to adjust to him.
He scoured the Times Picayune for houses and found a tumbledown colonial on a street called Bos Darc in one of the oldest bayou parishes. Desperate to get them into a house and seeing nothing better on offer, he called the
Sun Chance Real Estate agency and agreed to meet a woman named Chima Benson that same afternoon.
It turned out to be a roomy, lopsided house where nothing was plumb or square,
but it was more than large enough for their needs. They moved in two days later
with all their possessions packed into a Mazda Protégé David had picked up cheap from the police impound lot sale. Sans furniture but with electricity and gas and water turned on, they wandered about their new home. David contacted his bank for a wire transfer that morning to close the sale. He was determined to give Emma and the children their own a house.
In three weeks they were settled in and Emma had begun enquiries about schooling
for the two older ones. She and David had found an OB/GYN recommended to them
by the neighbors, the Johnsons. Curtis was a shrimper who owned a boat he moored
to a jetty in the bayou. David had felt all the tension of San Francisco far
behind. He considered his life with Emma a miracle. She didn’t love him
yet, he knew, but he would remedy that with time.
While they were strolling the French Quarter and the children munched croissants,
David saw a strange figure in nineteenth-century dress turning a corner just ahead of them.
The man strolled and smiled vacantly to himself. David stood rooted to
the spot until Emma tugged at his arm and asked him what the matter was. David
wondered whether he had actually seen him. One saw so many oddities in this city
and heard so many strange tongues that it hardly seemed like America at all.
Emma’s doctor required money up front for her prenatal care despite
the fact that she was six months “enceinte,” a word he had never heard before.
David never talked money with Emma, but he knew that he needed to restore his shrinking income soon. The San Francisco money was long gone and coupled with the penalties on early withdrawal to liquidate for
the purchase of the big house, David began to worry. Curtis slyly prodded out
of him what he had paid and whistled. He said something in Creole or Cajun David
didn’t understand, but it was obvious Curtis thought he had been swindled on the price.
Haggling over pennies and nickels was odious, an inherited racial memory; he had grown up in Michigan hearing expressions
like “happy as a Jew in a junkyard.”
The sadness in her face wouldn’t cease, and he caught her at times
looking off into the distance. They had become gentle lovers weeks ago. David desired her more but she seemed less eager as the days and weeks passed.
Six weeks into their new life in Louisiana, she came home from shopping and
David smelled beer on her breath. Her eyes were unnaturally bright and the pupils
dilated. She told him she wanted to have sex right then. He followed her into
the bedroom while she stripped as she walked—David anxious lest the children awaken from their naps. When she turned and held out her arms to him, her breasts were full and tipped dark with blood and her
mons beneath her big stomach was a dark chestnut flame. Before he entered her,
she thrust herself up from the bed and said, “Wait.”
She reached under the bed and rustled among her discarded clothing.
She came up with a folded envelope and tapped out a white powdery crystal
into her palm and snorted it into her nostrils. “Now you,” she said
and held out her palm. David, hesitating
a second, leaned his face into it, smelled the lavender scent of her wrist, and inhaled the powder. A volcano went off behind his brain. Then a hot, downward-rushing
feeling flushed his entire body with a sensation he couldn’t describe—at least not while it was happening. She took another snort. David awoke four
hours later and did not remember whether they had made love.
A month passed, the unbearable spring heat had turned to a furnace-like temperature
and the ancient air conditioner rattled and died. They baked in the heat, too
hot for television or eating much of anything. Emma had horrible bouts of morning
sickness. David insisted they both stop taking drugs. He worried about the kids going hungry while she slept in all morning.
He was sick with worry that she might still be using, poisoning the unborn infant’s blood with the toxic residue
of her own bloodstream.
The money was evaporating like sugar in water. When she was feeling ill, her pupils and her mood turned black and she hollered at David and the children
for anything that went wrong—the cracks in the ceiling, the heat and humidity outside, the stench from the distant bayou—it
was all a personal affront to her. Yet he never felt his love slip or his desire
for her diminish by a fraction.
He asked Curtis one morning in a roundabout way what he thought an addiction
to meth could do if worse came to worse.
“Your wife, she, like, fixen to be a dope fiend or what?” Curtis
responded in his thick patois.
David, horrified he had given him that impression, protested mightily.
“Crystal meth, oh man, it’s bad shit. She, like, scratching her face and all?”
David recalled a few blisters on her chin that had scabbed over and which
she covered with makeup. She was brushing her teeth five and six times a day
but David saw her looking in the mirror that morning checking for caries.
“Shee-yit, them crank bugs is a bad sign. Ya’ll got to do something. She can’t be takin’ no drugs ‘n expectin’ a baby and all,
“I don’t know what to do,” David said.
“Ya’ll better have the Bank of New Orleans to pay for her habit
Curtis spat a gob of tobacco. He
swept a hand over his head and removed the greasy ballcap with the other in a move David had seen many times. His dark curls beneath the cap were sleek as a ferret’s.
Vacca had deceived him about the estate and the man he was to play in New
Orleans. There was no Belle-Garde or Belle-Grande in the city directory and an
online search at the public library came up zilch. He called every estate owner
he’d found and came down to his last four choices. One across the river, one in Metaire, one near Algiers, and one out
near Lake Pontchartrain.
The estate owned by a man named Ouellette was called Beaubien and existed
well beyond the Mississippi due south of Live Oak Manor and Waggaman Pond.
“Beaubien ain’t on any map,” drawled Ouellette, “because
the snobs on the board of the Historical Preservation Society deemed it bad juju. You see, it’s an old slave plantation
where hundreds of men, women, and children died violently. Hanged most ‘em,
whipped some of to death, tortured a few dozen to boot. The master, whom I’m
not ashamed to acknowledge, was my own great-great-grandaddy. He was apparently
afflicted with some form of madness. He was dying of syphilis, or so I believe. He
found himself a crew of Irish overseers, all hired on the basis of their malevolence or sexual degeneracy toward slaves.”
David had reached him by with his last two quarters in pocket change when
a slender young woman named Meghan at the research desk told him of Beaubien’s dismal history among plantations.
“They’s still a whole buncha them runnin’ around New Orleans,
living in the swamps and bayous on the coast,” she said. “All related
by blood through their overseers. People in New Orleans started calling them
high–yallers because even their eyes were the color of tea. None of ‘em
like to admit they carryin’ Irish blood, naturally. Cain’t say as
I blame ’em.”
Ouellette was intoning more details, cultivating a banality he seemed to
enjoy while he kept David on the phone.
“This family genealogy is very interesting, Mister Ouellette, but what
about our match?”
“That uncouth fellow in the Bronx or Detroit, was it? He said you was havin’ personal problems—words to that effect, and I was to inform him if you
got in touch with me.”
“Does it matter to you whose money I play with?”
Ouellette laughed. “I
don’t care whose money I take.”
“Then let’s set up a time,” David said.
“Tomorrow night. I serve
dinner at eight. You ever had ortolans, Mister—”
“David. David is fine. I’ll be there at eight o’clock.”
* * *
Ouellette’s manservant draped them both in bone-white white sheets. David felt idiotic but submitted without demur.
Ouellette’s conversation and diction ranged from backwoods illiterate to cosmopolitan and segued from subject
to subject in a lazy circular fashion, but he always seemed to return to the starting point. He spoke three languages, he
said, and was teaching himself langue d’oïl, the dialect of French spoken in northern France in the Middle Ages.
“I have a smattering acquaintanceship, you might say, with langue d’oc,”
he added as he smoothed the sheets in his lap and looked at David through what appeared to be a monk’s tapered cowl. “That was spoken in the South and would evolve into Provençal.” His eyes
were that smeary blue that women’s magazines called sexy. His skin was
fair and his white-blonde hair made him look Scandinavian.
The ortolans were served in butter with feet intact. Lightly braised in a pan, they looked like skinned sparrows which could have been pecking for worms hours
“The sheets, of course, keep the gore and blood from spattering about,”
said Ouellette. “Now the trick, David, is to eat them whole, guts and all,
and pluck the feet out of your mouth. See, watch me, and I’ll show you how to do it.”
David watched Ouellette insert the solid object delicately through the hole
in his covering until it disappeared into his mouth. Seconds later he heard the
feet hit the plate. Ouellette’s face was obscured but he suspected he was
immensely pleased enjoying himself. David noticed that his own sheets had been
spattered with blood and innards from the bird.
“Now I’ve done this many times,” he said blithely, “and
I assure you it is very difficult to do without making something of a mess. Bon
appétit, mon ami.”
David managed to eat most of one ortolan, but it was impossible to eat it
the way Ouellette himself did and he made a disgusting mess of the bird. He watched
four sets of bird feet join the first pair on Ouellete’s plate, each hitting with a tinny rattle. When another male servant came around to pour, David firmly refused with his hand over the glass. By then, David counted four full glasses of wine Ouellette had downed.
David declined cigars and port. He
wanted to get on with the match. A proposed first match of one hundred thousand. Rematches at seventy-five apiece until the winner called it. David had emptied his entire account. There was nothing left.
They adjourned to the den where the expensive chess board was set up. It looked old and valuable like everything in the house including the four sets
of medieval armor. The massive earthstone rubble fireplace was alight with hissing
chunks of coal. One-half the room remained chilled to a morgue-like temperature.
“White goes first,” Ouellette said. “And I’m always white. House rules.”
Ouellette drank more wine and talked throughout the match. David played his usual aggressive opening game but avoided obvious gambits until he knew his opponent. Ouellette lost piece after piece but never became provoked into long reflection. He talked merrily of weather, culture, books, and history. He moved his pieces with a reckless bravado that made David relax.
Then he saw it—that is, he saw it five moves ahead. In his prime at grandmaster level, he could see ten moves clearly, eleven decently, and twelve when he
was at the top of his game. This was clever, Ouellette’s trap, but by the
time Ouellette was set to spring it, David would move his knight out of harm’s way and with his next move with his rook,
he would place Ouellette’s queen in mortal danger. It would be catastrophic.
Ouellette hesitated a fraction of a second when his turn came, and David
took that for an obvious tell, a sign he had recognized David’s elusiveness. Still
he proceeded on course, chattering about the artifacts and relics the house possessed, and David, measurably relaxed, followed
him to inevitable doom.
But it was not Ouellette’s doom.
When he realized it, David winced a fraction. This was caught by his opponent
and evoked a smile on Ouellette’s face though he continued nonplussed with his inane lecture about medieval chivalry. David was going to lose his second match in more than four hundred games. Rather than prolong his antagonist’s pleasure, he tipped over his king.
“Next game,” said David.
He felt his face whiten. One hundred thousand dollars gone, gone, gone.
“Not even a restroom break, David?” Ouellette toyed with him, and said that he would need one himself, “to wash his hands.”
“Your hands look clean enough,” David said, betraying his anxiety.
“Well, David, the expression ‘to wash one’s hands’
is often a euphemism for doing other things.” Ouellette left the room whistling
When he returned an agonizing twenty minutes later, David was in a state
of distress and trying hard not to show how ruffled he was. His fingers felt like claws.
“My, my. Champing at the
bit, are we?” Ouellette said but never explained what took him so long. He
took his high-backed leather seat opposite David and kicked a leg casually over the armrest.
David had exchanged his own comfortable chair for a simple one without the plush stuffing.
“Ah, I see you are an admirer of the Louis quatorze. Very good taste, David.
“Get on with it. White
Ouellette put his finger to his lips and moved a pawn. “A soft word turneth away wrath.” He would occasionally
dab at his crotch as if to shift his genitalia to a more comfortable position.
David countered with his own pawn.
He was trying to drown out the buzzing sound in his ears.
“You are Jewish, are you not?
I reckon New Orleans must be something of a culture shock to you.”
“You reckoned wrongly.”
“That so? Ya’ll
“A wife, three children. We’re expecting our fourth.”
“A family man,” Ouellette said and winked so salaciously with
his hand resting over his bulge that David wanted to reach across the board and choke him.
He lost the second game in less time.
The third game was destined to be a long drawn-out pitched battle. Around
one in the morning, Ouellette suggested they draw cards to decide the winner. David
shrugged, all his resources depleted by the steady nattering of the man and the loss of his entire reserve of cash.
“You’re my guest, you may cut,” Ouellette said.
“Jack of hearts,” Ouellette said as David flipped over his card.
“Oh thou knavish boy—”
Ouellette slurred and chittered nonsense as he shuffled and reshuffled the
deck. “Cut for me,” he told David.
David flipped over the next card in the deck.
“A queen of spades to me. So
sorry, David. I know you don’t carry that kind of cash on you. Please leave
your check with my man on your way out.”
David wrote and signed the check. An
elderly white man appeared from a vestibule bordered in stained glass. He was
holding a brindled Pressa canaris on a short leash. David handed it to him while
the dog’s massive snout slavered onto his shoe. He noticed his hand was
Ouellette appeared suddenly at the door, still talking.
“Ya’ll take care of your family,” he said. “Hurricane’s coming. I can smell it.”
David brushed past him. “Smell your own shit.”
On the ride back to Bos Darc, David saw a serpentine glitter of lights spoking
out from the city and stretching in all directions from as far south as Tchoupitoulas Street by the river. It looked as if all Jefferson Parish was on the move.
The house was dark. She had
not left a light on for him. He checked on the two girls in their room and the
boy Michael in his. Emma lay asleep, a light beading of sweat stippled her white
forehead. He knew if he were to brush the damp hair out of her eyes he would
see her black pupils. She was high all the time now. She lied to him and to the
doctor but the last amniocentesis test said the baby was addicted and would have to be born Caesarean.
David’s depression over the loss of all his money exhausted the last
store of his energy. He fell into bed beside her and slept until late afternoon. When he awoke, she was gone. The kids
were not in their beds. He walked outside into the miasma of heat and noticed
Curtis packing up his black Chevy pickup.
“Ain’t you leavin’?”
Curtis shouted to him.
“Why would I leave?” David
saw that the entire Johnson family, like carpenter ants, carrying goods from their house in a row and dumping the items at
Curtis’ feet. He had elastic straps he was securing to the underside of
the truck bed and had to climb the mound of bric-a-brac and furniture piled high above the bed.
“Boy, they’s a hurricane coming.
It’s bearing down on us from the open sea.”
David’s sleep fog had not yet lifted.
That explained the caravansary of automobiles fleeing in one direction he had seen last night.
“You must be the only person in No’rleans that ain’t runnin’
for high ground.”
“Have you seen Emma, Curtis?”
“I seen her this mawnin’.
She had the kids with her. Some guy in a car swung by and picked up ‘em
up ‘bout seven o’clock.”
David didn’t know what that meant.
Curtis jumped off the pile of furniture and walked over to him shaking his
“Look, David, I tole you when ya’ll moved to Bos Darc that the
levee holding back the water isn’t worth piss on cotton if we was to get a direct hit.
Got-damn city’s eight feet below sea level as it is. Never mind
it’s a category four hurricane looking to be a five by the time it hits land. Fact is, a tidal surge might could bring
‘bout twenty-five, thirty feet a water straight through here—”
David looked up at the sky and saw a mountain of inky clouds over the sea
stretching from one end of the horizon to the other. The air was damp, saturated
with moisture, and the light over the gulf was fast changing to pewter.
“—winds off a five can produce tornadoes and shit, man. You got
to get out or you and them kids and that woman gonna drown like fuckin’ sewer rats.”
“Curtis, did you see who was driving the car?”
Curtis stared at him, shook his head sadly, and walked back to his truck;
he began tying off a rope to the underside of the chassis.
David ran into the house for his car keys and raced to the Mazda. He ran through the gears until the little car made a wheezing sound.
He tore into corners and nearly fishtailed into cars with U-Hauls. He
bolted through stop signs. He didn’t dare think she had gone, met someone,
or maybe she had called her pusher and talked him into picking up.
Tears and sweat made his vision blur.
The city was almost empty. He raced from one end of the Quarter to the
other. He looked for cops but didn’t see any. He stopped people scurrying past him: “Have you seen
a woman and three little kids—”
He sat on a curb in despair. He
heard four lissome trumpet notes from a nearby jazz bar. He wandered up and down
the streets where he and Emma had walked on Sundays. He knew people were staring
at him, agog and wide-eyed. This was the city of Paul Morphy, that utterly deranged
chess prodigy, wandering the streets of the French Quarter, smiling at his own conceits.
Then a last flicker of hope stirred in him:
maybe she was out looking for him. He ran back to the car soaked in perspiration. The wind had picked up and fluttered garbage and papers; cigarette packs and condom
boxes bounced down the gutters. The light shifted to a milky gray. He floored the engine home.
Curtis and his family were gone. He
noticed that all the houses on Bos Darc were empty. Very few had bothered to
board up planking over the windows. There was no one left on the street. He felt
like the last man alive on earth.
When he stumbled into the big house, shaking all over, he heard a noise from
the kitchen. They were all there: Emma
was cooking a gumbo at the stove and singing some popular ballad about hope and sorrow.
Michael and Ally were playing chess in at the table in the nook and arguing over who had won the last game. Baby Sarah
was coloring stick figures on the floor near her mother. Her tiny legs were crossed
behind her and she was humming her own song—four bird notes, out of key.
David stumbled in brushing away tears of relief. He looked over the baby’s shoulder to see her drawing and asked her, “Who are these, honey?”
She turned and flashed him a big toothy grin with the gap between the incisors. She would have Emma’s stunning beauty one day.
David could see the little moustache of sticky chocolate ice cream still on her mouth.
She pointed at the largest figure, a woman in a triangle dress and loop earrings. “That’s Mommy,”
she said. She pointed at two smaller figures and named them as brother and sister.
“Who’s that one?” he asked her. There was a third small figure standing in the corner looking away from the others; he was slightly taller
than Michael. He looked like an outsider, shunned.
“That’s you, David,” she said.
“Why is he sad?” David pointed to the purple wavy line of his
“He’s not sad,” she giggled. “He’s happy. That’s a smile, you silly.”
“Okay,” David said.
He felt tears reform at the corners of his eyes. Emma stared at him with a look somewhere between a laugh and a sob from the doorway. Her pupils were dilated; she had worked in a dope fix with the ice cream treat.
An image flitted through his mind and disappeared—no, he would never
wind up like Bobby Fischer ranting about Jewish “snakes” from the Reykjavik airport or Paul Morphy tapping along
with his cane in the French Quarter.
The first fat drops of rain smacked the house. They all stopped and stared at one another. David’s
family listened to the wind’s a capella soughing as it rose by decibels and curved with flats or sharps to a banshee
moan, coming from far out in the bayou, way out in the gulf where the black sea was churning the waves to froth and the bruised
clouds were rising miles high into the air, big dirty glaciers of swirling water vapor waiting to ravage the earth, eager
to sluice their walls of ocean water to carve new scars on the land and the people below.