Chapter 3: A Minor and A Matriarch

It would have been more appropriate, Paul thought, to emerge into the late, hot dawn stricken with the remnants of a supernatural vision of his father in some setting heavy with gilded history. To listen to advice and wisdom from a spirit undeterred by the laws of physics or the guidelines of the afterlife. It didn’t matter to him whether those words and those images came from his subconscious or the literal beyond. They would have been much more of a comfort than the hard-on in his lap and the mental vertigo produced by a dream of being sexually enjoined in some preposterous position with a yelping caricature of Maureen Dowd.

My libido is developing a left-wing bias, he thought. He struggled to stand up straight and pull off the trousers he had been wearing last night around his perseverant protuberance. He was about to step into the shower and make amends when the doorbell rang.

“Sugar,” he said. He clumsily pulled on his monogrammed terry-cloth robe which, though he wore it infrequently, always brought back memories of Christmas 1986. He stomped across the floor towards the front door, futilely willing his blood to flow backwards and recede and deliver him back to a stance of propriety. As it was, he had to stand behind the door after unbolting it, turned away like a batter close on the plate hiding his grip.

“Good morning, sir.”

“Hello, officer.” Paul tried to return eye contact with the young man dressed in the black uniform and wraparound shades in as generic a way as possible and failed.

“This is 801 Harmony?”

“Yes, sir.” Judging by the officer’s pursed lips and the way his thumbs stuck like they were sewn into his waistband, Paul thought him to be about twenty-three years old. They lose that after about a year, he could hear his father say. But they’re still no good on the stand until they get that dog-eared, dusty on the shelf look. For white folks, anyway.

“Mr. Hinckley?”

“That’s right.”

“This is a courtesy extended by me, Officer Bill Renfro, and is not to be construed as a direct avoidance of enforcement or protocol by the New Orleans Police Department.”

“What?”

“I’m dropping off your daughter, sir.

“My who?” Paul looked over the officer’s epaulets and into the squad car. His niece, his sister Noel’s youngest daughter sat in the backseat with her face pressed against the tinted window making a masquerade face. “Oh, Kendra. Sure, sure. Daughter, yeah.”

“Would you like to hear the applicable yet unpressed charges, Mr. Hinckley?”

“Didn’t you play football for De La Salle?”

The cop smiled and scratched his nose. “Yessir, that’s right.”

“Remind me, offense or defense. Then I’ll have it.”

“Offense.”

Paul squinted and chanted, “Renfro, Renfro…”

In the car Kendra mouthed dramatically, Come on!

“Fullback!” Paul yelled. “That’s right. I saw you make a block on a linebacker, for Jarvis Jefferson then outrun him downfield to take out a cornerback. Jefferson made 88 yards on that play.”

“You were there for that game?”

“Newman homecoming. You guys ate us alive. What happened here? You didn’t get into a program?”

The cop shook off a few pounds of officiousness. “I spent senior year in Texas because of the storm at some peckerwood public school. Got onto the team but they were all these big country boys. I didn’t step into the lights all season.”

“Well, that’s a real shame. I suppose, though, you should, ah…” Paul nodded towards the street.

“Right. I don’t want to scare you, Mr. Hinckley, but your daughter isn’t ten years younger than I am, but she’s wilder than any girl I ever met on the prep circuit. We caught her along with a group of other kids at a would-be throw-down near Children’s Hospital. Had to run a few of them in for possession. All we took from Kendra was a fake ID, but she came this close to getting run in for drunk and disorderly. I have a partner, though, who says he knows the family. So nothing official, but another few epithets and firm fingers poked in my chest and I’d have felt justified in ignoring the old-timer and letting the cards fall where they may. ‘Hinckley’ isn’t exactly on the secret list of think-twice family names. At least, not for us new bucks.”

Paul opened the door a little wider; his body had attuned to the sensitive priorities of his mind now. “I’m not sure how to respond to that in a respectful manner,” he said. “But, but, but. I think I know why she’s acting out. There’s been a death in the family. Her grandfather.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Well, there’s no paperwork or anything. Just—”

“James Hinckley.”

“That was—the grandfather?”

“You haven’t heard of him, I take it.”

“No, sir.”

“Ask your district superintendent. My father was always fair to cops.”

“I’m sure he was, sir.”

“He was a lawyer, I mean.”

“Really, sir, I’m at the end of my shift.”

“Being fair to cops, that wasn’t exactly easy, you know. Back in the seventies, especially.”

“Sir, your daughter is in handcuffs, and I still have the keys. This whole situation can shift gears if we need it to.”

Paul offset his jaw and squinted. “Jarvis Jefferson. He’s a starter for Florida now, isn’t he?”

“Respectfully, sir, I’m sensing that your daughter’s reckless disregard for police officers is the raw form that will eventually coalesce into something like your disingenuous contempt. Just because I didn’t go to college you shouldn’t assume that I haven’t capitalized on my private school education. I’m pulling in 60 a year with bonuses when most people my age are either moving back in with their parents or bound to servitude by six-figure student loans.”

“It’s a crap shoot, Renfro.”

“Sir?”

“By which I mean that even in the Second District you could still get your head blown off by some crack head no matter how smart you are.”

“Mr. Hinckley, I’m going to ask you to step out here onto the porch.”

Paul’s mind spun like tires trying to find traction. The image of Maureen Dowd’s erect, liberal nipples strafed his consciousness and his tenuous flaccidity reacted to the unwelcome stimulus. He let go of the door jamb and thrust his hands into the patch pockets in the front of his robe.

“Look, let’s just say what’s done is done. I have to make some phone calls. My father’s body hasn’t even been embalmed yet.”

Officer Renfro reassumed his initial position and ruminated.

“There is no secret list of think-twice names.”

“I understand, officer.”

Kendra, once emancipated from the patrol car and uncuffed, hopped up the stairs like an eager puppy. It was only once she was inside and the door was shut behind her that she regained control of her teenage hostility. “That fucker,” she declared. “That was my good ID. It had a fucking hologram for shit’s sake.” She sat on the arm of his favorite chair and dropped her purse onto it. Her long straight brown hair had been taken up in curls for the previous night and the humidity had nearly finished unwinding them all. She unclasped a few barrettes and threw them into her purse. She had a face that was just a little too small for the size of her thick torso and pursed belly. However, Kendra’s long, full legs seemed to have grown under their own willpower to keep her from being the short, bulky girl that always ends up on the far end of group photographs. Paul liked his niece, but he would’ve liked most teenagers if they talked as openly with him in their blocky, unpunctuated dialect as she did. She looked tired and upset. Her bravado was running on brusque fumes. Still, he felt a domestic pressure to start up a stern inquiry about the trouble then balance that with a denouement of reassuring advice.

“What’s going on here? Kendra, come on. Trust me, my brothers and I enjoyed parties when we were in high school too, but it’s a weeknight. And drugs? And you lied to that policeman. Why didn’t you have him take you home?”

“Because he would’ve thought I was playing him when no one came to answer the door. Rosehannah won’t be in until eleven. Don’t worry about it nothing happened. Plus, you guys didn’t party: you drank half beer and sat on the levee. And double plus, it’s the fucking middle of summer. There are no weeknights.”

“When’s your mother coming into town?”

“She’s still got another three months, Uncle Paulie. Don’t you remember? Trans-national brokerage deals don’t just happen overnight. Even in Shanghai. Can I get on your laptop? I have to read what the other girls Twittered from jail.”

“Well, this is ridiculous. You’d think they could spare her for a short-term, family-leave, I don’t know what. I thought the Chinese enjoyed a spiritual respect for their ancestors.”

“Are you high? What are you talking about?”

Paul flapped his robe by the pockets. “For the funeral, Kendra.”

“What the fuck! Who fucking died Uncle Paulie? Oh my god, was it Moira? Did great auntie Edna mix up her pills? Was there an accident? Did Uncle Joseph fall again? Oh my god, not the twins. Was it the twins?”

“Kendra, calm down. I didn’t mean to—you didn’t hear. Sheesh, listen…” Paul came across the room and sat on the other arm of the chair and tried to reach across to put his arm around her shoulder. This put him off balance, so he slid his hand down her arm instead and leaned in as if he was trying to look into her purse. “Calm down. You’re having what they call a serious grief issue.”

“What?”

“I think it’s a new term in clinical—”

“What I’m about to have is a breakdown if you don’t just tell me who died!”

Paul sighed and closed his eyes. “Your grandfather. Pappy died.”

Kendra stood up. “Don’t scare me like that!”

Paul shook his head once and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

“I thought something terrible had happened.”

“This is terrible!”

“Mom has been squawking at me that”—she wagged her head back and forth and threw up her hands—“‘this is going to be the year that Pappy dies, so be nice to him!’ for, like, six years. I mean, he’s like 95 and he still works full-time and he had all those surgeries and shit.”

“He was 89, all right? That’s not that old. And Noel, er, your mother shouldn’t have said that. Not even this year.”

Kendra attempted to walk past him into his small study in the next room. “Whatever. Did you change your password on the computer or is it still ‘SandyKoufax11?’”

Paul bounced off of the chair and blocked her path. “Don’t you dare! Show a little respect, huh?”

“Paulie, I need to know what happened! Oh, shit, and I forgot I have to de-friend Todd Melancon.”

“Right now our whole clan is preparing for this funeral.”

“What am I supposed to do? Fucking pick out a coffin?”

“I’m sure somebody needs your help. I’m taking you over to Joseph’s and you can babysit the kids.”

“Christ, Uncle Paulie, I haven’t slept.”

There were two sharp taps at the front door, Liza’s signature demand upon arrival. Paul jerked then regained his footing.

“Aunt Liza’s here!”

“Don’t call her that.”

“You guy’s have been together for, like, fifteen years. Why—”

“It’s only been ten. Can’t you keep numbers in your head? Or is that some side effect of ecstasy?”

“I don’t do E anymore, Uncle Paulie. Not since those senior girls died. What are you and Aunt Liza doing?”

“Don’t call her that!” He leaned in and held her arm. “I’ll make you a deal. You can shower and take a nap here, but when we get back from Commander’s I’m taking you straight over to Joe’s.”

“You’re going to Commander’s? Hell yeah. I’m coming with you.”

The two taps hit again.

“There’s no time for us to both get ready.”

“Oh, come on Uncle Paulie, please. I haven’t been there in forever. I’ll take a whore’s bath and be ready in five minutes.” She outmaneuvered him, and Paul watched her run down his hallway and into the bathroom, her stomping legs reverberating across the wood floors. He turned around again when he heard the front door open. Liza stormed in wearing a periwinkle cotton dress and oversized sunglasses. Her limbs were already lightly shined with sweat.

“Paul, you know I don’t like to let myself in. What’s all that racket?”

“Kendra.”

“Why the hell aren’t you ready?”

Paul shrugged and clowned, “Kendra!”

“Well, I’m going then.”

“Just wait a minute, Liza. We won’t be that long.”

“I already called Mimi and Elaine. They’re coming, too. And I’m not making the maitre’d switch us all around to a bigger table so that little hellion can dominate our brunch.”

“What is she supposed to do then, just walk all the way home? In this heat?”

“Rosehannah can pick her up.”

“Uh-uh. Then I have to leave her a spare key to lock up and then I’ll forget about it and that whole debacle. C’mon, the kid just found out her grandfather is dead. She needs a little cheering up.”

“Then take her to the damned Camellia Grill and let her watch the monkeys. I’ll be in the car, and I’ll be leaving in five minutes. You decide what you want for breakfast.”

* * *

Paul watched Kendra shift from one leg to another and cycle her thumbs rapidly over her cell phone’s keypad the whole time they waited in line at the Camellia Grill. The line was just barely out the door when they got there, but they made it through the tiny breezeway and to two padded vinyl stools at the dominant chromed counter of the diner soon enough. It was loud and bright inside, sunlight coming in from the large front windows and reflecting off of every stainless steel appliance and coffee pot. A fast-moving troupe of black cooks and waiters wearing pre-tied bowties kept the room sizzling, clinking, and sliding. They spoke in a dialect of English Paul couldn’t understand and threw their lingo back and forth between them like an invisible ball over the customers’ heads. He could still recognized that it worked: the orders came out simultaneously, the speedy one-liners distracted from a large arm swiping a rag over spilled chocolate milk, and all the people at the counter plunged forks into pancakes and chewed quickly, trying to match the tempo.

Kendra tore apart a cheeseburger and fried egg while Paul swallowed a western omelet and four pieces of white toast without giving his stomach any warning that it should prepare. While he ate and stared at a large mound of hash browns cooking through, he cycled through each of the five times he’d eaten here. Three times after pulling late-night dates out of bars with Tommy Dietz, a bachelor party in 1982, and once, uncharacteristically, alone.

“I used to drive a Buick Bonneville,” he said to Kendra while still watching the smoking pile of slivered potatoes.

“Aunt Liza’s such a bitch.”

“Yeah, she can be exclusive sometimes. But, you know, that’s what those people are like.”

“What people?”

“Landowners, I guess. I don’t know.”

“Uncle Paulie, you need some rest.”

“I got an idea. We’ll jump the gun on Liza. I may catch hell for it later, but who cares, right?”

“What’s up.”

“We’ll go see Mam-mam.”

“Awesome. Mam-mam is so crazy it’s cool. Last time I went to see her she gave me a diamond watch.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry. I never take it out anywhere. Oh, but don’t tell Mom, okay? She’d slice my clit off.”

“Jeesum! Keep it down!”

Paul drove along the levee towards the turn in the river then eased around a bumpy corner onto Magazine Street. Kendra was trying out new hip-hop songs for cell phone’s ringer. As they passed over the pothole-ridden stretch between the zoo and Audubon park, Paul stared solemnly at the nearby fairways and the clubhouse off in the distance. “That was it, right over there,” he said. “Your granddad and I were playing golf right back there when he collapsed.”

“I’m sorry I flipped out earlier. I get so used to thinking of Pappy being this old head guy at the end of the family table like a CEO or something. I forgot that he was your dad, too.”

Kendra flicked to a downtempo, chimey song spun out by a zig-zagging, ebonic voice. Paul felt a simultaneous spur of emotion and confusion as to why teenagers from good, prominent households flaunted their enjoyment of ghetto rap. He felt like it was his burden to bear, and not hers, so they drove through a few stoplights in silence before he could come up with a joke.

“So how about that checkout girl back there at Camellia?” he asked. “Kind of like Beyonce does a shopping spree at Wal-mart, right?”

Kendra rolled her eyes. “That’s not very nice, Uncle Paulie.”

Inside the gates of Poydras Home, Paul and Kendra signed their names and waited for Mrs. James Douglas Hinckley to be brought out to them. Paul liked to avoid going back to the room directly since his face seemed to be so transferable to other residents’ memories and their cold, clutching hands never responded to polite denials. But now, also, he felt an odd sense of pride seeing his mother pushed in a wheelchair down the straight center of the hallway by a man dressed in pale-colored scrubs. She sat regally in the chair with a shiny black fur coat hiding her bony, pajama-clad frame. Her hands draped over the handles with all four fingers facing forwards, each bound with at least one jeweled ring. Paul remembered the fight he’d had with his two brothers about having all the rings resized at Adler’s to fit around her shrinking flesh. His mother’s thin hair was permed as expertly as it could be and dyed with a thick, mannerly brown hue.

“My son will take over from here, boy. He knows I don’t like to ride so slowly.”

“Mam-mam!” Kendra clicked her heels. “Do you remember me?”

The old woman looked up at her. The articles on the left side of her face had shifted down a longitude and remained immobile but did not hinder her old uptown accent. “Don’t tell me we’ve bred another tramp. Where’s the rest of your dress?”

“Ma, come on. This is Kendra. Noel’s youngest. But just so you know, I don’t really approve of her attire either. But we had little time to—”

“For God’s sake, can we take this conversation outdoors?”

Paul took the handles of the wheelchair and looked down through the thin hoops of his mothers hair to her white scalp. Outside they began a slow trip on the sidewalk that bordered a large, grassy yard. On the other side of a wrought-iron fence people walked back and forth on Magazine Street, young and middle-aged alike headed out to a boutique or a bank, heedless of the old guard parading in the square.

“Ma, I’m worried you’ll overheat with that coat.”

“I actually wish I had another one to put over this, son. I’m freezing inside.”

“Just let me know, Ma.”

“What’s that thief Morial up to these days?” she asked.

“He’s been out of office for years now,” Paul said. “But we voted out a thief for a showboat.”

“It’s all of them. Even the nigras here.” She whispered the old code-word. “I think they’re stealing from me at night.”

“We just catalogued your possessions last month for the assessment. Nothing’s ever gone missing since you’ve been here.”

“That’s right. Paul came in with a clerk.”

“Ma, I came in. I’m Paul.”

“Paul doesn’t have any children.”

“This is Noel’s daughter. I brought her along. Noel’s in China, remember?”

“China! She’ll get fat on chop suey and duckling.”

Paul guided his mother under the shade of an oak tree in an ivy-covered corner then knelt down. Kendra came in close, understanding, and reached out to put her hands on her grandmother’s forearm. She pressed through a few more inches of fur than she expected to before grasping her limb.

“Ma, I’ve got some news.”

The old woman erupted, clasping her hands together and beating her chest. “Oh, my God! Oh, my Jesus! Not another hurricane! I lit all of those candles!”

“Ma, ma. Calm down. No, no, no. We’re all right. We’re okay. This is family news.”

“Don’t scare me like that, Joe!”

“That’s Paul, Ma. Look at my face.”

“Holy shit!” Kendra whispered. “She’s off the gingko. She’s lost it.”

“That can’t be right. Paul never comes to visit. Not as often as you do, anyway.”

“Listen to me, Ma. I’m Paul, and I’m the one handling this whole fiasco with any sense of reverence and aplomb. That’s why I came to you first.”

“What’s happened?”

Paul took a deep breath. In a small portion of his heart, he knew that what he was about to say would make his mother assume the posture of a monarch receiving news that a far-off rival had finally been subjugated, and he clenched himself physically for that reaction and hoped he could guide her into the necessary pattern of denial and anger and whatever came after that.

“Pop’s dead.”

“James?”

“It was his heart.”

His mother patted her own lap. “It’s fair. It’s fair. That heart poisoned us and then it turned on him.”

“Ma, come on.” Paul looked up at Kendra across the wheelchair. Her cheeks were tilting towards pink and her eyes were already red, irritated by her first tears.

“I suppose,” the matriarch said, jutting her chin against the daylight, “I’ll be available for the funeral. But after that, I want to be taken to the house. I want to tour it again. I’ve got plans for certain rooms. It’ll be good to be back.”

“Ma, you know you’ve got to stay here. They can’t watch over you at the house like they can here.”

“Is that so.”

“But don’t worry, anything you want done, we can do. I’ll look after the house.”

“You don’t understand. I can’t stand it, sitting in here. There’s no more streetcar on Magazine. Only cars and people walking now. People with items in their ears that play music so they can ignore everyone else. That’s not what we used to do. I want to go out on Saint Charles and get picked up. I want to go all the way to the lake on a streetcar, the way we used to. It takes half a day. And then you picnic, and then you swim. And the young men will all toss themselves around in front of me. I’m too old for their charms, now, but I still want to see them. They cartwheel in the sand and they bet on how many oysters their stomachs can hold. They do those things still. They must. And your father sent me here, stuck in a place for derelicts!”

“Ma, they’ll bring you to the funeral. They’ll send a car.”

“Uncle Paulie, come on. That’s harsh.”

Paul whispered, “She’s worse than I remember.”

“But you remember everything!”

Paul shook his head. A car flew by with the intent of beating the timing of the Jefferson Avenue streetlight, blaring music voiced in Spanish. Paul felt the immediate need to get away and attend to some paperwork. Any paperwork.

“Ma, do you have a black dress? I can have someone look for one in storage if you don’t.”

She looked up at him, eyes set like moisture at the bottom of a canyon. “I don’t want to be made a fixture at this funeral. You’ll seat me at the back and I’ll wear whatever’s dark that I have on hand. Anything else would be an unearned effort.”

Paul swallowed. “Okay, Ma. I’ll take you back inside. It was good to see you.”

He took hold of the handles and started down the path towards the cool, tiled halls where she belonged.

“One more thing,” she said, fluttering her fingers. “Watch out for my son Paul. He’ll ruin the entire estate just to preserve a name he’s already inherited.”

Continue Reading!  Chapter 4: Exclusion on Nashville


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