Chapter 7: Enter Remo
In the morning, Paul expected to find Liza gone and little sustenance in her refrigerator. After a long piss, he found he was annoyed and correct. The fridge held at least a dozen styrofoam and plastic take-home cartons from as many restaurants dated and possibly categorized. Not much else resembling food, not even butter. He took the last egg out of a carton, sprinkled the dust from the bottom of a package of shredded cheddar on it as it firmed yellow in the pan, then folded a slice of wheat bread around it. He stood and ate over the sink, staring out the window and itching to read the box scores. He left all the dishes out, kicked at the cat, locked up, and stepped down the stairs.
The heat was already entire. Mouthfuls of the air could only be pushed around the tongue; he couldn’t take it all down at once. Friday, the first of August coming on like a threat, like a promise of further humid judgment. Up and down the street the sprinklers hissed and shot off their patterned sprays. Out of habit, his eyes looked to his front steps to see where his copy of the Times-Picayune had crash landed, but his miniscule lawn and the front steps were bare. Halfway across the street he realized that it wasn’t missing, but was floating and flapping in someone’s hands in the full glare on his east-facing porch. Paul ascended the steps with a look of concern. The paper lowered like a dancer’s fan.
Remo MacQuincy, with barely a bead of sweat populating the vast expanse of his forehead, sat with his spine squarely against the back of one of Paul’s white wicker chairs. He was dressed in a seersucker suit, a thin white dress shirt buttoned straight to his bullfrog throat with a purple, pink, and orange bowtie flowering from the collar. Out of his chest pocket a white linen handkerchief with yellow rolled edges puckered upward as if too proud to droop. All the bright colors lent levity to his rotund body so that he seemed capable of floating up and bouncing against the ceiling like a wayward balloon if he hadn’t been anchored firmly to the ground by the extra-wide saddle oxford shoes around his bare feet and the ten ounces of pomade slicking back his hair. Remo’s nose wrinkled once before he shot up out of the chair and threw the news over his shoulder.
“Good God, Paul Hinckley.”
Paul held out his hand. Remo yanked at it like he was throwing an opposing wrestler into the ropes.
“For God’s sake, get me inside and tell me you have something cool to drink.”
“I—I wasn’t quite expecting you this early.”
“Come on, get me inside.”
Paul unlocked the door and let Remo inside. Remo pointed towards the kitchen. Paul started to laugh, already bubbling up inside with old stories and memories. He felt lightheaded. Remo locked the deadbolt and followed Paul with a hand at his back.
“Now, look, I know it’s early, but I’ve been up awake all night and the seams are coming loose. Let’s have us a real eye-opener.”
“I think I’ve got some bloody mary mix, but listen—”
“Procrastination and prevarication. Two nouns I despise in a man. Go, go, go. And never mind the flora. All I need is ground pepper.”
Paul mixed up two bloody marys and poured them into pint glasses crammed with ice cubes. Remo drank half of his at a clip, grabbed the fifth of vodka, and walked out of the room. Paul called after him, “Look, you mind if I change clothes?”
“Please do. You smell like routine sexual intercourse.”
Paul started a laugh out of embarrassment then tried to flex his throat so that it would broadcast as a sort of devil-may-care har-har. He washed his face in his back bathroom, cleared the stinging soap from his eyelids, laughed again in the mirror, then switched out his polo shirt and shorts for fresh garments. He burped egg and tomato juice.
In the living room Remo stood with his face right up against a framed 8×10 black and white picture of Paul’s parents sitting together in the backseat of a car leaving the church they’d just been married in. They held hands across the seat but each looked out their own window. James Douglas already had a finger working the knot in his tie and his new bride was about to roll down the window. The date was written directly into the corner of the photograph with a fountain pen. Remo’s glass was now more pink than red, the mix diluted with a full measure of vodka.
“Same day as your birthday,” Paul said. He came over and looked into the glass-protected past alongside the older man.
“Yes, sir. I think the old man regarded that fact as a little sliver of serendipity.”
“Boy, did he like you.”
“Within reason. Sure. But I never saw this photo. That’s something else. That’s like a still from a picture. Warner Brothers proudly presents.”
“Now and again I wonder where that old coupe is now.”
Remo turned to look at Paul’s profile. “The coupe?”
“Well, Pop always spoke fondly of that car.”
“The goddamned coupe?”
“That coupe is in the bottom of Bayou St. John! Your father sold it for a song to Clayton LeBeau in 1954. New Year’s Eve 1955, Clay’s absconded from some party with a black prostitute he’s somehow convinced is the same maid he holds unspoken passions for who works in Howard Shapiro, Sr.’s house. He’s racing through Esplanade Ridge, blotto, the prostitute is giggling and cooing in his ear, and he sideswipes a row of cars. Which, of course, draws the attention of a patrol car. LeBeau, I imagine, goes pure white with fear, and decides it is in the best interest of his dignity to avoid being caught with Mr. Shapiro’s maid, and tries to negotiate her ejection, romance be damned. The colored girl won’t have any of it and starts a limited scuffle, eventually knocking him about the ribs with an empty pint bottle of Dewar’s. I don’t know if you knew Clayton LeBeau well or not—”
“A little. My father—”
“Shut up, Paul, I’m telling a story. Clay was the type of man who would panic quite easily. So he clocks the prostitute, hits the gas, and crosses Broad Street. The coupe, by the way, is responding beautifully. That was a hell of a car. All the way down Esplanade it was roaring. The police chase at a respectful distance. He brings it up on two wheels turning down Wisner—”
“City Park on his left hand side. His entire reputation at stake. The cops are pulling closer, annoyed at the interminable chase. The girl has never been in a vehicle going sixty miles an hour before. She’s screaming hell down on him. Clay realizes he can either start to cry or take drastic actions. He cuts the steering wheel hard to the right, and there goes your daddy’s coupe, twisting on its nose, skipping down the embankment, and splashing right in the water. From the cops’ point of view, he disappears right into the low-lying fog hugging the surface. By the time they’d gotten down to the edge with their lamps, Clay had swam to the other side, promised the prostitute he’d see her at Mr. Shapiro’s Twelfth Night party, and wandered off into the night.”
“Jeesum Crickets. Who told you all that?”
“Your father. Clayton confessed all this years later. His guilt over the car was the only thing that troubled him about that night.”
Paul fell apart laughing. Remo’s eyes glimmered over the top of his glass.
“You never heard that story?”
“Anyway. I’m sufficiently cooled. You have a tape measure?”
“Give it here.”
Paul retrieved a tape measure out of his catch-all drawer and handed it to Remo. The lawyer took it and headed back outside. He plodded down the steps and set his drink on the stoop. He led out a couple feet of the yellow tape and started measuring the height from the ground to the raised floor all the way down the side of Paul’s house.
“Remo, what are you doing?”
“Measuring for consistency. Not bad. I eyeballed it at four feet, but you got four and a half. And it’s level.”
Paul leaned over the railing. “What’s the score?”
“Just like my letter said.”
“You mean that slip the kid had?”
“Let me show you something.”
Remo bounced back up the steps and the two of them went back inside. He took a folded map from his coat pocket and unfolded it across Paul’s coffee table.
“This is the latest flood model of the area from the Army Corps of Engineers.”
“Where did you—”
“Now, while they may be deficient in many areas, those sons of bitches know how to run computer models. This represents a Cat 5 hurricane with our current level of ‘protection.’ As you can see here—” he drew a finger down the map to the corner of Constance and Harmony, “you’re in the sweet spot. Provided you’re elevated enough. Which you are. Three feet plus minus eight inches they’re estimating. You’re in the clear, at least as far as keeping your hardwood intact.”
“Well, that’s good to know, but—”
“Paul, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
“There have been some awful rumors spread about me in the past couple of months. There are citizens I’ve never even met who have been made acquainted with these rumors. That never used to happen. I can feel a certain antagonism towards my person inhabiting our city. Those who used to just bristle at both my work ethic and love of justice have turned into enemies, and my old enemies have taken it upon themselves to become full-on nemeses. All over what? Jealousy, I suspect. I’ve superseded all of them.”
Paul looked at him with an open-mouthed grin, expecting some kind of punch-line.
“Kid, what the hell are you staring at? I assumed you were up on current events.”
“Remo, what are you talking about?”
“Don’t you read the papers? I’m lead counsel for the first—and only reputable—class action lawsuit against the federal government for their culpability in the flooding of New Orleans.”
“Oh, that. I thought it was some kind of publicity stunt.”
“I assure you my intentions are the full-on compensation for the decades-long, institutional dereliction of duty on the part of Uncle Sam to which we are all entitled. I didn’t make my decision in haste. There were six months of research. My case has the full support of history and applicable precedents behind it. The only problem has been a dearth of willpower among my claimants.”
“All those I signed up for the suit. I only took a small administrative fee along with their signature. After three years those people have grown increasingly frustrated. Granted, there are a lot of factors tied up in their anger. But it’s getting harder and harder to convince them of the efficacy of the cause. I told them at the time that retribution would not and could not be easily acquired. It’s a waiting game, you see. The courts are going to dodge us at every turn, but, in the end, justice is eventual. A measured quantity of certainty. My arguments are solid; the full force of culpability is fettered to them like the proverbial ball and chain. Still, many of the people I represent don’t have the necessary resolve to just fucking wait.”
“Remo, what’s this all got to do with the height of my house?”
“Though recruitment to my suit was open to any and all affected by the broken levees, there were many of our class and stature, Paul, who said it was a wasted fight. I only got a handful of signatures from Lakeview and Mid-City. The majority of signatories came from Gentilly and Central City. I sent my underlings door-to-door. I even had a squad canvassing the exiles in Houston. Those people contributed to the up-front cash needed for such an endeavor.”
“You mean…the blacks.”
“I knew I was playing with a volatile force. I just didn’t know how much so. In truth, Paul, they’ve turned on me like a wounded wolf. They want their money back.”
“And their growing pessimism, combined with the accusatory stones I’m forced to dodge from colleagues supposedly closer to my stature and temperament, makes my current situation quite antithetical to productivity. In short, Paul, I need new digs.”