The woman heard the sound again. Rrroo-cooo. Rrroocoo.
She climbed out of the bed, carefully, so as not to wake the man sleeping beside her, and went to the window. On the roof of the bed-and-breakfast hotel were two pigeons. The female pecked and walked, pecked and walked, always turning away from the male, which was puffing its feathers, dipping its head, making its soft, chuckling, private noise. The female, sleek and oblivious, hopped to the roof of the next house. The male followed. He spread his tail. His strut seemed precisely timed, but halting, as if the gears of some mechanism inside him were missing several teeth. His coo came to the woman’s ear more faintly. Then the female pigeon flew off, swooping down toward Bourbon Street, the male followed, and the woman stepped back to the bed.
“Wake up,” she said to the man. He was sprawled in such a way that had the mattress been a wall, he would have been scaling it dramatically. His hands seemed to be reaching out. But he was soundly asleep.
“Wake up. It’s later than we thought.”
They dressed as only married people learn to dress together. While she feathered mascara onto her lashes in the mirror, he ducked to spit out toothpaste and rinse his mouth in the sink below. As she bent to wash her hands, he straightened to tie his tie. Abruptly, wordlessly, she turned her back to him, and he zipped her dress without being asked, pulling the zipper slowly, brushing at the folds of the tucked chiffon collar, with the care of someone who has previously spent hours unsnagging expensive cloth from metal teeth.
“What did I do with my whatsit?” said the woman.
“Your what?” said the man.
She was sitting before the mirror with a hairpin in her mouth and a lock of hair lifted in her comb.
“You know.” She had just plucked the hairpin from her mouth so she could speak more clearly. “You know what I mean. The thing.” She wiggled her fingers in the air.
“No, I don’t know.” The man looked at his watch.
“Darling, don’t be exasperating. I mean the flowers. Didn’t I give them to the woman downstairs?”
“You gave them away?” The man looked simultaneously hurt and annoyed.
“Of course not! I gave them to the woman to put in a cool place. So they wouldn’t wilt. Would you go and ask her for them?”
He frowned. He went to the window and pushed back the curtain with his hand. He could see the second story of the house across the narrow street. It had elaborate wrought-iron balustrades and bright geraniums in all of its windows. The sky behind its roof was pink. “We’re going to have to skip dinner,” he said.
“Please,” she said.
“I bet they start concerts on time around here.”
“Just downstairs. Ask that nice woman who checked us in last night.”
The man picked up his light-weight wool suit coat and flung it over his shoulder and walked downstairs. The wallpaper in the stairwell was a repetitive pattern of great broccoli-shaped trees hung with swings. Women in large white dresses with ribbons in their hair and baskets of roses in their laps sat on these swings. Watching the women were little black boys dressed in livery, holding the bridles of ponies hitched to carts. The man looked back up the half-lit stairwell and saw hundreds of trees shading hundreds of tethered ponies, attended by multiple black boys watching identical white women whose hair ribbons fluttered in the breezes of their myriad swinging swings.
“Can I help you, sir?” It was the woman who was the very person he was supposed to find.
“Yes,” said the man. He asked for his wife’s corsage, and the woman led him to the rear of the house, to the kitchen.
“And is this your first trip to New Orleans?” The woman was short and wore a sweater and bedslippers. Her glasses were strung around her neck on a golden chain.
“Yes,” said the man. “We’re living in Vermont.”
“Cold up there,” said the short woman. She opened a large refrigerator which seemed to be crowded with covered dishes and milk in gallon jugs. “I know I put that pretty thing in here. I know I did.”
The man noticed the line of the woman’s girdle through her cotton dress as she bent into the recesses of the refrigerator. He wondered if she had ever married, if she had made love often when she was young.
“I bet this is a change for you,” she was saying.
He said, “We’re glad to be down here where it’s warm. Where we live it stays below freezing most of the time.”
“Here it is!” The short woman emerged from the refrigerator with a box. She opened it and looked at the two white orchids in their nest of green paper. “Not a brown spot on them. Just perfect.”
“I know my wife will be pleased.”
The short woman covered the flowers. “Are you newlyweds?”
“No. We spent Christmas with my wife’s family in Alabama. We promised ourselves New Year’s Eve here.” He took the box. “Thanks for keeping these fresh. Can I reimburse you for your trouble?”
“Oh, no!” The woman threw up her hands in what the man thought was a typically Southern and feminine gesture. She pulled at her glasses and smiled. “I think it’s sweet of a man to give his wife flowers,” she said. “Particularly if there’s no real occasion that obliges it.”
“My wife likes flowers.” He turned to go. “Thanks again.”
“Name me the woman who doesn’t.” She was following him, shutting off the kitchen lights.
Suddenly he thought of the time. “Say, do you know if the restaurants will be serving late?”
The short woman reminded him it was New Year’s Eve. “Every place stays wide open, and every person stays wide awake.” She laughed. “But if you’re worried about something to eat, just tell me when you get in. I’ll be watching Times Square on T.V.”
“We wouldn’t want to trouble you.”
“Well, a sandwich isn’t what I call trouble. Not here. Not for a handsome fellow.” She tilted her head flirtatiously.
He smiled down on her and tucked the flower box under one arm.
The man and the woman walked out into the darkening street, where lights were already shining. Streetlights in the French Quarter were exact replicas of gas lamps. The air was mild, not even cool, and perfectly still. The woman wore the orchids in her hair.
“It’s so warm here, they can grow bananas,” she said. “Did you see the tree in the back yard of our hotel? Did you see them? Bananas grow in a sort of inverted green chandelier.”
The man nodded.
“If we were in Vermont, just think,” said the women, “I’d be in boots.” Her sandal heels clicked over the cobbled parts of the street. All of the streets were shut to automobile traffic that evening.
“And there would be snow halfway up these lampposts. Ice on the windshields, salt crystals and slush in the streets,” he said. “Not to mention frozen dog turds by the porch.” Letting her hold his arm, he took longer strides.
“Not so fast! I’ll break my neck in these shoes. Do you think Ted will remember to turn over the engine and water our plants?”
“I told Barbara as well as Ted. I gave them a sign to hang up to remind them. We’ll send another postcard. They’ll remember.”
There was a crowd on the streets. There were many young people in jeans, several couples dressed up. They saw five children dressed in red, wearing paper hats and carrying tiny American flags, holding on to a length of rope which was tied to their mother’s waist. One of the children, a boy, dropped his flag in the street. He looked over his shoulder sorrowfully and released the rope. He looked back to the lost flag and then to the line of his brothers and sisters leaving him; he began to wail. His mother turned, spotted him, and said, “Bill! Come back here! What’s wrong with you? I told you—don’t let go!” The crying boy ran to the rope and held it screaming, “My flag! My flaa-aag!” as his mother walked on. The man looked where the flag had dropped, but it had vanished. One of the many pedestrians had found and kept it.
The woman said, “That poor little boy.”
The man imagined he could hear a voice, receding but distinct, saying, “Flaaa-ag. . . .fla-ag. . . .”
They kept walking down Bourbon Street. They were jostled. An elderly man was saying, “If young people can’t have fun without a belly full of beer, well. . . .” A young woman, her face painted with brilliant spots of rouge, shouted to a man in a yellow velours shirt, “I’m a person! And I want to be heard!”
The man from Vermont stopped and looked above the crowd.
“What are you doing?” asked the woman. The orchids trembled in her hair. Their whiteness made her hair look darker, as dense as foliage.
“I’m trying to read the street numbers. To keep us heading in the right direction.”
The crowd parted to let pass a chorus of four drunk young men with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They were laughing and chanting:
The crowd watched them go and then moved back into their path. The man from Vermont noticed a plump woman in polyester pants and a mink coat carrying a large paper bag full of something obviously heavy. She set the bag on the street for a moment, then picked it up again and kept walking.
We’re from Arkansas! We got class!
The boys from Georgia can kiss our ass!
They had reached the section of bars and strip joints. Barkers stood out in front of some of the clubs saying, “Here it is! Here it is! Come in and see it all!”
The man and the woman paused outside the Galatea. Inside, they could distinguish a long room. Running the length of the room was a bar where drinks were being served. Behind the bar was a stage and a huge mirror, reflecting a dancing woman. She was taking off her clothes to the sound of a ragtime piano. She would flip the filmy gowns as each came off. She would run her hands over her body and lick her fingers. The man and woman could see this from the street.
“Let’s go,” said the woman from Vermont. “I don’t want to miss the concert.”
“No. I want to see this.” The man remained perfectly still. “I’m bushed,” he said. “I want a drink.”
“We’ll get drinks later,” said the woman.
But the man did not move. The stripper’s face was bored, cold, vacant. There was a row of men’s faces before her, reflected in the long mirror—a row of male faces upturned— some stunned, some contemplative, others rueful, delighted, or critical.
The stripper had reached her final garments—a tasseled, sequined string that flashed in the spotlights, and two tasseled sequined caps for the nipples of her breasts.
“All right,” said the woman. “Now can we go?”
He said, “In a minute.”
“She won’t take off anything else. That’s all they’re allowed to take off.”
The stripper’s music had changed to be-bop. She did bumps and grinds punctuated perfectly by drumbeats. She shook the glittering tassles and knelt with her knees apart.
“Will you come ON!” said the woman.
“Wait,” said the man. But the view was blocked by a group of people going into the bar. When the silhouettes of the group parted from the doorway, the dancing had stopped. The music changed and became the languid waltz of violins.
The man and the woman kept walking.
“It’s not right to watch when you don’t pay for a drink,” said the woman.
“I wanted a drink,”
“But we don’t have time to buy one.”
“No harm in looking.” The man noticed the woman was keeping to herself and was no longer holding his arm.
“Well, if you like that sort of thing,” she said.
“You know I do.”
The woman looked at him but did not smile.
“And you’re glad I do,” said the man. He checked his watch and added, “Besides, she reminded me of someone.”
The woman slowed her step abruptly. He seemed to have dropped very suddenly from her sight, as if he had fallen through the pavement. She was looking at the dim reflection of herself in the plate glass of a store window. The chiffon collar of her dress did not seem to please her. She plucked at it with her fingers. She touched the corner of one eye with her fingertip. Then she pressed her lips together.
Behind her, passing her briskly, were two black adolescent boys with a transistor radio. The radio blared a song:
The boys were dressed in tight black pants and felt hats with wide brims. Their satin shirts had piping on the fronts and cuffs. One of them had a gold earring pierced through and dangling from one ear.
Dat baby’s got yo’ eyes and yo’ nose . . . .
Ask de mama, ask de mama, SHE knows!
“Pay me my money, man,” said the one with the gold earring, “and then I might.”
The woman adjusted and repinned the flower in her hair as the man stood watching her.
“Who?” she said finally, turning to face him.
“What do you mean—”who”?”
“You said that woman reminded you of someone.”
“So I did.”
“Well, I want to know more about it. If you told me that much, you should tell me more.” Her voice was crisp.
“You wanted to know why I was watching without drinking. I told you I was interested. That’s that.”
They walked in silence. They heard a faint, percussive sound of fireworks. The crowd became so thick that they had to hold hands to stay together. The woman’s hand in his was limp, and as soon as she could, she withdrew it.
There was a hot dog stand on one corner; it was made of aluminum fashioned in the shape of a large hotdog in a bun. It rolled on four wheels, a pushcart, with a gas stove built inside to warm the hot dogs, the buns, and sometimes even the vendor. The big red “weiner” top had a row of covered porcelain pots for the sauces, the chili, as well as a cabinet for the hot buns. The vendor wore a faded corduroy suit and called, “Happy New Year! Happy Hot Dog! Happy Hot Year! Happy New Dog!”
“Want one?” asked the man.
The woman did not answer.
They found their way to Preservation Hall. They were early, it seemed. The concert would not start for another half hour. People in the foyer seemed to be talking about a funeral. A famous jazz clarinetist had died. The accents were heavy.
The man and woman listened to a black woman saying, “He done passed in the hospital jus’ dis mornin’.” An old black man next to her said, “Well, he was a real fighter. Slipped a bit, though. Began hittin’ bottom at th’ last.”
“There’ll be a fun’ral. Four bands gonna play.”
The man turned to the woman. “That’s the sort of funeral we’ve read about. Bands marching with the coffin down Royal Street!”
The woman averted her eyes and said, “I’m going to get a seat.”
The theater itself was a high, unfinished room. It seemed to be made of plain boards with no insulation in the walls. All of its rafters were exposed. Everyone was expected to sit on metal folding chairs set up in rows. The woman sat near the front. The man sat beside her. They watched the musicians come in one by one. The musicians were middle-aged black men who wore baggy trousers held up by suspenders. Their clothes were old and drab and shiny, full of personal wrinkles, as if the suits had rarely been hung on hangers. There was a banjo, a clarinet, a saxophone, a trumpet. The golden brass of the horns was all that shone in the gloomy, dingy room. The upright piano had no cover on the front; all its hammers danced. The musicians searched for metal tripods for the horns. They smoked acrid cigars, as thick and dark as their thumbs.
“Was it Carol?” hissed the woman in a whisper. “Did she remind you of Carol?”
The man smiled. “Are you still thinking about that?”
“You know I’m thinking about that, you pig.”
The man reached out to pat her hand, but the woman withdrew her hand to her hair, shaping its curls with her fingers. “Carol was a real brunette, you told me. She had almost black hair. “Almost black”—that’s what you said.”
“And Carol also needed the sort of help only an orthodontist can give,” said the man. “Did I tell you that too?”
The woman looked at him. “I saw her once. There was nothing terribly wrong with her teeth.”
“O. K. She was a knockout.”
The woman was quiet. The musicians were sitting at ease with their instruments, flexing their lips, shaking their arms, warming up. They were blowing through mouthpieces, twiddling keys, testing straps, pulling and thumbing in an offhand way.
The woman turned to the man. “You spent a lot of time with her in California. There was something between you, wasn’t there? Don’t lie.”
“I never lied. That woman in the Galatea did not remind me of Carol. For one thing, Carol couldn’t dance.”
“But you were in love with her.”
The man looked away. He looked at the people beginning to fill the rows behind them. He saw a few college fraternity types, their hair quite short. They were dressed in gray, brown, or navy London Fog raincoats. Their hands were shoved deep into their pockets. One of them leaned against the piano and asked the pianist to autograph his program. On his lapel shone a red button that said: ARKANSAS.
“Arkansas is playing Georgia in the Sugarbowl,” said the man to the woman. “I just thought of that.”
The woman did not reply. She looked over the crowd and watched a blonde in her early thirties, whose straight hair was parted in the middle, take a seat beside her three tow-headed children, close to her bored but handsome husband. The blonde wore a twill coat with brass buttons, a signed Parisian scarf, silver bracelets and long black socks.
“We’re over-dressed,” said the woman. “Nobody is wearing anything.”
The man smiled. “Looks as if they are.”
“I mean anything like what we’re wearing.”
“Dressing up was your idea,” said the man, who followed her gaze and saw the blonde with her family. “That woman looks a lot like Bud’s brother’s wife.”
“She does not. Not at all.”
“Around the eyes she does. Look at her eyes.”
A few piercing bars on the saxophone broke into the myriad conversations of the arriving crowd. People were startled to silence for a moment; then their talk resumed. A child ran in front of the first row, ducking gracefully under the trombone slide as he ran. The bass player arrived and began to take the cover off his instrument, struggling like a man trying to disrobe a fat, drunk woman. Someone called out, “Jimmy! Here! We’re over here!” A young black girl wearing grey wool bell-bottomed trousers and a thick red wool shawl came in carrying six-packs of soft drinks. “You hear about George?” she said to the musicians as she set the drinks on the floor near a wilting potted poinsettia. “It’s so sad about him.” Her silver shoe buckles sparkled.
The woman looked up at the portraits of famous jazz musicians hung on the walls. They were crude but strong portraits, each face distinguishable from the other faces. The seats in the house were almost filled. There was a standing crowd. And outside, with faces at the windows, stood the people who couldn’t pay to get in. The air was becoming heavy with cigar smoke. No one had remembered to turn on the fans.
The man leaned over and spoke in her ear. “What do you want me to tell you? If I say I loved Carol, you hate me. If I say I never loved her, you think I’m lying.” He was looking at one of the flowers in her hair. Its outer petals were ridged and fluted. Its central petals formed a long, spotted throat, tinged with color. He could not see the bottom, the base of the flower. It was as clean and folded as a napkin, as delicate as foam.
“I want something perfect,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She took his hand.
He knew she wanted to cry but that she would not. Since their marriage, she rarely burst into tears. At midnight, he would kiss her in a crowd. And enjoy kissing her.
“The dancing woman,” he said, leaning close to her again, “reminded me of Miss Gahagan, my fifth grade teacher.”
She looked at him, incredulous.
“No kidding,” he said. “It’s the way they both plucked their eyebrows.”
The trombone player raised his hand, brought it down, and the music started, all at once. The drummer smiled around his cigar. The saxophone player tapped both of his very shiny shoes. During the shrill clarinet solo, the man and woman from Vermont, along with the rest of the audience, burst into spontaneous applause, and the piano player cried out, “Oh, yeah! Stay right where you is!”