for Sarah Doerries
The day my father-in-law died, I was back in New Orleans, pretending to be there on business. Really I was there to attend a funeral – not my father-in-law’s funeral, someone else’s. I couldn’t tell my wife about this funeral because she would have said things or – far worse – said nothing. Either way, when I got back to Houston the house would feel even colder and emptier than usual, and she’d have her back to me all the time, shoulders tight with disapproval.
The house in Houston was too cold and air-tight anyway. Our old house in New Orleans was porous, cockroaches popping up between the floorboards, flying termites slipping in where the cracked wood of the window frame didn’t quite meet the peeling sill. Dirt from the schoolyard across the road washed up underneath the front door and gritted up the Turkish rug. Even with the side shutters permanently closed, lines of light, cloudy with dust, pointed spindly accusing fingers at the living-room floor.
Once we found a tiny green lizard dozing on the Venetian blinds in the bedroom; another time my older daughter saw one scuttling down the hallway, and chased it with a Tupperware sandwich box, planning on capturing it and releasing it into the wild. But the wild was inside our house, and under it, and all around us. We could never shut it out.
After Katrina my company moved to Houston, and decided not to come back. That happened to lots of people; that was why they left New Orleans. And Greta, my wife, liked Houston, because there the wilderness was contained: stop lights worked and potholes were filled in, and nobody drove the wrong way down oneway streets. We didn’t have to park the car on the neutral ground on Claiborne when there was an especially heavy rain and our street looked sure to flood. Also, Houston had a really big mall, maybe the biggest mall anywhere, and my wife and daughters liked that a lot. They were tired of living in a northern port in the Caribbean, Greta told people. They wanted to live in America.
At first we came back for parades, and sometimes for Jazz Fest, staying in the house on Napoleon that Bertie, my father-in-law, had bought when he moved to the city from Hammond, and kept even after he retired to Florida. But after six years, seven years, the girls had other things to do during parade season; in Houston they didn’t get two days off school for Mardi Gras. In the summer they would rather go to Sarasota where their grandfather had a condo on the beach.
When Greta rang with the news about Bertie dying, I said I was in the lobby of my hotel, but really I’d just walked into the reception area at Lake Lawn Cemetery. I was looking for signs for the Fortier funeral.
Bertie had been felled by a heart attack, she said, when he was out buying a morning paper, shuffling along in his Adidas slip-ons. It wasn’t his first heart attack, so no one was surprised. Greta’s brother was already on his way out there, she told me, to take care of everything. But there was one problem. Bertie died in Florida, but his wine collection was in New Orleans.
‘You need the wine for the funeral?’ I asked, turning my face to an alcove decorated with an urn spouting fake flowers. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me and start shouting out my name.
‘No,’ she said. ‘We need to take it before LB gets back and grabs it all.’
LB was Little Bertie, Greta’s brother. I called him Al, and his work colleagues and old college buddies did as well, but people from Hammond, people who had known him when he was a child, called him LB.
‘I don’t understand what you want me to do,’ I said, and Greta made a clicking noise with her tongue, the way she always did when she thought I was being slow or obstructive.
She wanted, she said, for me to go to the house on Napoleon and find some of the wine – the most expensive bottles, the ones he’d brought back from France and was keeping for some important occasion that never came.
‘You know the ones,’ she said. ‘He was always showing them off to you. He thought you were the only one who would appreciate them, and he was right. LB’s happy with beer.’
‘So why do we have to do this now? Can’t it wait until the will is read, or whatever?’ I’d seen this in movies, the reading of the will in some mahoganypanelled lawyer’s office. I imagined Greta in a black veil and gloves, sobbing – ostentatiously, ferociously – into a scented handkerchief, though Greta was not really the sobbing kind.
‘Are you kidding? LB and Christa will have stripped the house by then. The last time I went, I swear to you that half Mama’s crystal was gone, and even some of the paintings. No way Daddy took them to that little box of his in Sarasota. You have to get in there now, while LB’s gone. I didn’t tell him that you were in town, otherwise he would have sent Christa to the house for a pre-emptive strike.’
As ever, I admired Greta’s presence of mind. Her father dies, and her first thought was to keep my visit to New Orleans a secret, just in case she could talk me into lifting some wine.
‘How am I going to get into that house?’ I asked. ‘You and LB have the keys.’
‘Break in,’ she said. ‘Wait until it gets dark and then break in.’
‘I don’t know anything about breaking into houses,’ I told her.
‘Use your imagination.’
‘What if someone sees me breaking in and calls the police?’
‘People break into houses in New Orleans all the time. Nobody ever sees anything. And if they do, they never tell the po-lis.’
She always pronounced ‘police’ that way when we talked about New Orleans.
I got a few more orders – only pick five or six of the most valuable bottles; make sure I covered my tracks – but then I told Greta I had to go. My meeting, I said, meaning the funeral, was about to begin.
I guess it wasn’t really a funeral, as such: Rich Fortier had already been cremated, and the family had summoned us all to Lake Lawn’s visitation room, which looked like a hotel conference room with an altar wheeled in. Rich gave me my first real job in the oil business, and was generous about helping other people move up and out, so there were at least a hundred mourners eddying in and out, doing a bad job of keeping their voices down.
Rich was a big guy whose mouth always seemed full of fried oysters or hot dogs drowning in chilli. It’s a miracle he made it to sixty. The carved wooden jewel-box of his ashes looked all wrong, mean and fancy at the same time, the opposite of Rich.
It was even worse once we were ushered to the mausoleum area, to stand around a shiny slab on the wall. This slab was the door to a tiny vault where the box of ashes would be hidden away. The gleaming wall with all its hidden doors reminded me of a fitted kitchen. Rich’s grandchildren lolled on one of the polished wooden benches and his wife, Betty, wore the distracted, anxious expression I remembered from crawfish boils on their driveway. The giant flower arrangement on a stand wore a beauty-contestant sash that read PAW-PAW in royal-blue letters. We were waiting around, I heard, for some judge, a friend of the family’s, to say a few words.
Jimmy Clark wriggled up out of nowhere and grappled me into an awkward hug.
‘John!’ he said. ‘Look at you, old man. In a suit and all.’
Jimmy was Rich’s nephew, and we’d grown up on the same street in Marksville. He was still as spidery as a skinny kid, even though he had to be thirty-two, maybe thirty-three. But these days his hair was sparse and fluffy at the front, and though his arms were matchsticks, a little belly stuck out over his belt. In his foodstained white shirt and black pants, he looked like an off-duty waiter.
Last time I heard, Jimmy was living in Alexandria, for no particular reason, selling coffee at the concession in Books-A-Million. Before that he’d sold coffee at Albertson’s, further along the same stretch of highway, but he’d left under some kind of cloud. Jimmy carried clouds around with him, his brother once told me, the way kids carry balloons. Michael, Jimmy’s brother, was a lawyer now but still lived in Marksville, representing the aggrieved of Avoyelles Parish at the old courthouse in the square.
‘Is Michael here?’ I asked. Michael was my age, and we used to share a ride to Menard, our high school in Alexandria. I looked around for him but it was hard to see much but the backs of people’s heads; Jimmy and I were crushed into a corner, the afternoon light sickly through the window’s chequerboard of stained glass.
‘Rich was a big guy whose mouth always seemed full of fried oysters or hot dogs drowning in chilli’
‘He couldn’t get away. Big case, something to do with the prison. Or the hospital, maybe. I’m staying at his place right now, so we’ll drive back up tonight.’
I didn’t ask who he meant by ‘we’, though I had a pretty good idea. Anyway, Jimmy was already on another topic. He was in the city to do some research, he said. This was Jimmy all over. He was always doing some kind of research, but nobody ever knew why, and nothing seemed to come of it. Obsessions took hold of him, and he had to pursue them, and to talk about them until everybody was sick of hearing it. His latest passion, he told me, was Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer.
‘He was born in Wales. Illegitimate. Ran away to sea when he was seventeen.’
‘People were always running away to sea in those days,’ I said. ‘Does anybody do that any more?’
‘Sometime in the 1850s he found work on a ship out of Liverpool and ended up in New Orleans.’ The judge, tall and black-robed, had materialized near the flower stand, and people were shushing each other, but Jimmy didn’t seem to notice. ‘His real name was John Rowland, but in New Orleans he got himself adopted by a rich man, name of Henry Stanley. So he changed his name.’
‘Really,’ I said, though I wanted Jimmy to stop talking. At least he’d lowered his voice.
‘Lots of people changed their names in New Orleans,’ he told me, leaning in. A tattoo I didn’t remember peeped out from under his shirt collar – maybe a bird’s claw, or the spikes of a star. ‘Tennessee Williams and O. Henry, for example. Did you know that Stanley fought for both sides during the Civil War?’
‘Family and friends!’ said the judge, in a molasses-thick voice. ‘Let me say a few words.’
Some strung-together scripture followed, and a Lord’s Prayer with the added lines for any Protestants in the crowd. I wondered why Stanley, the name-changing explorer, had chosen to fight for both sides. Not at the same time, I assumed, unless he was the Mata Hari of the Civil War.
The judge stepped away from the flowers, and an official-looking woman dressed in navy blue took over, pointing to the exits.
‘That ends our proceedings today,’ she said, her face blank of any emotion. ‘You are dismissed.’
A murmur of disapproval echoed off the marble cupboard doors.
‘That’s just rude,’ said a loud voice, and I almost laughed out loud. Thea.
I strained to see her, and she was easy to spot in the crowd, even with her back turned towards us, even though half the other women there were blonde, and even though she was wearing some kind of fur shrug, black streaked with grey, that wasn’t her usual style at all. I knew the particular sway of Thea’s hair, the pert way she held her head, the slope of her shoulders.
‘Thea’s supposed to drive me back to Marksville tonight,’ Jimmy told me. ‘But her car stopped running this afternoon, so I don’t know what we’ll do. I have to be home first thing in the morning.’
‘You’re working in Marksville now?’ I asked. Jimmy shook his head, squinting up at the stained-glass window as though the weak show of sunlight annoyed him.
‘Got to show my face there tomorrow. I’m kind of out on bond right now. And Thea needs to be there as well, because …’ He glanced at me, then looked away again. ‘It’s a long story.’
It was always a long story with Jimmy.
‘I could drive you,’ I said without thinking. I didn’t need to stay the night in New Orleans, I told myself. Tomorrow I had a meeting in Lake Charles – a real meeting, and the reason I was driving on this trip rather than flying. Tonight I could drive to Marksville and surprise my mother. She wouldn’t say a word about it to Greta, not if I asked her to keep it quiet. My mother never told Greta anything any more.
‘Man, that would save my life,’ said Jimmy. People around us were walking away, complaining about being dismissed. ‘Thea!’
She turned to look in our direction, not smiling, not surprised, imperious as ever, as though she knew I’d be standing there by the picnic-tablecloth of a window, waiting for her to notice me.
We parked outside Bertie’s house, waiting for dusk and discussing possible plans of action.
‘The neighbours may get suspicious,’ Jimmy warned me.
‘Please,’ said Thea. ‘Three white people in a Lexus?’
She had rolled her eyes when she saw I drove a Lexus, but it hadn’t stopped her sliding into the front seat and obscuring the handbrake with her snakeskin purse. She kept the fur shrug on, even though the day was humid and not even slightly autumnal.
‘For the record,’ she continued, looking at me, ‘I think this is a bad idea. If you’re going to break in, at least take something of value. Make it worth the effort.’
‘Some of that wine is worth a lot,’ I told her, speaking loud to drown out Jimmy in the back seat, humming the Monday Night Football theme music. When we were young, I used to tell him to quit making his strange noises, but now we were all peers, more or less.
‘I was thinking sentimental value, but hey. It’s your family.’
‘It’s Greta’s family,’ I said, and got out of the car. In the trunk I dug out the flashlight and the jack. Jimmy cracked open his door.
‘Want some help?’ he asked.
‘No!’ shrieked an unseen Thea. ‘You’re in enough trouble.’
I didn’t need Jimmy’s help, though the last time I broke into anywhere, Thea and I were teenagers looking for somewhere to get high on a wet Sunday afternoon: we kicked in the door of Bob Ritchie’s tool shed and sat in there on deflated pool floats, each of us cradling one of the garden gnomes Bob liked to refurbish, giggling like fools. But I had a notion of how to get into Bertie’s house, through the screen door around the back where rain had warped the wood. I wasn’t worried about the neighbours, even though their house was close enough to touch, because I was family, kind of, with every right to be trudging through the side gate armed with a car jack, intent on breaking in through the back door.
To get there I had to navigate an obstacle course of upside-down plastic lawn furniture, rotten with mould spots, and a mountain range of tree roots that had forced its way up through the cracked paving stones. I hadn’t been back here in years, and neither had anyone else, by the looks of it. But all it took to prise open the screen door was my penknife; the lever on the car jack got me through the back door and into what passed for a basement in New Orleans, a concrete floor spotted with roach carcasses, and the skeleton of framed internal walls that Al had stripped bare after Katrina. The washer and dryer were down here, and dusty plastic tubs jammed with bags of beads, relics from the days when Bertie rode with Thoth: he never threw it all, and everyone always nagged him about buying so much every year.
Any wine left in the house was upstairs, I knew, where floodwaters couldn’t reach it. Up there the house smelled stale and a little off, like garbage had been sitting around for too long, though that’s the way it smelled when Bertie lived here full-time. He never had the air turned up high enough.
On my way in, I made a mess of the door at the top of the stairs, smashing and splintering a hole so I could turn the handle. This meant the police might be called at some point, when Al next came around and saw the damage, but I doubted they’d do anything, especially if nothing much was stolen.
There wasn’t much in there to steal. The dining table and chairs were gone, something that would enrage Greta, and the wall of the front parlour was a blank of sallow rectangles, where paintings of doughy, dark-eyed Creoles used to hang. The silver-plate was missing from the credenza. When I investigated Bertie’s usual hiding places for his wine – a box in the linen closet, the nest of beach towels under the bed – I found nothing. Either Al and Christa had been pillaging, or Bertie had transported his stash to Florida. The former, I decided, when I checked in the final place, the old laundry chute in the bathroom. Al would never think to look here for wine; he was devious, but not as devious as his father or sister. So there were still four bottles in there, something to brandish, like spoils of war, on my return to Houston.
They weren’t bad bottles either, I realized, doubling up Rouses bags from the pantry to carry my stash. Romanée-Conti from 1988; Pétrus from 2001. A 1993 Pichon Lalande that I half remembered Bertie showing me once. The oldest was a 1978 La Mission Haut-Brion. They may have been worth a few hundred each, or maybe a lot more. Greta could have the fun of researching and tallying, of relishing the secret triumph over her brother and his wife. She would never drink the bottles of wine, and I doubted she would even sell them. The secret triumph would be enough.
I grabbed a six-pack of beer from the fridge as well, mainly to annoy Al, and let myself out through the front door. Back at the car, I slid the bagged wine into the back seat, next to Jimmy and my folded suit jacket, and offered him a beer. I threw another can into Thea’s lap.
‘I am surrounded by the criminal element,’ said Thea. Her window was down and she was smoking, something I thought she’d given up years ago.
‘She always pushed her seat right back and took her shoes off when she got in my car. That much hadn’t changed’
‘Your wife doesn’t have a key to her own daddy’s house?’ Jimmy asked. I told him that she did, in Houston, but all of this – the death, the demand – had gone down today, when I was already here. ‘She couldn’t come to Uncle Rich’s funeral?’
I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t feel like lying on Greta’s behalf: stealing was plenty for one day. We were driving between stop signs on Napoleon at high speed, because all I wanted now was to get out of town.
What’s her deal,’ Thea said, not looking at me. It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway.
‘She doesn’t like New Orleans any more.’
‘Tell her New Orleans doesn’t care.’
‘I can’t tell her anything these days,’ I said.
‘Not a single thing she likes about the city?’ Jimmy asked. In the rear-view mirror I spied him squirming and flinching in the back seat as though some bug was dive-bombing his face. ‘That’s crazy.’
‘She still likes her daddy’s wine, apparently,’ said Thea, raising her stockinged feet so they rested on the dashboard. She always pushed her seat right back and took her shoes off when she got in my car. That much hadn’t changed.
Thea was the reason I couldn’t tell my wife about the funeral. Just the mention of Thea’s name could turn a day sour. Greta thought that Thea and I still had too much going on, too many stories and secrets and allegiances, even though I hadn’t seen Thea or spoken to her since we had left New Orleans. Anything I heard about her these days was through Michael. She had boyfriends rather than husbands; she lived downtown. When she started working at the Historic New Orleans Collection, office rules dictated that women wore skirts and pantyhose, but Thea insisted that the rules be changed.
‘We could go see Henry Stanley’s house right now,’ said Jimmy. ‘I know where it is. They moved it to Coliseum Street.’
‘They’re always moving things around,’ Thea complained. She opened the beer and placed it in my cup-holder, twisting the can so I could pick it up and drink. ‘Everything they can’t tear down.’
When I told Jimmy that we didn’t have time to look at Stanley’s house, wherever it was, he sat in a sulk until we were halfway to Baton Rouge. He sat clutching the bag of wine the way he used to hold on to a cushion when he sat watching TV. The only sound that came from the back seat was the clank of the beer can hitting his teeth.
This was a drive I’d made many times before, of course, but not one I liked making, not since the storm. On I-10 across the Bonnet Carré Spillway with its stunted cypresses, past the refinery that sparkled like a spotlit city, all the way to Baton Rouge, and then across the Mississippi. At False River there was the turn before New Roads, then Morganza, Simmesport, and another river to cross, the Atchafalaya, with Avoyelles Parish waiting, poor and hot and dozy, on the other side. In the old days, whenever I passed Baton Rouge it always seemed to me I was back in Louisiana proper, where there was more time and more space, and hunting squirrels was a family activity.
By the time we turned off the Interstate, Jimmy was talking again. Two cans of beer, and he wouldn’t shut up.
‘The thing is,’ he said, as though one of us had asked him a question, ‘Dr Livingstone wasn’t lost.’
‘Why are you still talking about this?’ Thea asked. She’d made him pass her another can, and she was keeping me supplied.
‘It’s history. You know that’s my thing. What else I’ma talk about?’
‘Maybe you could discuss why you’ve started saying “I’ma”,’ she said. ‘And earlier today, I swear I heard you say “bu’on”.’
‘What does that mean?’ I asked. We were passing False River now, and I was trying to distract myself, glad that someone was talking.
‘Button,’ she told me. ‘I don’t recall the context. I was too appalled to continue listening.’
‘Dr Livingstone wasn’t lost,’ Jimmy said. ‘He didn’t need to be found. The whole thing was a publicity stunt. It was just Stanley trying to get famous. That’s why people know him today – because of the whole “Dr Livingstone, I presume” thing.’
‘So what you’re saying is, it worked,’ said Thea.
‘He probably made that up as well. He probably never said, “Dr Livingstone, I presume.” But he did lots of big things in Africa, like navigate the Congo River. No white man had ever done that before.’
‘Maybe the Africans didn’t want white men there, navigating their rivers. Maybe they could navigate their rivers themselves.’
‘Nobody remembers things like that about Stanley. All they remember is this one thing that may not even be true.’
‘Maybe he didn’t navigate the Congo River either,’ Thea said, giving me a sidelong look. She always knew what I was thinking. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t believe a word this man said. Stanley wasn’t even his real name. He just picked it up in New Orleans the way John picked up that wine.’
‘Hey!’ said Jimmy. ‘Look at the Legoniers’ old house. Slow down!’
I slowed the car so we could take a long look at the house, lit up by fake gas lamps. It was a sherbet-orange, its storm shutters painted a watered-down purple. A fat Chevy Tahoe sat in the driveway like a giant toad. Beyond it, the water lay dark and unruffled, a gully of black between the houses lining the shores on either side.
‘They painted it,’ said Thea.
‘Looks like Key Largo,’ said Jimmy. ‘It doesn’t look like here.’
‘What does “here” look like?’ Thea asked him.
‘Not like that.’
‘That place used to be a fish camp,’ I said. ‘Now it looks like – well, Florida. Jimmy’s right.’
Against my better judgement, I kept the car at a crawl. Once, everything along the water here was brown boards; only a few houses were whitewashed, and most places were as dark and plain as the fish that people came here to catch. Twenty, thirty years ago, most of the houses were smaller than boat sheds, sprinkled close to the waterline. Now the old houses were going, sold for stupid prices to people with money in Baton Rouge, and pulled down. In their place the new owners built stucco bunkers or South Beach villas like this one, spreading to the boundary lines so the homes were practically touching. After Katrina, Greta and the girls stayed in a house along here, and that was a fortress. It even had electric gates.
‘Not worth thinking about,’ Thea said to me in a low voice. ‘We should get going.’
‘This used to be part of the real river,’ Jimmy said. ‘It got cut off after a spring flood, sometime in the 1700s.’
‘You know I hate it when people say things like “1700s”,’ Thea said, her voice loud. ‘What are we, Italians? In English we call it the eighteenth century. When someone says “1700s” to me, it’s as though they don’t trust me to work it out.’
‘Everything I say, you complain.’ Jimmy sounded sulky again, the way he used to when he was little and someone had rubbed love bugs into his hair. ‘And you call me Jimmy, when you know I don’t like it. People call me Jim now. Even MeMe remembers to call me Jim.’
‘Well, I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.’
‘Just be sorry because you’re sorry. Don’t qualify it.’
‘I’m sorry. I really am. It’s just hard for me to remember to say Jim.’
‘Even MeMe remembers,’ Jimmy muttered. ‘And she’s eighty-three.’
I was sorry too, because I’d been calling him Jimmy all day. The three of us weren’t used to spending time together any more: we didn’t know how to behave around each other. Jimmy was sulking, Thea was smoking, and I was driving around drinking beer. It was twenty years ago, except now I was driving a Lexus and Thea was wearing a fur shrug, and none of us lived in Marksville any more.
Thea must have felt guilty, or maybe she just wanted him to talk, to keep my mind off things. Either way, she nagged Jimmy all the way to the Morganza Spillway to tell us more about Stanley, and promised not to interrupt or complain or criticize.
‘He wanted to be buried in Westminster Abbey,’ Jimmy said. He nudged Thea’s shoulder until she passed back another beer. ‘Right next to Dr Livingstone. But the bishops and such said no.’
Before the storm, Thea had an old sailboat that she docked up on the lake. Once, long ago, I asked her about how far we could sail in a boat that size. Mexico, she reckoned. We’d head for the coast, where the brackish lakewater turned the sea into sludge, and then out into the blue waters of the Gulf. Eventually we’d hit the Yucatán. We could live in Mérida, she said, in a painted house with a string hammock hanging in the courtyard.
The lake swallowed up Thea’s boat, Michael told me. I thought of it now but didn’t mention it, just as she wasn’t mentioning the house on False River, where my wife hid for six weeks after the storm, refusing to tell me where she and my daughters were living. It was better just to let Jimmy talk, to tell us about the bishops denying Stanley his place in history. Stanley was a nobody from nowhere, Jimmy said. To a lot of people, snobby people, he was just a guy who ran away to sea and made up a lot of stories.
We pulled on to the shoulder in Simmesport, just before the bridge, so Jimmy could take a piss in the trees along the levee. He said it was the beer, plus the proximity of Avoyelles Parish made him nervous. After he disappeared into the shadows, I asked Thea to give me a short version of the long story.
‘I can tell you what happened,’ she said, peering out the window at the straggly line of trees. ‘He got drunk, rode off in Robbie DuBea’s lawnmower and crashed it into a tree. It’s unauthorized use of a moveable, and a felony. Unless we can talk Robbie into dropping the charges, Jimmy’s going to jail. Maybe hard labour in Angola, depending on the judge.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘The trial’s tomorrow?’
‘Not a trial. We’re meeting with Robbie as a family, begging for mercy. We’ll buy him one of those big fancy lawn tractor things, and Jimmy will cut his grass for a year. Or we’ll pay someone more responsible. Whatever it takes.’
‘Hopefully he’ll be reasonable.’
‘Robbie’s just annoyed with Jimmy about what happened last year, that whole thing with burning down the tree house.’ Thea waved away the question I was about to ask. ‘I just wish Jimmy would stop turning up in Marksville and going crazy. He needs to run away to sea. Do people still do that?’
‘He might be doing that now.’ Jimmy hadn’t re-emerged from the stand of trees along the river. Thea glanced at the back seat and pointed out that he must have taken the wine with him. We were both thinking the same thing, I knew. Nothing good could come of Jimmy Clark and four bottles of wine, out in the darkness alone, on the banks of the Atchafalaya River.
Thea pulled on her shoes, and we tumbled out of the car. I didn’t even stop to grab the flashlight. The ground was soft, the grass long and damp around my shins. Thea stalked ahead and then clambered up the bank on all fours, the moonlight picking out the silver streaks in her pelt.
‘Jimmy!’ she called, looking for a way through the trees. ‘Jimmy!’
We found him on the far side of the treeline, facing down the river. He was wearing my suit jacket, a bottle of wine bulging out of each of the front pockets. He’d managed to slip the Rouses bag handles over his head, so the bag still holding the other two bottles hung in front, like a bib. He wasn’t planning to drink the wine, I realized. He was using it to weigh himself down.
Thea was calm again. She stood next to her brother on the levee, looking out at the river. From the bridge it always looked milky and benign, but this close to it you could hear it moving, dragging itself towards the sea.
‘Some people,’ said Jimmy, ‘say that the Atchafalaya is so deep, you can’t touch the bottom.’
‘I’ve heard that,’ I said, ‘but no one really believes that, do they?’
‘Up here it’s a ditch,’ said Thea, though this wasn’t true either. ‘People in Simmesport believe anything.’
‘The Congo is the world’s deepest river.’ Jimmy turned to face Thea, and the bottles around his neck clanked. ‘Not many people know that.’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Thea admitted.
‘I’m sorry I made you slow down,’ Jimmy said to me. ‘You know, back at False River. I wasn’t thinking straight. All of this talk about Angola is making me crazy. I can’t go to Angola.’
‘You’re not going to Angola,’ Thea told him. ‘I promise you. We’ll fix everything tomorrow. All of this will blow over.’
Even Jimmy knew my business, I realized. Of course he did: half of Marksville knew my business. They knew that I was in Houston when Katrina hit, and that Greta decided to turn evacuation into a separation. At first I couldn’t reach her and the girls because none of the 504 cell phones were working, then finally Al told me that Greta didn’t want me to find her. She was leaving me, he said. When the waters receded, and the city opened up again, he said, Greta wanted to sell the house and get a divorce.
I hung around Marksville, staying with my mother and getting legal advice from Michael: there was no point in hiring a private detective, he told me, because the whole state was an uproar of displaced persons. Marksville alone had thousands of extra residents, sleeping in churches and on porches and in people’s RVs. The casino parking lot was jammed with cars, people who had nowhere else to go. The sheriff turned a disused factory on the highway into a shelter and put inmates from the women’s prison to work, unloading donations of food and bedding. Nobody knew anything. Everyone was lost.
Greta wasn’t lost: she was hiding. But because this was Louisiana, I didn’t need a private detective. One of Thea’s friends spotted Greta at the Langlois’ Grocery in New Roads, and after two days sleeping in my car on False River Road, I saw my youngest daughter skipping along the driveway of the house with the electronic gates.
We didn’t get divorced, but we did sell the house in New Orleans. That was the deal. Thea and I argued; she told me I was getting rid of the wrong thing, and I hung up on her. That was the last time we’d spoken.
‘Hey, Jim,’ I said. ‘Can I have one of those bottles of wine?’
Jimmy leaned forward to look at me, the breeze puffing up his dandelion hair.
‘I guess,’ he said. ‘It’s your wine.’
No, it’s not mine.’
Jimmy pulled a bottle out of one of the pockets and handed it to Thea, who handed it to me. It was too dark to read the label, but that didn’t matter. I held it by the neck, and hurled it as hard as I could into the river. The splash sounded small and distant. Jimmy hooted – delight, disbelief – and Thea grabbed my sleeve.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, her voice crackling to life, and I said it was Jimmy’s turn next. He tossed in another bottle, almost tipping forward from the weight of the bag around his neck. When we heard it plop into the water, all three of us cheered.
‘Now Thea,’ I said, and we waited while Jimmy untangled himself from the plastic noose and pulled out a bottle.
‘Pichon Lalande,’ she said, squinting at the label. ‘I hope it la-lands somewhere interesting.’
She threw it high in the air; we watched it arc into the darkness. The river gulped, and flushed it away.
There was one bottle left, and Jimmy presented it to me. I aimed for the bridge, trying to break the bottle, but either the bridge was too far or too high, or my arms were weak these days. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thrown a ball. The splash sounded tiny after so much effort.
‘You are dismissed,’ said Jimmy, jabbing an accusing finger at the river, and I started laughing. Thea was laughing as well, her head thrown back. Jimmy howled at the moon and raised his arms in triumph, and we laughed even more. I felt unsteady on my feet, giddy, as though we’d drunk the wine rather than thrown it all away into the river.
Back in Houston, I told Greta that the wine was already gone. All I’d been able to find in the house on Napoleon, I told her, was a six-pack of beer in the fridge. She spent the rest of the day making threats about contesting the will or having her brother arrested, though I doubted she’d do much of anything other than rant, especially once she got her hands on that condo in Sarasota.
I was hoping that Thea would call me with some news about Jimmy. In the end Michael was the one who called, days later. Jimmy was off the hook this time, but they were sending him to some cousin’s place near Gulf Shores to stay out of trouble, or at least to get into trouble in another state. Thea, he said, was back at work at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
‘She says to tell you she’s planning a book about collectors of fine wine in Louisiana,’ Michael told me. ‘That’ll be a short book, right?’
The day after we threw the wine in the river, I drove from Marksville to Lake Charles for my meeting. Somewhere along the Cajun Prairie, the sun hit the dashboard, and I saw the incriminating smudge of Thea’s footprints up there. I decided to wait until I was almost home in Houston to clean them away, glancing over at them now and then to fix the shape of them in my mind. They were like a wild animal’s print, a reminder of something dangerous close by, usually hidden from sight.
But when I stopped for gas and opened the passenger door to clean them away, I couldn’t see anything at all there, not a trace of sweat or riverbank dirt. There wasn’t a thing to see or smell or touch. The footprints had evaporated, if they’d ever been there at all.