I am having Friday lunch at a popular French Quarter cafe with the youthful, as well as pleasant, Sandy Meraux, an engagement fueled by the upcoming renewal of my lease on her wealthy father’s building where my fledgling business, the Nightwing Testing Laboratory, is located. I’m most fortunate to be offered a long term lease in a section of downtown New Orleans where scattered islands of redevelopment have begun to gain a foothold. Also, I am cultivating her acquaintance because my Uncle, Sam Friendly, says she’s a nice, socially connected young woman, and that I am becoming entirely too antisocial spending all my time working at my business. I suspect that Mr. Meraux has asked that Sam arrange for his daughter to rub shoulders with us lower classes—an equal exchange of survival skills for both of us women.
Arnold, our waiter, is poised with his pencil against the pad. “How pleasant to see you, Miss Meraux,” he beams at my companion. “I see you’re back, Miss Nightwing,” he adds me to his scene like I’m a movie extra infected with plague. He takes our order for raw oysters, dusts off a few specks of pepper flakes on the table in front of Sandy, and moves my glass of mineral water slightly further from the edge of the table.
“I promise I won’t spill another one,” I try out my best smile on him.
Sandy smothers a giggle, “I think he’s beginning to like you, Morgan.”
I gaze at Arnold’s back as he dodges between tables and disappears through the swinging doors into the kitchen. I doubt he even remembers I’m alive by the time he reaches the kitchen.
A middle aged man that reminds me of a mushroom, a tourist type sporting a Marine haircut and a green T-shirt with Ketchup stains and an “Edwards for Governor” slogan, trolls by our location. Mr. Marlboro’s slacks are sliding down the inverted pyramid under his beer belly. He’s carrying a Miller Light and a sausage sub crushed together in one hand. Grease leaking from the shield of French bread has congealed on the sides of can.
“You girls need some company?” He’s already reaching out with his free hand to hitch up a chair from the next table.
Sandy’s appraisal reminds me of someone rejecting a slab of spoiled meat at the butchers. I don’t see her vigorous shooing motion as being very effective, though.
“Fuck off, asshole,” I smile. Sandy’s eyes widen slightly.
Our Marlboro man pretends to sweep his eyes on past us to the next table where a pair of more experienced looking women promises an easier rail to hitch his horse. Perhaps I should have warned him that Marge and May are off duty police officers.
Sandy and I have met for lunch several times and usually wind up discussing our mutual interest in a branch of obscure mathematics—she majored in math with a minor in sociology at Tulane while I tackled physics and added some electrical engineering at my Alma Mater in Tennessee. Sandy’s professional interests lie in the direction of social psychology, mine in the field of engineering sciences. She works for the Center of Governmental Studies, a soft funded think tank, while I am an endentured servant in my own business.
Anyway, my Nightwing Testing Laboratory seems to have benefited from the association, and I’d like to think that Sandy’s social skills with the masses have broadened by association with the educated peasant class. Sandy extracts a brown envelope from her Gucci purse and passes the package over the table. Sandy handles the paper gingerly, as if her psyche will be damage by mere contact with the dirt of business. I’m certain that her old man would laugh.
“My father must really like you,” Sandi says almost wistfully. “He never agrees to such generous improvements, especially on that old brick building. And five years! You aren’t sleeping with my old man, are you?”
She’s teasing me, I hope. Her father’s never shown the least interest in anything except my money. “I think he’s guided by future investment rather than quick returns,” I snort. “I’m simply a place holder on the way to higher rental rates.”
“Oh, if you say so. Mom thinks that older men always have affairs with younger woman,” positing a theoretical situation that seems to reflect her own thinking.
“No, definitely not.” My friend looks slightly disappointed. Does she harbor secret jealousies?
“About those symphony tickets,” Sandy sips at her wine and changes the subject.
“About those tickets,” I echo.
Today I am plying my villainous lower class interests with the hope of obtaining a pair of symphony tickets to next week’s sold-out performance of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. The piece is a favorite in the repertoire of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra—possibly because most of the patrons have peaked at the cultural level of “Fantasia” in their musical education. There’s this guy named Mark who rigs sailboats that I hope to bribe. He has never heard of fractal mathematics.
“Don’t you just love the Sixth,” Sandy gushes. “I called him Uncle Ludwig when I was a little girl. I thought Disney was really smart getting someone like Beethoven to do Fantasia.”
I think she’s just trying to get a rise out of me because she knows I prefer contemporary music. Yes, I would prefer an occasional John Cage to an unending diet of old world classics punctuated by yet another variation on Appalachian Spring. The bright and pungent flavor in that piece of music is painfully foreign in compared to the languid courses of springtime in New Orleans, a season that passes like a lazy yawn which we enjoy sharing with mosquitoes and happily mating alligators. Of course, I don’t mention any of this to Sandy who would find this too disturbing.
“I can hardly wait to see how they’ll do Copland, this year,” she goes on. “Billy the Kid is just about my favorite piece of music. Maybe they’ll do Fanfare for the Common Man next year. I’ll bet Popeye’s would sponsor that concert,” she goes on. “You know, Aaron Copland—Al Copeland.”
Different spelling, add the “e” for the owner of Popeye’s Fried Chicken, but I keep this to myself. Besides, I think Sandy’s family is old line Republican, and I seem to recall that the Fanfare has been used as the musical theme for opening the Democratic National Convention.
“Oh, I’d never doubt that,” I encourage her. “Al Hirt could play the lead trumpet,” I add playfully.
“Really? You think so?” Sandy is positively radiant.
Our restaurant is not far from the French Market at the edge of the tourist-crowded feeding trough surrounding Lafayette Square. While I’d go along happily with the notion of a certain charm about the place, I’m not sure if Sandy actually “sees” the dirty brick sidewalks or smells the ripeness of spoiled food fouling this section of the city. The shocked expressions on the faces of my European friends embarrasses me as they wade through the filth that collects carelessly on the sidewalks and in the streets and alleys. Also, the way they politely fake an interest in our adolescent sense of decadence impresses me. Not that many of the natives would notice the insincerity—or care. People in New Orleans, like many Texans, seem immune to introspective behavior.
The window next to our table is streaked with brown syrups of cooking oil and nicotine tar which improves the basic gray color of the brick in the gutter. A steady October drizzle is trying to flush logjams of cigarette filters and flotillas of soggy fast food wrappers from the streets. I try to picture the wind blown debris masquerading as oak and maple leaves in fall colors. A colorful poster promoting Ernest Morial for Mayor of New Orleans in the upcoming fall elections decorates a light pole.
“I do love the fall,” my lunch partner sighs. “So romantic; all those colorful leaves….”
Sandy’s carefully coiffed brown hair resembles a fashionable sculpture that is held together at the top of the swirl by an impressive diamond stickpin. She has told me at least twice about how she inherited the piece of antique jewelry from her great, great, maybe another great, grandmother. The lady was supposed to have been a French Duchess who escaped with her head during the revolution by posing as a peasant class model for a famous French painter—Francois someone-or-other that I have never heard of.
I went down the list comparing points: Sandy with lustrous brown hair; me with dark strands highlighted in dull patches of sun damage; Sandy with clear, olive complexion; me with the raw scrubbed polish of a school girl; Sandy with her pert nose; me with one that is too straight; Sandy with her manicured nails; me with yellowed nails from the spill of mild nitric acid under the fume hood last week. No need to go on.
True, I do like to have my little fun at Sandy’s expense, but that would only be me sharpening claws for more deserving targets. I think she understands. I’ve grown very fond of this woman who is my chronological, if not street, age. I sympathize with the way she has been brought up as an only child without a lot of affection from her parents. I know that in many ways she knows far more about the wider world and its pressures than I do.
She’s not as soft as she pretends. Sometimes, when she’s angry, her large hazel eyes remind me of an experienced sparrow hawk calculating the weight and fat content of a mouse trapped in the middle of an empty parking lot. And she has weapons. She has a string of real pearls, not cultured, that divide the swell of nicely developed breasts. An almond colored silk blouse does little to obscure her nipples that are puckered out under the influence of the air conditioning and are attracting the attentions of two handsome guys picking at boiled crab one table over. Damn; no one looks in my direction.
In contrast to my friend’s causal elegance, I am wearing faded jeans and a checked cotton short sleeve shirt that has grown too tight across the middle. My hair is what I made of it in five minutes in front of the mirror earlier in the morning. My Birkenstocks are suffering from cork depletion where water has soaked through the soles. A mosquito bite on my big toe itches, but I can’t lean under to scratch because someone’s chair behind me has locked me against the edge of the table. Dave’s Eatery attracts a crowd from the headier altitudes of New Orleans society, give or take a few obnoxious tourists that wander in by mistake. Some of the beautiful people are probably wondering what charity case Sandy is working, today.
“So, how’s your incredibly handsome Noel?” Sandy stabs a raw oyster with her fork and flicks it through a pool of Tabasco and horseradish on the way to her mouth. My friend first met my lawyer, Noel Webster, at the party Uncle Sam threw a couple of years ago in celebration of my business startup. She’s maintained a feral interest in him ever since that night. I watch her roll the soft lump of meat over her tongue and let the oyster slide down her throat without swallowing. She flashes me a look of hunger and curiosity packaged in a benign smile.
“Oh, aren’t these oysters simply too delicious?” she dabs her lips with the corner of her starched napkin and poises her fork over another open shell.
Noel Webster: my dear friend, my first adult love, the father of my best friend, my legal guardian when I was seventeen, and an object of considerable frustration in my life. I remember him as my white knight riding in to rescue me after my mother died. I was a teenage girl; of course I fell in love with him. His daughter Holly, only a little older than I, quickly my best friend, died at the hands of my despicable father, Percy Nightwing, who tried to murder both of us. My guilt is that I lived. After Holly’s death I became like a substitute daughter in Noel’s eyes—unpromising for my ambitions with Noel.
Am I trading Noel for two symphony tickets? I want to change the subject. “I ran across an interesting definition of pornography last Sunday.”
“Really?” her eyes sparkle with unfeigned interest.
Rats! Trapped by my clever subconscious. She is probably picturing herself dancing naked in front of my lawyer. “Do you know Chalmers Lehman?”
“Daddy does,” her eyes lift up towards the stamped tin ceiling that used to be white while she’s thinking about her father’s circle of friends. “Isn’t he kind of old?” she looks puzzled.
“Christ, I’m not dating him,” I snap back. “I’m saying he had an interesting spin on identifying pornographic situations.
Sandy is not fazed. “There was a situation?” her eyes spark with amusement.
I give up. “He defines a pornographic solicitation as what takes place when the woman’s value is considered less than the sum of her parts.”
“Nice,” Sandy chuckles, “although there are times when we all like to let our ‘parts’ take the lead, don’t we? Do you suppose that makes any physical relationship with men pornographic?”
I have to admit that there are ‘parts’ I am dying to try out in the most pornographic way possible. I post a mental bulletin: seductive outfit, preferably black; expensive perfume, probably French; female-type human, equipped and willing. I try not to picture Sandy unleashing her ‘parts’ on Noel. I’ll be pissed if Noel ever flips over this gorgeous piece of ass sitting across the table from me. If he pats nice little Morgan on the back while telling her how she has a new step mother named Sandy—well, he’ll get a sample of my left hook.
“Do you think Noel would ask me to the concert?” Sandy wants to know.
What am I planning to give up for two symphony tickets?