Tú Bob Huong drove and drove, thinking life would be easier in a place they call the Big Easy, a place where musicians could live on the cheap and find a gig any night of the week if they wanted, and he wanted. So he drove till he came to the place where houses are built on pilings, where neighborhoods smother swampland, and the curve of the streets mimics the S of the river.
He went to the French Quarter. He found a job. He drove around. The lack of trees downtown seemed unnatural, and the one-way streets uptown confounded him. Eventually, he drove across an old narrow bridge that spanned the Mississippi and followed the curve of the road into Bridge City, a place near the shipyards. He moved into a small yellow house on 8th near the corner of Industry. The street led to River Road, and the levee, and the large ship that was always lighted and rumbling. Day and night, workers painted it blue.
Tú Bob had a job two nights a week playing cheesy love songs from the dark corner of a small restaurant, and took extra work when it found him. Someone told him about a coffee house uptown that featured singer songwriters, and he signed up for a slot.
But mostly he sat around the house, settling on the brown and saggy couch and staring out the window. When he wasn't there, he walked up 8th -- the river to his back -- for a beer at Falcon's Rest. And when he wasn't there, Tú Bob sat on his front stoop, guitar in his lap and a beer at his feet, staring at the blueing ship, a work in progress, and nodding at the incoherent greetings from the perpetual drunk that lived across the street. He strummed this chord and that, his eyes on the ship and his mind on a woman he had met on the road.
Day and night, the ship buzzed. Workers painted. Lines of lyrics filled pages of a black-and-white composition book. Some stayed. Most were scratched out in a torrent of ink. Writing, he could feel the frail stiffness of her white lacquered hair, and taste the beers and cigarettes on her breath. If he followed his thoughts, he could feel her sobbing against him. But he could not flesh the memory into song.
as he walked along the uneven pavement on the way to Falcon's,
he suddenly remembered the gentle slope of her breasts in his
hands, and the harsh, spicy scent of her crepey skin, and it was
then that it occurred to him that months had passed since he had
been with that woman, or any woman. So the next afternoon, when
he answered an ad for a guitarist at the Shim Sham, and Janie
Luna walked to him from across the club, asking if he had ever
worked burlesque, asking if he could play the Willie Nelson
arrangement as it was on the record since she had based her
dance on that, and asking if he was ready to get started,
he said he was ready.
He started to laugh when he saw her from the wings: the blue raincoat, the blue umbrella. But when she called out, "I'm ready..." he pulled himself together. He sang Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, and Janie moved in a closed-eye way that didn't quite go with the beat but, somehow, expressed all that was in the song. That she shed the raincoat to reveal a body sprayed with glistening, crystalline drops didn't move him half as much as the fact that she was still dancing with the open umbrella when the music was over. In time, she hid her face behind the umbrella, and backed slowly off the stage.
They went around the corner for a drink. They went down the street for dinner.
Later, as they stared at the stormplay of raindrops and tree branches outside his window, he told her about the bars he had played (The Come Back Inn...The Gas Lite...Sabine's Nest), and told her about his composition book, slowly filling with songs. She told him stories about the other Shim Shamettes (Kitten La Whip...Blue Velvet...Venus de Mayo), and about the choreographer's plans to take the dance troupe to the next level: to not just do exotic dancing the way it was done in the 50s, but to actually learn the old, original routines, the ones that put Bourbon Street on the map. Janie herself had learned a 50-year-old dance from a woman known as Evangeline the Oyster Girl back in the day.
Janie had learned more than an old, campy routine. She had learned what all the old burlesque dancers knew and took for granted: that a dancer has to have a gimmick. And Janie had finally found hers.
"Dancing past the end, into the silence," she said. "Keeping it going when it's really over."
"Y'know, Clair d'Lune fits you," he finally said. Lune as in Luna, her last name. Lune as in the moon, or at least the mystery of the moon as it was that night, all dark and new and hiding somewhere in that wet, rolling sky. He looked down to kiss her, but saw only the top of her head she nestled against him.
The room was quiet. He listened for the tide of her breath, and matched his own to it.
"It's nice to have a night off," she says, stretching.
"Yeah, but it's nice to have money, too."
"One night off won't break you." She rolls over, throwing her arm over his chest. He ponders how he now wakes every afternoon to a thin arm over him, or with legs tangled through his. The week before it seemed as surprising and welcome as the scent of orange in winter, but now he simply makes note of it.
"I feel like going out," she is saying. "But nothing fancy. Nothing big. We could go for pizza."
He shakes his head. "I need to finish that song."
"You're not playing the Neutral Ground for another two weeks. You've got time."
"I'll have time after I finish the song."
She sighs. "I just kinda wanted to go out."
"You can go out."
"I can't go get pizza by myself," she says. "We could call Domino's."
"I'm not hungry yet," he says.
"You could work on the song, and we could go out when you're through."
He lifts her arm and rises from the bed. "We'll see."
He draws the shade on the moon -- just a neon bit hanging from the Huey P. Long Bridge. He flicks on the lamp, opens a drawer, and stops. She's folded his shirts, rolled his socks into balls. "You know, Luna fits you. Luna as in lunatic."
He pulls a shirt over his head, steps into his jeans, then grabs his guitar and composition book and heads for the den. He turns on a lamp and, opening the book, looks at what he has so far.
She enters the room wearing his shirt. "Let me see," she says.
"Nothing to see. Least not yet." He strums his guitar: G, C, G.
"I used to write poetry," she says. "Nothing all that great. Just when I was depressed."
He looks around for a pen.
"Then I read where Isadora Duncan said: if I could say what I felt then I wouldn't have to dance it."
He finds a pen.
"I guess that's why I dance." She leans over the coffee table and looks at the open book.
She pushes the hair from her face. "Was the moon really red?"
"How's that?" C, D, D7, G.
"The moon in the song is red. Was there really a red moon, or did you make that up?"
"Nope." G minor, then D. "I mean, yeah. It was red."
She looks at the words in the notebook. "Red like a Sucret?"
G, C major, D. "Just like one."
She traces words with her finger. "Sucret doesn't really rhyme with regret."
"No, but regret rhymes with egret, and it's close enough for me." D.
"I don't think Red like a Sucret works."
She runs her hands through her hair. "It sounds funny. People might laugh."
"Maybe you could say `Like a secret,'" she says. "Now, that kinda sounds like Sucret, but it's pretty, and it's kinda mysterious, and it's--"
"It's not....(G).... your.... (C major)..... song." D.
She gets up. He plays an F. The chord just kind of hangs there as she walks off to the kitchen. He hears the refrigerator open, he hears a beer can pop, but when he doesn't hear the door close, he gets up to check things out. He finds her standing there, lit by refrigerator glow. And she stands there for the longest time.
Tú Bob rests his feet against the window sill, leans back in his chair, and contemplates the overgrown oak in the drunk man's yard. A moon sits caught in the branches, bright and silvery. He considers heading down the street to the levee, to sit in the light and watch the men work, but pictures Janie waking, wondering where he is. He pictures her calling his name from the open door.
Janie sleeps, her shower-damp head against the pillow. She is worn out from dancing all day -- working out a new choreography behind the locked bedroom door -- then dancing two shows at the Shim Sham that night. Outside, cars pass, some with radios that blare their songs to Tú Bob, only to snatch them away with a squeal of wheels. If he listens closely he can hear a train rumbling over the Huey P.
The song sits under Tú Bob's skin, locked up and waiting to jump out, but he can't get to it. He knows Janie is right -- even it the moon did look like a cherry lozenge in the sky, the word Sucret isn't right. The song itself isn't right. The more he works on it, the worse it gets. When he remembers the dust, and the red moon that had gone white by evening's end, and the crunch of gravel under his feet as he walked away, the song comes to him in a lightning flash. But it is always at that moment that Janie will enter the room. Or ask him a question. Or touch his shoulder. Even when she is locked in the bedroom, a wall between them, she is ever present. He strums his guitar and finds himself sidetracked by the on-then-off of her taped music, the occasional thud as she jumps from one spot to another, and the random sigh. Her sounds fills the house to its very corners.
Things like this are supposed to make a man happy, he tells himself, then stops mid thought as his ear falls on the far off sound of the boat by the levee. But then in a moment there is another sound as Janie flips over, exposed to the world but for a bit of blanket over her face. Tú Bob watches as beams of carlight run across the wall and over the bed.
"You know, Luna fits you," he laughs. "Luna as in moon. Full and white."
"You're supposed to be in the next room," Janie says, her shoulders sparkling with color. She pulls a little green dress over her head and wraps a wavy white scarf around her neck.
He can't help but stare. "I'm The Sea," she says. She leans over and tosses her hair this way and that, then throws her head back as she pulls up again. "I guess I shouldn't tell you that, but keep it in mind."
"That you're the sea? OK. Whatever."
"You know, The Sea. Waves, tides."
"Why not the river? You're a lot close to the river than you are to any sea."
"Look...... just go back out front. And start the music when I tell you."
"Just holler," he says and heads for the den. He steps outside to bring the trash can from the curb, and stands for a moment to look at the boat. Back inside, he closes the curtains and turns on the lamp. He sits on the couch, next to his guitar. He can hear her walking in the bedroom, her feet making the tiniest of sounds against the carpet, like cat feet. A drawer opens, closes, a door creaks. Though she puts her things away, her things are everywhere Tú Bob looks.
"OK!" she yells out. He hits the button and the room fills with something that sounds like the distant moan of the ocean. Then a piano, from somewhere far away. Then closer. And closer.
She runs out then stops. "You closed the curtains!"
"You want our neighbor to see?"
"No, but I liked the lighting." She flicks the lamp off. She pulls the curtains apart and the room fills with a white light from outside. She opens the windows and lets the white noise of the boat drift in. She lights a candle on the coffee table, and another on the shelf. She stops before she leaves the room. "Sit in the chair."
"But the boombox is over here."
"Yeah, but the couch is way over against the wall. I don't want to dance all the way over there."
He rewinds the tape and waits for her call. The guitar sits on the couch beside him. He hears a flash of notes and he reaches without thinking for the guitar, placing it in his lap. But before he can strum she calls out: "I'm ready...." He pauses before he finally puts the guitar, gently, on the couch. He presses the "play" button. He moves to his assigned seat.
The ocean hisses over the sounds of the world outside Tú Bob's window. The crash of waves grows louder, then fades as the faint plea of a piano grows stronger. Janie makes her entrance--her arms reaching, her body leaning forward like she's fighting the wind. Then she runs this way and that, all around the room, dropping to the floor, grabbing her body, touching her face, snatching her hair. The music stops, and her dress falls to her feet.
Slowly, there is the sound of wave crashing rock, and Janie pulls away final layers of green sea. Though her body glimmers with sweat and green glitter, Tú only sees a wide open face before him, a face that changes from sweet to sad, from hopeful to some feeling he simply can't name as he sits there, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
A little over a month ago, Katheryn Krotzer Laborde would have said she was a college professor.... but that was before Katrina struck. Today (and who knows about tomorrow?), she assesses damage in New Orleans neighborhoods and works as a freelance writer every chance she gets. With an article upcoming in the Jan/Feb issue of Poets&Writers, her fiction has appeared most recently in Xavier Review, Mochila Review, and Desire. In an effort to make sense of what has happened, she has been dashing all over town taking pictures of discarded refrigerators. She recently made a trip to Bridge City, the place described in the story "Four Weeks." There was (it seemed) minimal damage to the blue-collar area. The ships still loom over the levee.
Copyright 2005, Katheryn Krtzer Laborde. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.