In the airport limousine on the way into New Orleans, the driver says, “See that cemetery we’re passing? In New Orleans, no one is buried underground—dig five feet and you hit water. New Orleans is below sea level. So people are buried in vaults, above ground.”
In the dark, the shapes of the vaults stand out like rows of playhouses.
“Nobody has a basement either,” says the driver.
“That would make my job a lot easier,” says Sherry Williams, the lone passenger, vaguely. A city virtually on the ocean, yet below sea level, is a contradiction that hardly registers with her.
“I’m an archaeologist. I dig up the past.”
Sherry has not seen her old friend, Marlene Ballew, in ten years. Not since college. When Marlene wrote, suggesting the reunion in New Orleans, Sherry realized that it was finally time to see her again, and she felt guilty that she had waited so long. They had drifted apart after Marlene had been institutionalized for a series of nervous breakdowns. In the bleak hospital, Marlene cheerfully made paper flowers and painted watercolors of government intrigue—Watergate scenes. The last time Sherry saw her, Marlene recited poetry, screeching and cackling like all three witches in Macbeth, poems that no one would have thought Marlene knew, like “Kubla Khan” and “Leda and the Swan.” When she forgot words, she supplied others without missing a beat. Sherry felt that Marlene was a lost person, no longer reachable. She left Kentucky, going away to graduate school in New York and returning to Kentucky only once, when her mother died.
In her letter, Marlene said she was cured. She was married, with a two-year-old child and a splendid home on Irvine Road in Lexington. She wrote, “I’m so calm now, you wouldn’t believe it. Having kids changes you. It’s something to do with hormones. I’m okay now. Really, I’m fine.” Marlene’s husband was going to New Orleans on business, and Marlene was going along. She invited Sherry to come. “I know it sounds ridiculous—you’re too far away. But I keep thinking of how we always talked of going to Mardi Gras but never did. Mardi Gras is over, but maybe it’s not too late to have a reunion.”
Marlene comes at her like a gust of wind, her arms open wide. Her hair, which used to be long and straight, is cut short, with springy little curls. It is the wrong style for her baby-fine hair, but on Marlene it looks fashionably extreme, like something on a model in Vogue. When they embrace in the hotel room. Sherry feels Marlene’s small, fragile frame, plump now, and breaks into tears. Marlene, ignoring the tears, cries out, “Tell all! Do you still put beer on your hair? Is Get Smart still your favorite show? I still think you look like Ninety-Nine. Tell me all about the males you’ve had affairs with. I want to know EVERYTHING.”
Sherry has forgotten that Marlene always called men “males,” an impersonal word, and it brings back memories: the way Marlene sometimes jerks herself into an uncharacteristically prim, upright posture when she catches herself slumping; her flamboyant behavior in public; the way she craves luxuries, like this hotel room. They are sharing the room. Ed, Marlene’s husband, is attending a convention at a hotel in the French Quarter, but that hotel was filled and Marlene insisted on being with Sherry at the Hyatt. Marlene says, “I stayed with him last night, and I couldn’t sleep for all the jazz bands.”
They exchange news quickly Only the highlights of the past ten years seem relevant, and they leave out most things, hurrying along to the present.
“Did you want to marry him?” Marlene, cross-legged on one of the beds and smoking a skinny brown cigarette, is referring to Sherry’s recent lover.
“No. It was all wrong. He wanted to have children right away, but I didn’t want to give up my career. Anybody who marries me will have to traipse around while I dig up old tools and pots.” She laughs apologetically “Imagine discussing that so rationally People used to just get married without asking any questions like that.”
“Tools and pots,” says Marlene with a laugh. “Pools and tots.”
Sherry is so thirsty after the martini on the plane that she is gulping a soft drink from the machine down the corridor. Then she says, “But I’m afraid I’m never going to find the right man. I’m too demanding.”
This is a point she wants to make for Marlene’s sake. She is aware that she wants Marlene to think she has in some way failed at something, because Sherry always seemed to be the successful one —her 3.8 average in college, her teaching career—while Marlene suffered one disappointment after another. She yawns, to shift the subject. “I’m trying to remember that guy we both went out with in the same week. Sam? Eddie? That guy who handed us both the exact same line?”
“His name was Bill Harrison.”
“What did he say? Some trite image, like ‘Your skin is like velvet,’ or ‘You have lips like roses.’ What was it?”
Marlene says, ”He said, ’Your eyes are deep, like resonant pools of amber.’ Whatever those are.”
“What garbage! How on earth did you remember that?”
Marlene shrugs. “Some things just stick to my brain.”
The next morning at breakfast in the hotel courtyard, Marlene talks proudly about her daughter. Shannon. Them night before, Marlene showed Sherry a picture of the child, a blonde toddler in a pinafore with the word ME on it. “I should have brought you something for your baby,”
Sherry says apologetically. “A present.”
“Having a baby was the hardest thing I ever did,” says Marlene. ”They say you don’t remember the pain, but you can. What I can’t remember is the pain of being crazy. I know I went through some awful times. I hurt people. I hurt myself. I almost killed myself once or twice —not deliberately, just out of craziness. Just being a show-off, really.” She shudders. “I lost a whole chunk of my life.”
“In your letter, you said you’re fine,” says Sherry carefully. “Are you? Are you really?”
Marlene nods, her coffee cup in her face. Her thin, penciled eyebrows are like the faint outlines of birds in a seascape. She says, “Before Shannon was born, I went through some depression, and afterward it was worse, so I knew I needed something. I’m taking Lithium. There are some side effects, but it keeps me under control.”
“What side effects?”
“Oh, nothing serious. Except I gain weight like crazy!” She laughs, looking at her plate. “All these calories.”
When she signals the waiter for more coffee, making a sharp click with her fingers, it hits Sherry that Marlene drinks coffee now. She is dressed in white, with lace on her blouse, and despite her added weight she looks light enough to blow away.
“I have to stay away from palm readers and psychics,” Marlene says suddenly. “It’s all the energy they radiate. I get worked up and then I flip out.”
In New Orleans, the sight of palm trees is startling. In upstate New York, there was still snow on the ground. Sherry strolls with Marlene through the French Quaner. On Bourbon Street, Marlene gleefully points out odd items in stores — coffee cups made in the shape of breasts, purple pasties with long tassels, T-shirts with shockingly obscene messages. Marlene plays with the idea of getting a T-shirt for Ed. Her laughter flies down the street. On lace-work balconies, women are drying their hair and men are drinking whiskey from bottles in brown bags. Sherry and Marlene stop for chicory coffee and beignets at a cafe on Jackson Square. A small Dixieland group is performing in the street.
“I’m glad we finally got together here, even if it isn’t Mardi Gras,” Marlene says, smiling. The sun lights up her hair and makes it look like the light coming through a tree in the spring, when the leaves are just emerging.
“I’m glad, too.”
“Don’t you go back to Kentucky anymore?”
“Not since Mother died. I didn’t want to see my father. There are too many hard feelings. I didn’t even want to see Kentucky again.” Sherry brushes a crumb off the table. “I never think about it.”
“You’ve lost your accent.”
“I have a confession to make. All those years, I was afraid to get in touch with you again because I felt guilty. I have plenty of reasons to be bitter about my father, but none for losing touch with you.” Sherry sips her coffee. “I should have been a better friend.”
“You had your work to think of. That’s your strength,” Marlene says warmly. “You were always so brilliant. I read an article of yours in a journal and it made me so proud. I recognized you in it! It reminded me of that paper you wrote for me once for history.” Marlene breaks off into laughter.
At Marlene’s urging. Sherry tells about her current work. In the small upstate town where she lives now, she has discovered evidence that a substantial Indian culture was there four hundred years before. The culture has not been documented. It was always said there weren’t any Indians there—that the Indians used that land for their hunting grounds and their settlements were farther south, nearer the river.
“But I’ve been around talking to the farmers and I’ve seen some things they’ve found in their fields. Arrowheads and pottery fragments and utensils. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff they’ve collected. Bushel baskets full. And they never said anything. But they’ve known all along there were Indians there.”
“The farmers would know,” Marlene says, nodding.
She snaps her fingers for a refill of coffee, and the waiter fills both cups. Marlene puts sugar in her coffee, saying, “I shouldn’t eat all this sugar.” She folds the empty sugar packet in half, then folds it over again and creases it. “Did you see how rude that waiter was? He won’t get a tip from me.”
On the street, a white-faced harlequin is creeping up behind people, tapping on their shoulders and pantomiming a conversation. People are laughing. Marlene says, “That’s how I feel sometimes, sneaking up on strangers, trying to make them listen, but no words come out.”
The musicians are playing “Do Youu Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Sherry sings along, but she cannot remember the words beyond the title. The bizarre clutter of the street scene has strange echoes of the past, as though the whole psychedelic era had found its place and come to rest in New Orleans.
Idly, Sherry says, “Have you noticed that in all the songs about this city, they pronounce it New Or-LEENS, to make it rhyme? Nothing rhymes with New OR-le-ans. ’Way Down Yonder in New Or-LEENS’ is another one.”
“However you pronounce it, I could really learn to love this city,” Marlene says, her voice rising clear and joyful above the music.