Friday, September 2, 2011

Another Christmas Tradition...

In a city built upon traditions, some of the strongest are among the most private.

Jackson Square, December 2010
1am Christmas Morning, Dauphine Street in the Faubourg Marigny:
The right-side storm door on the shotgun house slowly creaks open in the glow of the streetlamp where Dauphine meets St. Roch with a click and a slam. From the darkness emerges an ancient woman dressed in a long coat and a straw hat, each five decades past their prime yet well-preserved. Stepping deliberately down the steps of her stoop, Miss Dufour slowly reaches across and pulls the door back into place, her keys at the ready. The banquettes are empty as far as the eye can see. Good, thinks Tunie as she jockeys the storm doors into just the right place to lock all three deadbolts. This was the reason she came out. Privacy. Just like it has always been.

House secure, Tunie goes padding up the street in her best house slippers, the ones that could pass for real shoes with the thick rubber soles. The retrochemical smell of camphor from her camelhair coat swirls around and behind her, sending several stray cats beneath houses to escape the olfactory punishment. Tunie liked the smell; it means preservation to her. Past a double handful of houses bedecked with fairy lights, artificial candles, and inflated figurines, she swims through the years of memories of other holidays on Dauphine; the filmstrip of her life. Tunie crosses Elysian Fields against the lights without pause. The avenue is deserted, bereft of any sounds of traffic.

Walking past the black iron fence of Washington Square, Tunie fights to keep the bad memories from flooding her, back in the days when they called it Little Angola. Habit forced her legs to move faster on, fairly jogging across Frenchmen past the old Home For Unwed Mothers near the corner. Fleeing that past, she kept going until she was down by Le Peniche restaurant puffing away. Old habits, she thinks. Stopping for a moment to catch her breath, she sees herself in the window of the darkened restaurant. A transparent reflection of a girl she had nearly forgotten stared back at her for just a moment, then retreated into the past leaving behind a wrinkled old woman.

That happened a lot.

Lost in the reveries of the years, she automatically continues on across Esplanade Avenue and into the Vieux Carre, slowly but surely walking back into her past and revisiting old faces of friends and family long, long gone. Here at the grubby entrance to Matassa's where her cousin Inez had thrown a literal hissyfit as a child because her mother told her Santa was gonna bring her coal for being so naughty; down past Orleans where her school chum Olive de la Houssaye had been mistaken for a hooker by the man who would become her third ex-husband; past the dress shop at Iberville filled with ball gowns like the ones she had worn as a young lady. Finally, she arrives on Canal Street and the main reason for being there.

Canal, like every other street at this time of the morning is deserted, save for the glow of the neon signs and the blue-white glow of these new LED lights wrapped around the palm trunks. But nothing shines for Tunie as brightly as the Walgreen's. Crossing steadily without need to look in either direction, she arrives beneath the overhang lined with red neon tubes. Standing on the terrazzo marble in the entranceway, the hint of a smile passes her lips as she closes her eyes and allows herself to remember.

Christmas Morning, Tuesday December 25th 1945, Canal Street

Robert had worked the late shift at Godchaux's that night. He had worked nearly every single shift he could get both there and moonlighting down the street at the lunch counter at Woolworth's. He had good reason. The store was open late that night, going until 10pm to try and cash in on the last-minute shoppers. Now that the war was finally over and he was home for good, he wanted to make up for lost time, but tonight he wanted to be out and gone--he had a very important date.
10 o'clock came, the doors locked up and 5 minutes later Robert was out the side door and into the arms of his waiting girlfriend Tunie. She was wearing a funny little black straw hat with cellophane holly leaves all over one side and a long camelhair coat, her favorite. Clutching each other close against the cold blasts from the river, they marched in happy cadence up Canal towards rue Decatur and Morning Call for a late meal of cafe au laits & beignets.

The cafe was nearly deserted except for one dour waiter and a couple of tables of eggnog junkies trying to sober up before heading home. They did what they had done since he had come back home-talked for hours about the future and what they wanted to do. Robert was going to use the GI Bill to get himself back into school and get his degree--which degree was still up for grabs. Tunie wanted to start her own little shop in town selling dresses and children's clothes. From there the conversation branched out in all directions and kept them going for hours before the waiter told them to am-scray, he was closing up. Back out into the deserted streets of the Vieux Carre and a host of little adventures. Finding themselves in front of Le Petit Theatre, Robert was reminded of a dream of his youth to be on the stage. Seeing Tunie's amusement at the idea, he took advantage of the remarkable acoustics on that corner and with all the bravado he could muster recited Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 in full, rounded tones that bounced across the galleries of the Pontalba Building among the tinkling of Tunie's uncontrollable laughter.

Their wild abandon and the sheer enjoyment of each other's company threw time into a spin as they caroused the Quarter, only occasionally meeting up with another someone in the streets. What could have been minutes or hours later, Robert & Tunie found themselves wandering back down Canal Street, clinging to one another as if they had always been together as one, as if the war had never torn them apart, nor would anything ever come between them again. Strolling quietly together beneath the Royal Crown Cola sign, a sudden shower lightly soaked the street and forced them into the entranceway of Walgreen's drugstore. Huddled together against the rain which seemed to become much heavier once they found shelter, Robert opened his greatcoat and wrapped himself and Tunie together in the thick woolen material. Looking down upon that face he had loved for so long and across continents, his heart began to beat wildly in his chest. He could wait no longer. Reaching into his pocket, he grasped the velveteen box he had been carrying for weeks and withdrew it at last.
For the rest of his days whenever Robert would tell the tale, he would barely remember asking Tunie to be his wife, he was so nervous and overcome. He would never remember exactly what he said or how he said it. All he would know was that just as Tunie's eyes burst with tears of happiness he heard two things; Tunie's whispered 'yes' and the bell in the Cathedral striking 2am. Locked in a soulful embrace, he pulled her close to him and said "I want this to be the moment we always remember for the rest of our lives."

1:58am Christmas Morning, Saturday, December 25th 2010, Canal & Baronne

A boxy looking car goes speeding up Canal Street blaring something obscene and leaving a cloud of blue exhaust in its wake that drifts across Tunie's way and dissipates as quickly as it came. Clutching her left hand in her right, she fingers the tiny diamond engagement ring that has been part of her hand since 1945 and the thick gold band that accompanied it the following year. In her head, she sees the years afterwards in this very spot with him on 40 other Christmas mornings, the wet years, the cold years, the warm years...and the years after he left her for good. 65 years has given her an instinct. Clutching her heart, she closes her eyes and on cue whispers 'I'll always remember' as tears roll down her cheeks to the distant stately chimes of the Cathedral ringing 2am.

A small eternity passes for Tunie before the fatigue of being up this late settles in. Happens quicker every year. Twisting just that certain way, she pops a couple of vertebrae in her back and slowly begins the long walk back home, still clutching her hands against her heart. As she passes next to the Chateau Orleans, a young bellhop on the street having a cigarette break sees her and snaps to attention, hiding his smoke behind his back. Somewhat taken aback, she turns to the young man who says clearly
"Merry Christmas, ma'am!"

Quietly she regards this boy who smiles broadly at first, then nervously searches her face for signs of disapproval or (more likely at his age) signs of life. Looking towards his shiny brass nameplate she sees the name "Robert." A melancholy smile crosses her face as she takes his free hand and says sweetly

"Merry Christmas, Robert. Merry Christmas to you, too."

Then, turning towards the Marigny she places her hands into her pockets and pads back into the darkness.

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