Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Matriculation of Bitsie DuPlessis

She remembers it like it was yesterday.

Vintage damask silk covers the walls of the sitting room in the DuPlessis mansion, illuminated by an custom-made Tiffany lamp hung evocatively over an antique Louis XVI loveseat with the Constance Howard embroidered cushions.  Across the room on the turn of the century Persian rug, the restored Atwater-Kent radio radiates an amber glow to cover the modern machinery playing the digital jazz channel WWNO-3.  And in between them is the carefully arranged visage of Bitsie DuPlessis, cursing her aptitude for art appraisal. For her, a manse like her in-law's was a cursed amusement park, filled with toothsome treasures anxious to monopolize her consciousness.  To the gentle rhythms of Lionel Hampton and Sarah Vaughn, she deftly sews her days away between social obligations, errands for her husband Ivan, & the growing instances of his escapes into the 'vookuray.'  Here she sits from afternoon to late night, embroidering with ever-increasing skill and intensity.

She first noticed it in June, a few months after they had moved into Audubon Place.

For the first several weeks of her new-found role of Uptown society wife, Bitsie fully immersed herself in every event she could attend.  She discovered early that the DuPlessis name was akin to a golden ticket to the convoluted world of New Orleans societal rigors.  So powerful was the mention of the name that she found herself injected into situations destined to end in her failure on many levels.  While well-schooled in the good social graces of proper Southern debutante, the training would fail her.  In her zeal to be accepted, she bullied or coerced the elite into granting entrance to enclaves that, while rare & powerful would ultimately lead to her alienation in a few strata.  Even though a slim majority of New Orleans society found her charming, Bitsie existed in a world where positive reinforcement was ignored.

On the hind end of a 3-day period of inactivity, a sudden burst of afternoon downpour temporarily halted her daily routine.  Preparing to leave for an arranged meeting with the captain of the all-female krewe of Muses, an angry late spring storm erupted over Uptown.  Within moments the torrential rain had overwhelmed the drains & flooded Audubon Place.  Schramm advised against leaving just as the power went out.

With Schramm gone to collect flashlights & candles, Bitsie was left alone for the first time in months.  A thunderclap rattled the house as the lightning in the solarium windows illuminated the stairway.  She thought of Ivan and his office on the third floor.  The office she had never seen.  The rooms she had never entered like his childhood bedroom and the Colonel's suite.  It wasn't until she found herself looking at the corridor of doors that she realized she's climbed the stairs and entered his enclave.

Errant lightning bursts shone through the window at the other end and gave her the impression that she was in a 70's suspense thriller.  The hairs standing up on her neck helped, too.  The first room she checked was a guest room with a four-poster bed whose canopy had seen tighter days, drooping to within two feet of the mattress.  Boxes of paperwork dotted the floor in a skyline of tedious records.  The next room she found was the upstairs water closet, a remnant of a lavish renovation in the 1920's, done entirely in Venetian gold marbled mirror tiles and a golden shell basin on a mirrored pedestal.  Even in near darkness, the gleaming gold seemed to hang in the ether like the doorway to another world.

On her right was a door she couldn't open.  It was the only one with a modern handle & lock.  This was obviously Ivan's office, locked up tight.  She wondered if Schramm had the keys to this door.  He has to let the maid up when she shows up to work.  Another unsuccessful try, and she moves on.  At least now, she knew where it is.  The branches of the live oak scratched against the window with jarring intensity, causing her to jump.  Heart beating hard in her ears, she heads for the next room on the left.

The second she opened the door of the room she knew it was Ivan's old bedroom.  It still smelled like him, like he was when they first met at Tulane.  A tiny smile curls her lips as she navigates in near darkness.  Feeling her way along the foot of the bed, another flash reveals a long chest of drawers strewn with the castoff knick-knacks of his late youth, a handful of framed pictures, and a flashlight.  Amazingly, the flashlight worked.  Now equipped, Bitsie instantly turned to the framed pictures.  They are much as she expected.  Ivan in his Coast Episcopal uniform, a family trip to Pensacola, a Christmas picture of Janette & the Colonel in younger but no more congenial days.  Ivan & the Colonel on a fishing trip, then again at Disney World, and another at a birthday party with both of them blowing out the candles.  Casting the light around the rest of the room she discovers more relics of Ivan's adventures with The Colonel.  A framed collecton of his medals & ribbons from his Army career hanging next to the door, an enormous shell casing holding a collection of carved wooden swords & a quiver of arrows.  And a collection of 7 scrap books, pushed back behind the TV, nearly invisible save for the glint of chrome on the spines.  Pulling them out, she quickly flipped through one of them.  Newspaper clippings, other photographs, written passages, the effluvia of childhood.  And the Colonel was on nearly every page.

Another gust of wind knocks the oak into the side of the house again, making a noise like a door slamming and startling Bitsie into flight.  With the books still clutched tightly to her chest as she dashed out of the room, she flew back downstairs and into the solarium in a fit of pique.  Collapsing on the Louis XVI loveseat in heaving breaths, she slowly releases her death grip on the scrap books and places them on the seat next to her.  By now Schramm had found a cache of tapers & candelabras and deposited them strategically around the first floor.  In the candlelight, she looks at the books with a mixture of fear & elation.  She's found that part of his life that he used to talk about before the Colonel died, the years he closed off.  Engrossed, she reaches out to open them when the front door flies open with a great burst of wind, putting out the candelabras.  Ivan's broad shouldered silhouette filled the entranceway for a moment, then the door closed reducing the available light to dusk.  Instinctively, she shoves the books behind the cushions and drapes an afghan over it all, her face rearranging to show mild annoyance as she fusses over the extinguished candles.
A remarkably bright LED flashlight cuts through the gloom and then makes its way up the stairs...
It was the last thing she remembered before he left her last year. Now he's back and she knows the rest...This Is My New Orleans.

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