Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Conjure Man - a New Orleans short story

Mama Mulate’s temples throbbed from a bad migraine. She’d thought about going straight home, but it was Monday, and she always went to Pascale’s for oysters and beer. Despite her headache and drumming of rain on her windshield, she felt ready for a break. One of her favorite ex-students shucked oysters in the bar, and that helped seal her decision.

She swallowed three aspirins and found a spot for her fully restored 1960 Bugeye Sprite in an empty parking lot. Cray Toussaint greeted her when she entered the restaurant.

“Professor Mulate, I didn’t think you’d make it tonight. The place is almost vacant because of the hurricane heading our way.”

“You think I’d let a little rainstorm cause me to miss hearing some of the best new poetry in New Orleans? Not on your life!”Mama took a stool at the oyster bar and gazed around the largely room.”You’re right. I don’t recall seeing the place this dead.”

“All the tourists have left town and gone to Memphis or someplace safe. There’s just a skeleton crew here to take care of the regulars.”

“Does that make me the only regular?”

Cray Toussaint grinned as he polished a beer mug. “There are a couple of diners in the main part of the restaurant. Sarah’s working the tables and Frenchy cooking. Maybe we’ll get busier as the night draws on. What can I get for you?”

“Two dozen freshly shucked oysters and a cold Dixie.”

Cray poured the local brew from the tap behind the bar. Before he handed the chilled mug to Mama Mulate, he shucked a single oyster and dropped the tasty mollusk into a vodka filled shot glass.

“Oyster shooter’s on me. You look like you need it. Hard day?”

“Not if you like grading essays from eighteen freshmen nincompoops.”

“Haven’t heard that word in a while,” Cray said as he began shucking Mama’s oysters.

Realizing she’d probably just dated herself, Mama killed the oyster shooter.”Better have another. And one for you. My tab this time.”

“Why not?” Cray said. “Guess I can make my rules tonight.”

“You bet,” Mama said. “The shooter was what I needed. My head’s feeling better already.”

“I’d have thought an authentic voodoo mambo would have a powerful potion to handle a little headache. Or maybe a strong gris gris.”

Mama grinned.” Vodka and aspirin are hard to beat.”

By ten, Mama and Cray had polished off three dozen oysters, half a dozen oyster shooters and a gallon or so of Dixie Beer. A window was half-cracked and curtains flapped in the breeze as they held hands and stared into each other’s eyes.

“Your last poem was superb,” Mama said.

“Then will you take me home with you?”

Mama was almost taken aback by Cray’s boldness. “I don’t date my students.”

“I dropped out two semesters ago.”

“Maybe so, but you’re not much older than my daughter.”

“I didn’t know you have a daughter. Is she here in New Orleans?”

Mama sipped her beer before answering. “I confess I don’t know where she is. We had a falling out and haven’t spoken in six months.”

Talk of Mama’s errant daughter brought a chill to the conversation, accompanied by a clap of thunder, along with wind and rain pounding windows and front door. Feeling the chill, Cray changed the subject.

“Nasty weather out there. Maybe I should take you home to make sure you make it okay.”

“And then what?”

“A nightcap or two while we wait for the storm to pass?”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“I’ll hold you in my arms and keep you safe.”

“You’re cute, but we need to get to know each other better.”

“I’ve known you three years and we were holding hands just a minute ago. Do you always hold hands with people you don’t like?”

“I like you a lot. I just need to think about this awhile. And no buts, understand?”

Despite Cray’s continued protests, Mama finished her beer and left the restaurant, driving alone to her old two-story house. She found a late model Land Rover parked in the driveway, a somber couple waiting in the front seat. As a voodoo mambo, Mama administered to the needy masses at almost any hour. This couple was white. They followed Mama through the rain to the screened front porch.

“I’m John McGinty and this is my wife, Susan. I know it’s late, but we need your help,” the man said as Mama pushed the creaky screen door shut with her shoulder.

John and Susan were an attractive, middle-aged couple—a financially successful couple from the looks of their expensive Land Rover parked in the driveway.

Despite the beer and oyster shooters, Mama Mulate was largely sober.

”It’s late and the weather’s getting worse by the minute,” she said.”Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”

Mama’s words caused Susan McGinty to start crying, and she hugged her husband.”It’s our son. We don’t know where he is.”

“Have you called the police?”

“Not that simple,” McGinty said.” What we need is information. We heard you could help.”

“I’m a practitioner of the Vodoun religion. What you probably call voodoo. I’m a mambo or priestess, but I’m not psychic. What you need is a seer.”

Susan McGinty stopped crying. “You know such a person?”

“Yes,” Mama said.”A man as old as time. His name is Zekiel. Those that know him call him the Conjure Man. He can tell you where your son is.”

“How can we find him?”

“You can’t,” Mama said.

“We’ll pay whatever it takes,” John McGinty said.

In the tradition of Marie Laveau and other famous New Orleans’ voodoo practitioners, Mama subsidized her Tulane English professor salary by accepting money for her voodoo spells and potions. Knowing without looking the amount would be sufficient, she took McGinty’s check and stowed it in her kitchen teapot. She returned with a large bottle of rum as thunder rumbled the walls of the house.

“Zekiel doesn’t take money. He does enjoy his alcohol. Let’s go before the storm grows worse.”

New Orleans below sea level, the streets had begun to flood as Mama and the McGinty’s leave the house. The sky was black, strong wind blowing up from the Gulf. They headed out of town, toward Gonzales, accompanied by only a few large trucks on the highway. An hour had passed before Mama spoke.

“Slow down. The bridge over the canal is hard to see, even in broad daylight, much less when your wipers won’t clear the rain off your windshield.”

John McGinty steered the Land Rover onto a dirt road, barely visible from the highway and crossed the raging canal on a wooden bridge. The road led through a desolate swamp. It was the city’s storm overflow area that diverted water when flooding occurred. McGinty followed the dirt road for two miles.

“Turn. Zekiel has a shack on a little hill in the woods.”

They found the shack around an abrupt bend. An old black man sat in a rocking chair on its covered front porch. A lop-eared hound sat at his feet, and a black cat whose tail looped like a question mark over its back.

The old man pulled himself up from the rocker and crossed the porch with the help of a cane. Stooping with age, he seemed to have no meat on his little body, just sinew, and tendons and furrowed skin stretched tightly over his ancient bones.

“Didn’t know if you’d make it tonight with the weather and all.”

The McGinty’s exchanged dubious glances, apparently wondering if they’d wasted their time and money.

“You knew we were coming?” John McGinty asked.

The old man chuckled. “Old Zekiel knows just about everything. Come inside before we gets blown away.”

Zekiel's accent was straight from the bayous of south Louisiana but imprinted with a hillbilly twang. Despite his obvious age, his voice was deep and clear, as were his anomalous blue eyes. Mama and the McGinty’s followed him into the shack. Semis passing on the highway melded with the wind whistling through pine boughs. The black cat rushed between Mama’s feet, slipping through the screen door before it shut.

“Watch out for Pancho,” Zekiel said.”He’ll trip you if you aren’t careful. The hound is Baxter. He don’t say much ’cept when the moon is full.”

As if acknowledging their names, Baxter barked, and Pancho rubbed against the old man’s legs. The shack was small and dark; weathered cardboard papered its thin walls. A flowered curtain suspended from a wire quartered the single room. An old army green cot marked the spot where Zekiel slept. There was no indoor plumbing.

A table of stained oak occupied the center of the room. On the table, a coal oil lantern flickered in an updraft. Scattered papers, various gemstones and an old microscope lay strewn on the table. Boxes of old newspapers and magazines littered the floor, and various bottles containing who-knows-what lined the walls with homemade shelves.

Zekiel ambled over to a squatty icebox in a  corner—a white porcelain icebox, chipped and yellowed with time. He returned with cold drinks for the McGinty’s and a ceramic jug. Removing the cork from the jug, he tipped it over his shoulder until clear liquid dribbled down his face. He handed it to Mama.

“I need your help, and you'll need a dose of shine for what we're about to do.”

Mama tipped the jug, instantly tasting some unknown fiery liquor. Zekiel gripped it in his gnarled hand, holding it until a near-lethal amount passed her lips. Then he took two dark stones from a cigar box on the table.

“I know you got strong doubts,” he said, gazing at John McGinty. “You must believe in me before I can help you. Let me show you something.”

He cleared a spot with his forearm and held the two stones about six inches apart. They clashed together with a loud click when he released them.

“Lodestones,” John McGinty said.

Zekiel nodded.”Powerful attraction. Agree?”

“Yes, and it comes with a scientific explanation.”

Ignoring McGinty’s skepticism, Zekiel said, “They have the same powerful attraction as between planets and stars.”

“Maybe . . .”

“Same powerful attraction the moon has on tides.”

“We’re here for answers, not a science lesson.”

Zekiel continued, ignoring McGinty’s skepticism. “You believe lodestones have power? You believe in the attraction of stars and planets and moon and tide? Why not believe in the power of all stones?”

“What power? Other stones have no such power, “John McGinty said.

“Yes, they do. So does every stone.”

Zekiel reached in his cigar box, this time producing a blood red gem. Next to the lamp sat a glass of water. Water in the glass plunked when he dropped the red stone into it.

“Bloodstone,” Zekiel said.”Gains power from water. Together they can suck a hurricane from a desert sky. “Distant thunder sounded outside the shack. “Storm's coming.”

Within seconds, heavy raindrops began pelting the shack's tin roof as lightning flashed across the dirty window pane. The fetid odor of damp soil and crackling ozone flushed like a wave through cracks in the wall.

“That doesn’t prove anything,” John McGinty said. “There’s a hurricane in the Gulf, not fifty miles from New Orleans.”

Zekiel reached across the table and clasped John McGinty’s fist in his gnarled old palm. “Son, you got lots of pain. It sticks out like a red flush on your face. Lose your doubt and help me find your son.”

Again, John McGinty glanced at his wife. This time her look was different. Zekiel drew a deep breath. Dark skin, visible through the vee in his shirt, stretched across his ribs as he removed a crystal ball from a wooden box. Metallic needles pierced the ball. Placing it on an ebony stand, he drank again from the moonshine.

“I needs your help,” he said.

“Tell us what to do,” Mama said, drawing closer to the table.

Zekiel cocked his head and stared at Susan McGinty as if waiting for an answer to an unspoken question. Throbs of glowing red danced on the shack's dark wall. Outside, rain pummeled the windows and drummed on the tin roof.

“Lock your gaze at the crystal. Won't nothing work till your eyes start to dim. Don't blink. Don't do nothing but gaze at the crystal ball.”

Zekiel kept up a low-voiced banter, imploring them to stare at the crystal ball. Soon, his words became a subliminal message. The crystal ball turned black. Clouds parted, and everyone’s gaze penetrated the sphere. In it they saw a vivid panorama into another place and time.

The image of a young man appeared. He was alone, draped in darkness and water up to his neck. As they watched, he closed his eyes and disappeared beneath the water’s choppy surface. An explosion of noise jolted them back to reality. Nearby lightning had struck a tall pine outside the window. As Mama watched, John and Susan held each other, sobbing uncontrollably. Zekiel stood from the table and drew Mama aside.

“Their son drowned in an accident. Sometimes the only way to accept reality is to see it with your own eyes.”

***

The morning had dawned before the McGinty’s, and Mama arrived back at her house. The hurricane had moved west toward the Texas coast and had miraculously missed New Orleans. All that remained was a dark sky filled with darker clouds. Slow rain would continue throughout the day. Mama didn’t expect John and Susan McGinty’s reaction when.

“Thank you,” Susan McGinty said. “Now we know the reports of Robby’s death are true.”

“They never found his body. We thought he might somehow have survived,” John McGinty added.

“Now we can have a proper memorial service for him,” Susan McGinty said.

The McGinty’s had found their closure Mama thought as she watched them drive away. The experience forced her to consider her daughter. Later that day, she returned alone to Zekiel’s shack. This time she took two sacks of groceries, two bags of ice and a fifth of Jack Daniels. Zekiel, Pancho, and Baxter were waiting on the porch. The old man grinned when she stepped from her Sprite.

“Been waiting,” he said.”I already got the answer to the question you need to ask me.”

Mama followed Zekiel into the shack. After stowing the canned goods, she presented him with the bottle of Jack Daniels.

“Thanks, Mama,” he said.”My favorite.”

Mama held his shoulders as she stared into his deep blue eyes.”You know about my problem?”

“Your daughter. She’s waiting to hear from you.”

“How do you know?”

“I scryed it in the crystal ball.”

“Is she okay?”

“She’s waitressing at a restaurant called the Brown Hen in Mobile. She’s saved a little money to go back to college.”

“But I was paying for her college tuition when she ran away.”

“She wasn’t running away from college. She was running away from you.”

“But why? What more could I have given her?”

“No more buts,” Zekiel said.”You gave too much. She needed to experience things on her own, without a mother looking over her shoulder.”

“But I . . .”

“I said no more buts. Mama, the only thing you did wrong is to hold on too tight. You’re strong and imposing, and that makes it tough on a daughter. Give her space she needs. She’ll surprise you with how much you are alike. You could call the Brown Hen, though, and tell her you’re thinking about her.”

***

Storm clouds had cleared when Mama Mulate returned to New Orleans. She had lowered the top of the Bugeye Sprite to let her long hair blow in the breeze beneath a cloudless blue sky. When she got home, she would call the Brown Hen Restaurant in Mobile and talk to her daughter. Tell her she loved her and that she supported any decision about her life she may have made.
After that, an out-of-character Tuesday visit to Pascale’s, a dozen oysters, and cold Dixie seemed inviting. Who knows, she thought—maybe she would even invite Trey back to her house to recite poetry.

END


Born a mile or so from Black Bayou in the little Louisiana town of Vivian, Eric Wilder grew up listening to his grandmother’s tales of politics, corruption and ghosts that haunt the night. He now lives in Oklahoma with wife Marilyn, and continues to pen mysteries and short stories with a southern accent. Mama Mulate recurring characters in Wilder's French Quarter Mystery Series. Please check it out on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages.

1 comment:

Bea Cannon said...

Thanks, I enjoyed the tale. :-)