Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Briony's Birthday Excerpt! Beauty Like Columbines

Beauty Like Columbines

IV


 Well shit. Of all the things that I expected Mama Cece to say that was the very last on my list. No kid ever wants to think about their parents doing the mattress mambo but I know it has to happen eventually. I walk arm in arm with Mama Cece down the street towards Jackson Square. After her announcement at the shop, Miss Tori cannot stop rambling on about baby things and showers.

"And if you have a girl Cecelia, Brett can have all of Adelaide's old things so you don't have to buy new stuff," Miss Tori says. "But if it's a boy we'll have to organize you a shower. I will throw you the best baby shower in the world regardless, though. Why aren't you more excited Cecelia? You always wanted three kids of your own."

"I am excited Tori," Mama Cece sighs. "Poor kid is just coming at the worst time possible. Baron and I just got our savings up to where we want it for the new house and now we're going to have to use that for a shitty rental."

"Mama, I don't care where we live, just as long as we're all together," I say. "So we get the shitty rental and when the insurance settlement comes in we'll move. Hasn't that been the plan all along?"

"You know your daddy, Briony. He wants to be able to pay at least half the list price in cash."

"Have you told him that's the most ridiculous thing ever? I'll be graduated from Tulane by then."

"Baron St. Regis is the most stubborn man alive."

"Mama, does Daddy know about the baby yet?" I ask, quietly.

"I told Baron, Beau and Brett last night after you left," Mama says. "Briony, I don't have a home to take this baby to."

My step-mother has always been young but in that instance she looks it. The fear and despair on my step-mother's face is enough to break my own heart. It's been so frustrating waiting for the insurance company to settle our claim. Many of our neighbors had given up and left the city. We aren't expecting a huge payout but just enough so Daddy and Mama Cece can put a down payment on a decent house in a decent neighborhood. I don't have to live in the Garden District. I was happy in the lower ninth ward. I just want my family back together.

"We'll figure something out. We always do," I say, hugging Mama Cece.

Miss Tori and I drop Mama Cece off at her and Daddy's apartment. We drive back to the house and carry in our purchases. When we left the house, everything was in pristine order. What we came home is a disaster. The dining room chairs are lined up forming a pathway. The cushions are off the sofas lying in a pile at the end of the lane.

"Gangway!" Leo shouts coming around the corner, pulling Adelaide in her wagon. She's wearing her Tinkerbell helmet, knee and elbow pads, laughing and shrieking. I haven't seen that look on her face since her last wagon puller moved to Colorado. To maintain his "manliness," Saint would claim it was weight training for football. Please. He loved being Adelaide's pony as much as she loved having a pony.

"What on earth is going on here?" Miss Tori says, sternly.

"We were bored?" Leo answers, stopping suddenly. Adelaide's wagon crashes into the back of his legs. "Ow. Although we do know it would be better outside."

"Put everything back and please don't break anything," Miss Tori says. "Carry on."

Adelaide's shrieks and giggles waft through the house. It's been so long since I heard Adelaide have this much fun. Before the photodermatitis was diagnosed, Adelaide seemed like any other little girl. Photodermatitis is a condition in which a person can have mild to severe reactions to UV rays. In Adelaide's case, if she's outside uncovered for longer than ten minutes she gets blisters and burns all over her body. In the simplest of terms, Adelaide's allergic to the sun.

I go up to my room and start putting away my new clothes. I flip through my Saints jersey collection and take out my Drew Brees one and lay it over my desk chair. Tomorrow Daddy and I are going to the game. I go to my dresser and open the top drawer and find the eye black I stole from Saint's football stuff, my left over Mardi Gras beads and ticket lanyard. Setting everything on my desk. From my purse I can hear my phone going off.

"Answer your phone. It's your brother. Answer your phone. It's your brother," my phone chirps. "Answer your phone. It's your brother."

"Remind me to kill you for this ringtone, Baron," I say, answering my phone.

"Oh come on! It's funny!" Saint says. "Well, I already told Pops so I figured you'd like to know."

"Know what?" I flop down on my bed. "What did you do this time?"

"Now, why do you always assume I'm in trouble, Briony?"

"Because you're you. Trouble is your other name."

"I am the newest cadet in the Falconry."

"Cool, what is it?"

"I am training the birds for educational and performance things."

"You're able to do that along with your classes and football?"

Saint and I talk for a long time. He asks about the rest of the family and the Warrens. To my surprise he even asks about Larisa. Apparently she started the fight that led her to flirting and hanging out with Otter.

"She's trying to make you jealous," I say. "Larisa loves you."

"I know she does, but she's shouldn't be tied down to someone half a country away. She 
deserves more than that."

"You know she's going to wait for you forever."

"I don't want her to."

Uggh. The joys of having a best friend and sibling in a relationship. No matter how I try to stay out of it, I always get drug right into the middle. It's as close to torture as you can get. I've retired from being their mediator. They can work this one out on their own. I'm not doing it.

"So, Cecelia's pregnant," I say, staring up at my ceiling posters.

"Oh boy! That's something Pops did not tell me yesterday. Looks like I really am being replaced."

"We don't want to replace you. We just want a better behaved Saint"

"Once I get out of the Academy, y'all'll see just how new and improved I've become. I gotta go. A bunch of us pooled our cash together to go up to Denver for the Bronco game. Would rather be at the Dome."

Conversations with my brother are either really long and drawn out or quick blurbs. He's due for leave in a few weeks and we're all real excited to get to see him. He and a few of his new friends at the Academy are planning on road tripping down to New Orleans. I'd never admit it to him but I miss my brother. Despite the pranks and crap he put me through, my brother's my best friend.

"Briony!" Miss Tori calls. "Sweetie, we're ordering Chinese. What do you want?"

I meet her at the base of the stairs to give her my order. The cool thing about our Chinese place was that they were the only place that uses canola oil instead of peanut oil. Everything there Adelaide can eat. I get my usual order of steamed dumplings, chicken and broccoli, veggie lo mein, hot and sour soup and egg rolls.

Half hour later we're gathered around the table digging into the take-out boxes. I steal General Tso's chicken from Miss Tori and a crab ragoon from Christopher. I try to stab one of Leo's sweet and sour pork but am stopped by his fork.

"I don't think so," he says. "You should have ordered it."

"You clearly don't know the rules of Chinese take-out."

"And what pray tell, are the rules of Chinese take-out, oh wise Voodoo Queen?"

"You order what you want then sample everyone else's. That way you have a full array of choices."

"That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard."

"Stupid is a mean word," Adelaide says, slurping down her sesame noodles.

"Yes it is, Adelaide," I say, smiling at her. "And what do we do about mean words in this house?"

"You have to put a quarter in the 'Mean Words' jar on the piano and then re-say what you said and not use the mean word," Adelaide says, stabbing a piece of chicken with her fork and dipping it into the sweet and sour sauce.

Leo stands up and goes over to the piano and drops a coin into the jar that has resided on the piano for the last seven years. Miss Tori had enough one afternoon with Saint and I arguing and calling each other names she came up with the 'Mean Words' jar. At the end of each month the change in the jar will be counted up and given to the kid with the most gold stars on the chore wheel. Saint only got the 'Mean Words' jar cash once in seven years. Still trying to figure that one out. I must have been sick or something.

"That is an interesting theory Briony," he says returning to the table. "I have never heard that before."

I start laughing. "I can't believe you bought that! I'm totally kidding." Just to be a brat, I stab a piece of his sweet and sour pork.

"Don't worry Leo," Christopher says. "You'll get her eventually."

"He just thinks he will," I smile.

*          *          *

Daddy's Jeep pulls up in front of the house the next morning around ten. He lays on the horn which plays the opening bars of "When the Saints Go Marching In." He's decked out in black and gold and to me it looks like Brett helped him paint his face. The black and gold paint is smeared all over. I've French braided my long brown hair in two braids with black and gold ribbons on the ends. After being unable to locate my Super Bowl tiara, I find it buried in Adelaide's dress up box. I check my reflection one last time before going out the door. I look the part of a Saints superfan: Team jersey, eye black, team colors, Super Bowl tiara, Mardi Gras beads and my ticket lanyard. For the longest time the New Orleans Saints were the joke of the NFL. Then Sean Payton and Drew Brees lead us to the Superbowl and three back to back division championships. Like the city, the Saints are making a comeback.

The game itself doesn't start until noon but there's so much to do in the meantime. In the parking lot there are rows and rows of motor homes, trucks and cars. I know people at school who don't have or can't get tickets to the games themselves will park in the Superdome and listen to game on the radio. Portable TVs on rickety stands, charcoal grills with ribs, burgers, sausages, there's even some red beans and rice cooking somewhere. The sounds and smells of the tailgate party can overwhelm a new person. Daddy drives around the parking lot looking for a place to park.

"That you St. Regis?" one of the cops directing traffic shouts, spotting Daddy's Jeep.

"Markinson!" Daddy shouts back. "Get me a good spot with the other guys on the force, or you'll be on desk duty till you're eighty!"

"Yes sir!" He waves Daddy through and guides him to a spot where a few more of New Orleans' finest have set up shop. There's a few guys from Daddy's station and their families. I recognize a few people from the NOPD picnics and I smile warmly.

"Briony!" I hear someone call. I look around trying to find where the voice came from. "Briony, over here!"

I see a woman waving at me a row of cars away from me. I squint to get a good look at her. 
"Miss Stacy?" I weave through the cars over to my teacher. "I didn't know you were a Saints fan!"

"Ever since I was a little girl," Miss Stacy says. "Where are your seats?"

"Section 142, row 15," I answer. "We've had the same seats since forever. Where are yours?"

"I think we're in the nosebleed section." Miss Stacy replies. "My boyfriend won them in an office pool."

"There is no bad seat in the Dome."

"Peri Anne!" a man calls over to her. "What do you want on your hot dog?"

From what I can tell, Miss Stacy's boyfriend is a tall, dark and handsome man. He's the romance novelist's dream character. Miss Stacy waves to him. "Have fun, Briony. See you in class."

Miss Stacy walks away and joins her man at their tailgate. It doesn't happen often but when it does, it's strange running into a teacher in a non-school capacity. It's even worse when they get to talking with your parents. You just pray they don't ask about the fake cold you told them about to get out of PE. As I'm walking back to Daddy's Jeep my phone begins to ring. Larisa's hacked my phone and changed her ringtone again. This time it's Bop to the Top from High School Musical. Note to self: Destroy Larisa at a later date.

"Remind me to change the pass code on my phone," I say answering my phone.

"Have you heard from Saint recently?" she asks, not flitting around the subject like she usually does when the subject of conversation happens to be my brother.

"I talked to him yesterday. Why?"

"Did he ask about me?"

"Yes he did. Larisa, I am not playing your messenger owl again. If you two would just talk to each other and not leave this huge ravine of awkwardness, my life would be so much simpler."

"You know I love Saint, your parents know I love Saint and I know I am going to love Saint for like, ever and a day, so why do I keep picking fights with him and flirting with Otter Harris?"

"Because my brother is a big jerk for leaving you here and chasing his dream of being a fighter pilot?" I offer, trying to be supportive. "I don't know, Larisa. He's going to be here in like, two weeks. Why don't you guys talk then?"

"What should I do about Otter?"

"Don't lead him on if you're seriously going to stay with Saint. It's not fair to him and he has enough problems with a name like Otter."

"You really need to find a guy again, Briony. You're getting bitter."

"I tried the dating game, not worth it."

"That's because you dated the assiest of asses. Maybe you need to take a taste of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Rumor has it that Nina is putting Leo in her sights for Homecoming. You need to put a stop to her."

"I'll make you a deal, Larisa. You and Saint have a real conversation about your relationship before he comes home on leave and I will consider asking Leo to Homecoming."

Larisa agrees to the wager and I remind her to watch for me during the game. I hang up the phone and have to duck suddenly to avoid a football flying at my head. Daddy starts unloading the Jeep with our own tailgating equipment. The dilapidated lawn chairs, the red domed grill Daddy found seven blocks away after the water receded, and the cooler that I swear came over with Noah on the flood. The other guys from the force open up their coolers. Niverson, Daddy's partner busts out lamb and pepper kabobs, fat and juicy sausages, rib eye steaks and fresh from the gulf, shrimp and crawfish.

"Where's the gumbo, St. Regis clan?" Niverson asks looking at the spread.

"Sorry guys. Ran out of Saturday. Next time," I say, reaching into our ancient cooler for a coke.

"Briony, you're fired," Niverson says. "Baron, your daughter's fired."

"What'd she do this time?" Daddy asks, tending to the coals in the grill.

"There's no gumbo!"

Daddy chortles and drops a steak on the grill. It sizzles and pops. "Have a beer, Niverson."

When it gets closer to the time for the doors to the Dome open, grills are doused, lawn chairs packed up, coolers stored under seats and a sea of black and gold pilgrims head for church. Chants of "Who Dat?" echo along the corridors of the dome as the thousands of faithful congregants enter their sanctuary. They say their prayers of thanks and penance to the football gods, asking only for a black and gold victory.

Four hours later the faithful congregants file out of their sanctuary their heads held high as the Saints did their duty to the city and their fans across the country by defeating the wicked opposition of the Packers with dignity and pride. I opt to take the streetcar home instead of having Daddy drive me back to the Warrens. I gaze longingly at the Anne Rice house as it goes by, still happy to see that it hasn't been sold yet. The black shutters on the windows stand out from the whiteness of the house. Someday Briony. Someday, when things turn around, you'll get that house. I turn my head quickly to stare longingly at the house with the white pillars and black shutters.

A few blocks later, the Warren house comes into view. I pull the signal and step off. Coming down from the Who Dat high, the rest of my day's chores come to mind. I've put off much of my homework, something I rarely do. I put my hand to the doorknob feeling it pulsing around my hand. Leo and his screamer rock. Has he not learned?

"Seriously? Leo we talked about this!" I shout over the cacophony of bass and shredding guitar.

"No, you yelled at me and called me a stupid Yankee," he answers, looking at me over his magazine.

"Well, you are a Yankee," I say, plopping down on the couch next to him. "I don't want to be deaf by thirty so, could please keep the screamer rock to a minimum?"

"Since you asked so nicely. No."

"Where'd the rest of them disappear to?"

"They went to church with the rest of your family and then said something about lunch and a visit to Miss Tiny," Leo says, tossing his Gearhead magazine onto the coffee table.

"Why didn't you go with them?"

"Not my thing."

"What are your 'things'?" I ask.

"Don't really know."

"You looking forward to Homecoming week?"

"From what I've heard, all the cheering and spirit in the world wouldn't help those teams," Leo says.

"Truer words have not been spoken about the King George Rams. Are school dances your thing?"

"Why?" He eyes me suspiciously. "They sacrifice Yankees at those things."

"I wasn't planning on going but now Larisa's bugging me about it. If anything it'll shut her up for a week or so."

"What makes you think I'd want to go with you?"

"Because you're a gentleman. And once your aunt finds out about it she'll pester you until you agree to go. This way you'll already have a date."

"I'll think about it."

"As you were."

By the time I reach the second floor landing the screaming has begun again. I look at the pile of books on my desk waiting to be cracked and homework that needs starting. Normally, I have no issues with school and getting my homework done in a timely fashion. But I have no motivation. I lay down on my bed and reached for the book I started the night before. Pulling the out bookmark and let myself get washed away to a time when ladies were courted, the men were gallant knights and a love affair destroyed a kingdom.

Sometime later a melodic sound wafts through the house. Every genteel Southern home has a piano whether anyone in the household plays the instrument or not. Miss Tori plays but only simple songs that she and Addie sing along to. This music's different. Lyrical and flowing as if the piano is being played by someone who knows what they're doing. 
Curiously, in between the music bad notes sound. Intrigued, I wander down to the parlor where the piano resides in a dusty corner. Sitting at the instrument is Leo and Adelaide. Leo's hands move swiftly over the keys with such ease it makes me sick. I can proudly say I can plunk out the right hand part of Heart and Soul. In between Leo's flawless playing Adelaide hits a key.

"How'd you get so good?" Adelaide asks.

"Practice," Leo answers. He changes from a classical piece to the Peanuts theme. I slip in behind them both and take Adelaide's hand and we start dancing around the parlor while Leo plays. Adelaide and I twirl and spin until we're both too dizzy to stand.

"Leo, will you teach me how to play this song?" Adelaide says, breathing hard. "Please?"

"I don't know, Adelaide," Leo answers. "It's a really hard piece."

"Please, Leo? You'll be my favorite person."

"But I'm your favorite person," I whine.

Adelaide trembles her lower lip at her cousin and makes her eyes grow wide and pathetic looking. I've mastered getting around Adelaide's poor, poor, pitiful me look that I can avert my gaze and stand firm. Leo's got no chance.

"I tell you what Addie," Leo says, giving in. "If you promise to practice every day with me, I will teach you how to play Linus and Lucy."

I haven't seen Adelaide grin that big since Saint took her flying before he left for Colorado. She hugs Leo and runs off in search of her mother to share the good news.

"Do you really think you can teach her to play that?" I ask, when she's out of earshot.

"I give her a three days then her interests will move on to something else," Leo says. "Not even that, maybe one."

"Really? I'll make a bet with you Mr. Leopold Warren," I say, sliding in next to him at the piano. I clumsily start playing the right hand part of Heart and Soul.

"And what are the stakes?" he questions, placing his hand over mine, adjusting my fingers to the right keys.

"If I win, you take me to Homecoming, no fights, no fuss."

"And if I win?"

"You can play the main stereo as loud as you want and I won't complain."

"What's the bet, Miss Briony St. Regis?"

"That by Friday night Adelaide will have practiced Linus and Lucy every day, on her own, and will have reminded you about it."

Okay, to be honest this is the most rigged bet I've ever made. I know Adelaide a lot better than Leo does and when she wants something, she will make it happen. She will pester and annoy until you cave. Saint and I got to where we can subvert Adelaide but Leo's new and fair game. I may just have a decent date for Homecoming this year.

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