Josephine Claiborne paused, her hands hanging over the keyboard, as her lovely vampire heroine, Marie Therese, first laid eyes on the handsome Union captain she would love and devour. Josephine was suddenly conscious of her own body. Knowing what her character must inevitably do to protect herself, to nourish herself, she had grown breathless. Her lips tingled. She bared her teeth. This stopped her. I'm getting a little too much into this, she thought, and she turned to look at her Writing Tree, a great, gnarled live oak just outside her window. Through the lift of its dark arms she could see a gaggle of tourists on St. Charles Avenue, their faces raised to her window, ropes of beads around their necks, and beside them, pointing through the tree at the great lady at work, was Delphine. Josephine was surprised that her daughter was conducting the literary tour herself today, though it no doubt had to do with shorthandedness during Mardi Gras. Delphine had written the script of the tour, and Josephine knew it by heart, so she could read her daughter's lips: "This is where Josephine Claiborne lives alone, weaving her dark tales of love and death from the well of her own solitude."
Josephine growled at this-at the sentiment and at Delphine's penchant for mixing metaphors-and she looked back to the computer and she tried to focus on her own words again. Then her hands dashed on. The Union captain took Marie Therese in his arms and they waltzed out the balcony doors and into the hot Louisiana night.
A chorus of voices arose from the street. "Bring your face close!" they cried. Josephine lifted her hands and turned back to the window. This was her cue. The phrase was her signature, slipped into every book. She wiggled her fingers at the benighted Union captain, wishing to go on without stopping, but she'd promised Delphine always to make an appearance when she heard these words, and so she rose and lifted the window and Delphine waved and Josephine waved back and the tourists cheered.
"We love you, Josephine!" one cried, and the others took it up.
"More than Anne Rice?" Josephine called, and she could sense Delphine's disapproval, though her smile stayed fixed on her face.
"Yes!" they replied as one.
Josephine was supposed to say something nice now. I love you, too. Or, You're all too wonderful. She was glad they loved her more than anyone, but she was pissed at this interruption and so she merely waved and cried, "Buy my books!"
The unflappable good nature of these literary tourists softened Josephine. She regretted her grumpiness. So she gave them a double dose of Delphine's script, softening her voice as much as she could and still be heard: "I love you, too! You're all too wonderful!"
Josephine drew back in. She hunched over the keyboard with the flounce of a concert pianist and she read the passage on the screen before her. "You're all too wonderful," Josephine whispered to the words she'd just written.
Meanwhile, down St. Charles and across Canal Street and in the midst of the welter of the long Mardi Gras weekend in the French Quarter, at a table for two next to a window on Chartres, the most desired lunchtime table in arguably one of the three best restaurants in all the Vieux CarrÈ, if not all New Orleans, namely Rafferty's-though there was a bit more than a touch of resentment from some of the old guard that a restaurateur who made his mostly cultish reputation in a ramshackle, lunch-only seafood place in the Ninth Ward would dare to cross Canal and insinuate himself onto Chartres, even within sight of Jackson Square-at this table for two sat Rafferty himself, Rafferty McCue, with the curtains drawn beside him and his restaurant empty and its lacework iron door locked and a sign upon it reading "Gone to Mardi Gras, bring your appetites with your ashen foreheads on Wednesday." He watched shadows of the revelers dancing on the curtains like a Balinese puppet show and he wanted to be content where he was, alone at this table, though he was beginning to think Aspen would be a better place, with most of the other uptown New Orleanians who opted out of the krewes and the balls.
Max sat down opposite him with a rustling of paper.
A great shadow headdress had appeared on the curtain and stopped and quaked there, and it struck Rafferty as quite wonderfully feminine in its feathery roundness. For the past few years, as his widowerhood had become a habit, he'd grown intensely conscious of feminine things.
"Dad, you need to read this."
Rafferty turned to Max, who was waving a stack of contracts at him. Perhaps Rafferty was showing his mood on his face, because his son took one look and amended his order: "Or just sign."
Though Rafferty had only recently slipped past fifty, he was more interested these days in choosing the pompano or stirring the roux or shaking every hand at every table in the place than he was in the things his Harvard-M.B.A. son was only too happy to handle. "I'll sign," he said.
The contracts were before him, Max flipping the pages to the red-arrow tabs. Rafferty started signing. "We're ready to do more, right?"
"You're not getting cold feet." Max's voice had turned suddenly brittle.
Rafferty raised his eyes to his son.
"It's a great property," Max said. "The best double-gallery house on Magazine Street. It's big and it's ready for the Poland Avenue treatment."
Rafferty focused on the next dotted line.
"I don't want to make you do something you feel is a mistake," Max said.
Rafferty didn't think this was strictly true. He lifted his pen in mid-signature and looked up, not knowing whether to be irritated or playful. Either way, he'd say the same thing, so he said it: "Is that true?" As Rafferty expected, his son's eyes widened ever so slightly in panic.
"This isn't a mistake," Max said, a little breathless.
"But if I thought it was a mistake, you wouldn't want to make me do it?"
"If you thought it was a mistake but it wasn't?"
Rafferty could see Max trying to decide whether to lie or not.
Max chose a middle path. "Well," he said, "maybe I'd want to make you do it."
"But you wouldn't try."
Max looked abruptly away and down, as if a small boy had suddenly tugged at his sleeve. "OK, Dad," he said to the floor, and then he looked back at Rafferty. "You're right. No more bullshit. I want you to do this no matter what you think about it."
Father and son looked at each other calmly, no bullshit between them for the moment, and then Rafferty gave Max a slow, warm smile. "I trust you, Max," Rafferty said, and he meant it. Even while Max was at Harvard, he'd revived the Poland Avenue location, which was rooted in Rafferty's personal history and which almost faded away when he'd brought the family recipes to the Quarter. Max had done it with lots of neon and a Cajun band and a TV ad with Rafferty in a Saints uniform throwing a jumbo shrimp, like a sidelines pass, into Mike Ditka's mouth. Now the tourists actually came to the Ninth Ward to eat fried green tomatoes and oyster shooters and Redfish Rafferty elbow to elbow with Harry Connick Jr. or Anne Rice or Dr. John or even Edwin Edwards taking a lunch break from Harrah's or his latest trial. So if Max could be manipulative at times, a bit of a patronizing prick, that was probably part of being a top-tier M.B.A. "It's your baby," Rafferty said to his son.
Max reached out and briefly squeezed his father's forearm. A beat later he nodded at the idle pen.
Max had already prepared for the contract signing: news of the purchase was in the next morning's Times Picayune. Rafferty sat on his wraparound porch having coffee with chicory and he lowered his paper and humphed softly, mostly in appreciation of his son's initiative, though if Max had been there, Rafferty would have ragged him for his presumption. He lifted the paper again while a mile down St. Charles Avenue there was, prompted by the very same news story, a sudden sharp yawp on Josephine Claiborne's breakfast veranda. Delphine, who was the yawper, also jumped to her feet and Josephine sloshed her own coffee with chicory into its saucer. "What is it?" Josephine cried, fearing fire ants.
"They've grabbed the LeBlanc House."
Josephine thought of terrorists. "Why on earth . . . ?"
"They want to string it with neon lights and fill it with whorehouse plush."
Josephine tried to figure out whose radical political agenda was that tacky.
After a moment, Delphine realized she wasn't getting through to her mother. She said, "Those people who own the Rafferty's restaurants. They've just bought LeBlanc House." Delphine collapsed back into her wicker chair. "They'll destroy it with light and noise and bad taste. They'll defile Voodoo Vampire."
Though it was early in the morning and though Josephine's novelist's mind wanted to linger with the alternate story of tacky terrorists on Magazine Street, she put her coffee down and, perhaps from the ongoing dream of her new novel, she felt as if she wanted to bite something. Voodoo Vampire had been her first big bestseller and the LeBlanc House was the setting for the novel's grand-ball scene.
"It's easily one of the three or four most popular spots on the tour," Delphine said.
Josephine waited for more. But Delphine grumped under her breath and sighed and then returned to her coffee.
"So?" Josephine said. Something was suddenly nibbling around in her, a prickly little pain.
"I'll change the script."
Josephine waited again. Delphine handled Josephine's press and publicity, but her public relations firm was much more than Josephine Claiborne now. It was a microbrewery, a senatorial candidate, the Association of New Orleans Street Performers, Bayou Viagra Hot Sauce, and more and more all the time. Josephine understood the nibbling even as it grew fiercer. She felt neglected by her own daughter. She felt jealous. She was ashamed of these feelings but it didn't stop her from saying, "That's it? What was that whole leap-in-the-air-and-shout thing about?"
"I'm damn angry." She sipped her coffee.
"This is something I never noticed before," Josephine said. "That a surge of anger has this languor afterward, like after sex."
Delphine narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out the rebuke.
"Darling, you sent me around in a coffin for the Voodoo Vampire book tour. What's happened to your initiative? They defile my vampire space and you go back to your coffee?"
Delphine looked at the cup in her hand.
Josephine silently upbraided herself. Stop this right now. There's nothing to be done about the LeBlanc House. More important, Delphine deserves her own life away from you. And she said, "Isn't there something?"
Delphine jumped up again. "You're right, Mama. Let's kick their ass."
"Go for the jugular, sweetie," Josephine said, feeling shamefully pleased at her daughter's attention.
On the night of this day there was a masked charity ball in a great ballroom in a Vieux CarrÈ hotel with a bar named Desire, and Rafferty put on a black cloak and the mask of Mephisto, and Josephine put on a bouffant satin gown with an overskirt of chiffon starry-skied with rhinestones and a sweetheart bodice of brocade fruited with silver fringe pearls, aurora borealis stones, sequins, and bugle beads, and she wore the mask of a princess, the very face she imagined for Marie Therese DeSang. The room swirled with waltzing princes and pirates and whores and goddesses and gods and sailors, and beneath the churn of violins and the deep thump of percussion was the soft clash of bangles and chains and plumes and trailings of fur and silk and feathers, and the dancers swooped and spun and others of their kind crowded close watching or leaning together or swaying or bending to press their words through the music, and all the eyes in these faces of porcelain or canvas or leather or felt were wide and fixed and the brows neither rose nor fell and the cheeks were high and rouged red, and the only unmasked faces in the place were fixed, too, as chins clutched violins and eyes closed and bows swooped and fell and swooped to the dark flow of the Masquerade Waltz and near the orchestra an Aztec sun king who had once tasted true absinthe was briefly transported by the thought of his mother waltzing with him, many years ago, and he spilled his Pernod on the goddess Mnemosyne who backed abruptly into Joan of Arc in full armor who lurched into the path of a high-hatted lawyer and his creole mistress whose crinolines deflected them and in so doing moved another couple and another and the eddy of dancers reshaped along the floor until Shakespeare swung his Dido into a tuxedoed waiter in a jester mask whose lifted tray tipped from his fingers and fried oysters tumbled down Eurydice's chest and into her cleavage and she invoked the hell where her well-meaning but stupid husband had stranded her and he himself who was dressed this year as an Indian chief lifted his tomahawk as if to have the scalp of the waiter but in fact he only jostled the passing Mephisto just enough to bend his path into a turning princess and so it was that Rafferty and Josephine collided.
"I beg your pardon," Rafferty said and he lifted her hand and bent to it and placed the mouth of his mask there and the gesture had come from the music and the glitter of this princess and he held his face there, unable, of course, to work the lips into the appropriate action. Rafferty and Josephine held the pose for a moment, she waiting, he contemplating what it was he was doing, and then he said, "Kiss kiss," and rose from her hand with a flourish of his cape. They looked at each other, mask to mask.
"Blush blush," Josephine said.
"Flirt flirt," Rafferty said.
"Ah, but how, precisely? You've gone quite vague."
"Wink wink, then."
"Good. Blush blush eye-flutter eye-flutter."
"Wink wink brow-wiggle brow-wiggle leer leer."
Josephine cocked her head at this man. "Please. I expected better than a leer, even from the devil himself."
"The devil is much more mundane than anyone suspects," Rafferty said.
"Perhaps you're right. Certainly this Southern belle is quite different from what you'd expect. Leer away then. I must make do."
And they stood before each other, having riffed together, instinctively, in a way that had been rare for each of them but which felt very good here with the music and the welter of strangers around them, and Rafferty said, "Are you free to waltz?"
And they took each other in their arms and slid into the flow of dancers and his cape billowed and her rhinestones glittered, and mask before mask they danced spinning beneath a great chandelier and past first Amelia Earhart in flying togs and then, a brief time later, past King Louis the Fourteenth in a golden robe and both Amelia and Louis turned to look, and Josephine and Rafferty whirled on before the orchestra and each was thinking, I know nothing of this body holding mine he could be half my age she could be ugly, and they spun on, their feet moving lightly, synchronized as if they had done this for years together, and they quickly concluded that they'd thought wrong, I am agelessly sexy I care nothing of her looks if she has this wit, and Rafferty said, "Are you alone?"
"No." And Josephine knew he meant, Are you with a man, but she hesitated a beat onetwothree and another onetwothree and she wished to see the face behind his mask to see if his misimpression mattered to him but she could not and then onetwothree she said, "I'm here with my daughter."
"And I'm with my son."
"I'm smiling," she said.
"So am I," he said.
"Why?" The question flew from her of its own will and they spun on.
"We are so far only masks to each other," he said, elaborating on her question, revealing to her, actually, what she'd just meant, and this made her smile again, though she did not say so.
"And quite incompatible masks," she said.
"Do you think?"
"Are you not the very devil himself, sir?"
"Is your princess incorruptible?"
"God no. She has fangs."
They danced on not speaking further, their feet never missing a step onetwothree and Amelia Earhart looked again and though her fixed, famous face did not show it, the look was intense, and Josephine caught a glimpse and she said, "That's my daughter we just passed. Amelia Earhart," and Rafferty turned his face to see and Amelia was gone but there was a great golden robe and another face intent upon the couple and Rafferty said, "That's my son Louis the Fourteenth."
"Your son was once very unkind to one of my characters."
They swirled past the orchestra with Rafferty silently trying to figure this out and Josephine realizing she was very pleasantly awaiting whatever it was this man would say next. Then she understood his hesitation. "Your son Louis," she said. "He banished her to Louisiana before there was a New Orleans, though she wreaked a terrible revenge. She was a character in one of my books. I'm a writer."
Rafferty instantly picked up where he'd broken off. "He must have had a good reason. To banish her."
"Please," Josephine said, "I should know."
"Forgive me. He is my son."
"He is grown. You can't protect him forever."
"Should I speak to you honestly then of your daughter's overrated flying skills?"
And the music quickly built to a crescendo and stopped. Rafferty and Josephine stopped, too, but they did not let go of each other. They found themselves in the same place: wishing for music, not wanting to let go, wearying of their own arch indirectness.
Rafferty said, "Would you like to step outside of this room?"
She would and they did, he taking her hand and leading the way through the crowd and both of them feeling the fleshy immediacy of the touch of a new hand and wondering what was happening. Then, in the corridor outside the ballroom, with a new waltz muffling into life behind the closed doors and with the brightness of the light here, they both of them, without thinking, lifted their hands to their masks and with a faint quaking inside, as if they were two new lovers rendering themselves naked together for the first time, they stripped off their masks.
Though it was not uncommon in Josephine's novels for her heroine to suck the blood of any man who was interested in her, nevertheless taking great sensual pleasure in the act-the foundation of her wide popularity with modern women-and though she considered herself a true writer, expressing her own personal view of the world in her work, she found that this man's face pleased her inordinately, the boyish cheek-pinchiness of it, and she felt a serious warm fluttery thing beginning in her, and she didn't want to suck his blood at all, merely nibble on his earlobes perhaps. What did this response betoken in her? She declined to answer as she stood naked-faced before this man who was even then feeling a similarly tender thing, the habit of Rafferty's aloneness falling away at once before this woman's lovely thin-nosed high-browed face with the tracings of a rich life of the senses around her eyes and mouth. He wanted to take her in his arms once more, and it was Mardi Gras, after all, it was New Orleans, after all-he wanted to kiss her. Rafferty and Josephine stood sweetly suspended like this for a long moment and before either of them could move or even speak, the music surged loud from the direction of the ballroom and Rafferty's eyes shifted just slightly to see Amelia Earhart emerge and then stagger at the sight of him. She revved her engines and buzzed the field.
"You're Rafferty McCue," Amelia said. "We're going to sue your ass."
Things had gone quickly bad from there, as Louis the Fourteenth appeared in the corridor soon after, and if there had been swords to draw, they would have been drawn, and Rafferty and Josephine seemed to lose the power of speech as Amelia Earhart and King Louis debated, in a condensed and strident form, the trade-offs of history and commercial progress, of intellectual rights and property rights, of good taste and bad, of his arrogantly patronizing tone and her strident hysteria. And then finally Delphine stripped off her mask and said, "Mama, let's go. We'll fight these people till the bitter end," and her adversary stripped off his mask, revealing a face that Josephine found herself feeling instantly kindly toward, for it had the same blue flash of eyes and baby-bottom cheeks of the man she'd just danced with. Then Delphine's hand was under Josephine's elbow and they were moving away and Josephine barely had time to glance back, and she and Rafferty shared a last look, wistful in its blankness.
Josephine tried to force her mind away from the whole incident as she lay that night in her bed and listened to distant laughter and the faint pop of a faraway firecracker. The irony was not lost on Josephine: her stirring up her daughter against the man with whom she would, that very night, dance, and dance quite wonderfully. And Desiree Jones waltzed into Josephine's mind, Desiree the beautiful octaroon orphan of Voodoo Vampire, reared as the daughter of the great Voodoo Priestess, Lily DeSang. Early in the book, Desiree had fallen in love with a dashing white New Orleans lawyer, the wealthy Marcellus Breckinridge, and though, as a result, she had incurred the frightening rage and the formidable threats of her Voodoo mother, she left DeSang and became Breckinridge's mistress. Now the two of them were dancing, Desiree and Marcellus, in the second-floor ballroom of the disputed LeBlanc House and the words were clear in Josephine's head, she'd risen from her traveling coffin in forty-five bookstores across America and read: Desiree danced with her heart whirling faster than her body. She was in his arms; she belonged to him alone at last. And then, even as he lifted her up in a grand spin, her gaze fell upon the window and there she was. The face was unmistakable and ghastly in the light from the great chandelier. It was Lily DeSang. Desiree tried to resist these eyes. But they were the eyes of the only mother she'd ever known. And she drew Marcellus to a stop and she excused herself and she headed for the balcony door.
"Don't go," Josephine whispered into the dark. But Desiree did not stop. She moved to the door and out into the night.
Lily was before her, quickly, gliding across the balcony, and Desiree wanted to stand up to her, wanted to tell her she loved her but it was time to find a life of her own. She did not have a chance. Lily put her arms around Desiree and for a moment it seemed that everything was going to be all right, her mother would understand. Then Lily bent near and Desiree felt the two points of pain flare in the side of her neck and a terrible coldness came over her and a weakness and she knew she would always be the darkly dutiful daughter of Lily DeSang and there was a knock at the door. Josephine started and sat up.
"Mama?" It was Delphine's voice. She was staying the night in her room in Josephine's house, avoiding the Mardi Gras madness in the Quarter. "Are you awake?" she asked, low.
"Yes, dear. Come in."
Delphine slipped into the room and sat on the edge of Josephine's bed. "We haven't talked yet about . . . you know."
"And his minion."
"I didn't even know who he was until you arrived. That was Rafferty McCue, you say?"
"The restaurant owner," Delphine said, her emphasis making it sound like car thief. "From the Ninth Ward," she added, which sounded even worse. "I'll drive him off Magazine Street. Believe me."
This was what Josephine had kindled in her daughter. She felt suddenly like Lily DeSang, after having bitten her daughter in the throat and shaped her to her own dark will. But how could she undo it? And did she really want to? Josephine hardly knew this man. He was a fetching face, some sweet banter.
"Why doesn't he leave you alone?" Delphine said.
"We only danced."
"I didn't know."
"These people are bad news," Delphine said, patting Josephine on the hand as if she were the mother. "Thanks for the pep talk this morning. You're still my top client." Delphine rose and headed for the door.
Josephine tried to balance the little she had of Rafferty against the weight of her work, her legend, the renewed vigor of her daughter's allegiance. Delphine's hand was on the doorknob and she turned to her mother. Josephine jumped up and crossed to her, saying, "Hug hug." The phrase surprised both of them. Cutesy talk had been banned between them before Delphine even had breasts. But Josephine knew where that talk had come from. And Delphine complied, squaring around and offering her torso. Josephine hugged her and found, to her surprise, that she wished she could take back the bite.
At the same moment, in the bar named Desire, Rafferty and Max sat at a corner table in robe and cloak, their evening's faces propped side by side against the wall behind the salt and pepper shakers, and Max said, "Did you know?"
"She said she was a writer. That's as far as I got before the shit hit Amelia Earhart's propeller."
"I'm sure that's where she was heading."
"Heading where, exactly?"
Max puffed in exasperation at his father. "Getting you to back off from the LeBlanc House."
"It seemed to be the daughter's beef."
"It's the mother's holy ground we're trampling on."
Rafferty sagged inside. He didn't wonder why. The face of this Josephine Claiborne floated still in his head, sweeter to him than the princess in her mask. But Max was smart in these things. The woman who'd awakened him was merely after something. Then a thought lifted him. "Wait a minute," he said. "There was no way for her to know it was me."
"There's no basis for a suit," Max said. "That's crazy."
"I didn't have my mask off all night. Not till . . ."
"Dad. That's not the basic point. Lawsuit or not, they can make things nasty for us. She's got a lot of power in this town, power with the people. PR." Max paused and leaned across the table. "We want this restaurant."
This last was said with more passion than Rafferty had heard in his son's voice in a long time. Max missed his mother badly. After her death, he'd trimmed his feelings back as neatly as the ivy on Harvard's walls. The LeBlanc House seemed to be changing all that. Rafferty heard the neon in his son's voice and he was grateful for that. And yet he could not hold Max's bright eyes before him. His gaze turned inward where all he could see was Josephine's face emerging, luminously naked, from behind its mask.
Rafferty spent the next day hiding in the little office off his kitchen on Chartres Street. Max was somewhere with his girlfriend, who was a lawyer, and it was impossible to guess whether they were partying or going over contracts, and Rafferty closed his door and even the tempest of Mardi Gras felt far away. He threw himself into the restaurant paperwork and he studied the menu, trying to see the culinary gaps, and he left his confinement only to scramble himself some eggs with onions and Tabasco sometime in the middle of the day. It was late when he finally pushed back from his desk and stared at the ceiling and let himself actually think about the question that had been running in him all day: What was there to do about this woman?
Forget her, was one answer.
He tried that one by sliding back under his desk and groping around and finding the menu and looking at it one more time. This restaurant and the one on Poland Avenue and-yes-the new one that was springing from his dear and only son's mind and talents on Magazine Street: these were his life at fifty. These were his work and his identity and they were the bond with what was left of his family. But his eyes fell on an appetizer-one he did especially well-and he felt itchy with the desire to spear an Oyster Bienville on a tiny fork and place it on Josephine Claiborne's tongue.
What was another answer? Talk to her. Try to see her.
His hands, eager and naÔve as they were, went at once to the phone book, though Rafferty didn't hold out much hope for the quest. A woman of her fame would never be listed. But his hands worked on and his forefinger went down the Claibornes and there she was: Josephine Claiborne. The hands were vindicated and they charged on, picking up the phone and dialing the number, though Rafferty was fluttery with trepidation.
A recorded message answered at once. He recognized Josephine's voice. "Hello," it said. "This is Josephine Claiborne. You've reached my special fan hot line. I'm busy at work on a brand-new book . . ." and she went on to talk about the Civil War and the beautiful Southern belle who was in fact a vampire using her dark powers to try to defend the Confederacy and find eternal love, as well. But Rafferty wasn't absorbing much. He was caught by the sheer sound of her, by the thought of her lips shaping words. Then she was saying, "If you'd like to leave me a message, you can speak after the beep. And thank you so much for reading my books."
Rafferty felt a clutching in his throat as he waited for the beep, his hands, still dreaming of placing an oyster on her tongue, not letting him hang up.
In the house with the machine that was about to sound its beep, Josephine had been acting out a day similar to Rafferty's. She closed the door of her writing room and closed the shades, even to her Writing Tree-she was not superstitious; she could find words on her own-and she fired up her computer and Marie Therese was there for her at once and the words flowed and flowed and finally Marie Therese was ready to bite her love and bring him into the Dark Forever of her own life and Josephine stopped. She was, herself, breathing heavily. But she was no longer inside Marie Therese. She was Josephine. And Josephine's lips trilled with the yearning to kiss a man she knew not to kiss.
She turned away from her computer. And she saw the light on the answering machine beside her reading chair. A fan was calling. She could use the adulatory distraction of a fan right now. Delphine had made her promise when the fan hot line was installed to pick up the phone occasionally and talk to whoever was there. It was good public relations. And right now it seemed very good therapy. So she rose and went to her chair and sat and she reached out and then hesitated, even as the machine was about to offer her fan a beep. She beat the tone by only a second, lifting the handset and putting it to her ear and saying, "Hello?"
On the other end, Rafferty made an incoherent sound from surprise and nervousness and desire, though all of this hardly registered on Josephine. She simply had the impression that someone was choking, though quite softly.
"Are you there?" Josephine said. "This is Josephine. Not the machine. I'd be happy to take your message personally."
"Are you all right? Are you choking?" she asked, though now there was only silence.
"I'm sorry," Rafferty said. "You took me by surprise."
"It's you," she said.
"I hope you mean Rafferty."
"I'm sorry. I was going to leave this Josephine Claiborne the novelist a little message."
"Go ahead," Josephine said, quite softly.
Rafferty started choking again.
"Would you like me to beep for you?" Josephine asked.
"It wouldn't do any good. You've called my bluff."
"You have nothing to say to me?"
"Just . . ." Rafferty struggled to figure out what exactly he wanted here. Then he knew. "Just that I'd like to see you sometime. Without a mask and without historical figures nearby to put us at odds."
"Those weren't historical figures," Josephine said. "Those were our children."
"Yes," Rafferty said. "You're right. The children we love and are devoted to."
"And who would control us, if they could?" Rafferty crimped up the end of his sentence to make it a question. He was thinking of Max. He didn't know about this woman's daughter.
"Or we, them." Josephine thought of herself and Delphine, but wondered if it was Rafferty himself who loved neon and whorehouse plush and, if he did, how they'd ever decorate a room together.
The two fell silent again. Finally Josephine said, "When?"
"I'm an impatient man."
"Fat Tuesday," Rafferty said.
"We should be discreet."
"I think I know a place."
A stingray glided by, directly over Rafferty's head, and then a porcupine puffer as big as a fire hydrant. Rafferty stood in the center of the underwater tunnel of the Aquarium of the Americas, surrounded by half a million gallons of water. As he'd expected, the place was nearly empty, with the revelry building to a climax just a few blocks away. He lowered his face and half a dozen bright silver Mexican lookdowns, their mouths drawn into frowns, slid by, their bodies suddenly turning into knife blades, nearly vanishing, as they wheeled around and faced him head-on. "Hello, girls," he said, their thin elegance reminding him of fashion models.
"Do you often talk to fish?"
He turned. It was Josephine.
He smiled. "While I was waiting I confessed to a monkfish."
"What was your sin? Buying the LeBlanc House?"
"I thought we'd leave that for a while."
"Yes," Josephine said. "I'm sorry."
They watched a little flurry of coming and going before them-a parrotfish, then a royal gramma and a queen trigger, then the lookdowns reappeared, gliding past. Josephine said, "Aren't those the girls?"
"Yes they are."
"They're very skinny."
"Yes they are."
"Is that what attracts you to them?" Josephine asked.
Rafferty knew she was joking, but he also knew enough to take a little leap with her. He looked at her until she turned her face to him and he said, "You are quite wonderfully slender."
Josephine's eyebrows lifted and then she smiled. She found she liked being caught off balance by this man. She said, "You do know what a girl wants to hear."
Rafferty put on a very serious face. "Right. 'You're skinny' and 'I'd just as soon cuddle.'"
Josephine laughed, lifting her head back to do so and exposing her throat, which seemed to Rafferty as kissable as her lips. When she stopped laughing and was looking again at him, something more serious had come over her. She said, "Do we talk too cute sometimes?"
"We haven't had enough times yet in order to even have a sometimes," Rafferty said and he regretted answering her serious question with more cuteness.
"Wow," Josephine said. "That's true, isn't it."
The shadow of some great fish passed over them, but they did not look up. They studied each other's eyes for a long moment and finally Rafferty said, "It's pretty much life-story time, isn't it."
"I think so," Josephine said.
And so they walked among fish and spoke of things that were relevant and irrelevant to the present moment and it was impossible to tell these two kinds of things apart. Rafferty grew up in the Irish Channel and his father was a policeman, but Rafferty preferred his mother's kitchen and he learned to cook, much to the dismay of his father, and after high school he started in the kitchen at Brennan's and he kept his eyes and ears open and then, with the help of some independent money his mother had-and which he paid back, at his insistence, with loan shark's interest-he started a restaurant on Poland Avenue, and he called it Rafferty's. He married a fellow kitchen worker from Brennan's and she had died three years ago after fighting ovarian cancer for longer than anyone figured she would and they had one child, Max, who had his mother's eyes and her mix of practical good sense and bullheadedness and, yes, manipulativeness.
Josephine grew up in the house she now lived in and the Claiborne of Claiborne Avenue was a distant uncle, and her father was wealthy from oil and her mother was wealthy from her father's oil and Josephine went off to Vanderbilt and she married by reflex upon graduation, when the only life she had imagined for herself was being married, and a mere six months before an acrimonious divorce, her only child came of that marriage, Delphine, who thankfully bore nothing recognizable of her father and who studied English literature at Radcliffe and started her own public relations firm, which took Josephine as its first client.
Josephine had always written. She was an only child and perhaps that had something to do with it. She always wrote stories, telling the things to the paper that she otherwise would have told to her sisters in their beds in the dark, especially in the dead quiet dark when Fat Tuesday had turned into Ash Wednesday, when the thrilling blare of Mardi Gras had suddenly turned into silence. That was a night when she'd always stayed awake to write the stories she yearned to speak.
And after speaking all of this, Rafferty and Josephine themselves fell into silence as they sat before a tank of jellyfish. Rafferty's mind tracked through Josephine's story and came to a thing that Rafferty spoke almost to himself. "That's tonight," he said.
Josephine shook off her own meditation on Rafferty's life. "What?"
"The night of the year that made you a writer. It's tonight."
Josephine liked the way he spun what she'd said. "Yes. It did do that."
Rafferty watched a great moonjelly throb its way upward in the tank. After a moment Josephine said, "Was your wife witty?"
"Yes." Rafferty thought he sensed a flinch in Josephine. He added softly, "I'm not seeing her in you."
Josephine didn't realize that this was the little stutter in her until Rafferty said it. Somewhat to her surprise she felt a twist of resentment at that, as if he'd abruptly put his hand on her breast, although, also to her surprise, that's where her breast presently wanted his hand. She looked away. "Yow," she said.
"Yow?" Rafferty asked.
"Yow," Josephine said, knowing instantly she could not find a way even to begin to explain.
"I see," said Rafferty, and he sort of did see the part about his knowing what she was feeling. "And your husband. Do I remind you of him?"
"If you did, we wouldn't be sitting here."
Rafferty found that this pleased him very much. He was prepared to be retrospectively jealous of the man. He wondered if he should tell her as much, but he decided against it. That was surely near the top of the list of things a girl does not want to hear. He regretted now even bringing it up, for he could feel Josephine pulling into herself. "We've had a little too much life-story time," he said.
"I think you're right."
"At least it brought us to this moment," Rafferty said. The words suddenly sounded glib to him. He checked to see if he meant them. He did.
Josephine might have wondered about his sincerity as well, but he'd done it again, spoken truly a thing she herself was feeling. "And it gave us the children we're proud of," she said, and upon hearing her own words she checked to see if her devotion to Delphine would destroy what was happening with this man. She did not know.
A brooding silence came upon them both and finally Josephine said, "I should go."
"All right," Rafferty said, something that seemed like panic rising in his chest like a jellyfish. He added, trying not to sound desperate, "But I didn't even get a chance to buy you a cup of coffee."
It was all on Josephine now. All she needed to say was, I don't think that would be a good idea, or even, Some other time, and they could go straight to the place where part of her feared they were inevitably heading. And yet, she said, "Tomorrow."
"Yes?" Rafferty said, though it felt more like a gasp to him.
"Another thing I've always loved is Jackson Square on Ash Wednesday. It's like those hours in the dark."
"I'll meet you there at noon," Rafferty said.
When Josephine arrived at her house, the sidewalks and neutral ground along St. Charles were awash with Mardi Gras trash, but the crowds were mostly gone, having migrated downtown. There was a message on Josephine's private answering machine. Delphine said, "Mama, I thought you were going to wave at the Rex parade from your window. I had a photographer ready." There was one beat of silence, then another, as Delphine apparently reviewed her tone of voice, which clearly sounded miffed. She softened only a little bit. "I need to talk with you about this whole LeBlanc House thing. Earl says there's really nothing we can do in the courts. But don't worry. I'm going to carry the ball, Mama, and they're not getting off the hook. Call me on the cell. Bye."
Josephine's hand went to the phone, but then pulled back. Who taught her to use language that way? she wondered. Josephine felt as if she herself were on the hook, as a matter of fact, and she didn't know what ball to carry. She did know she couldn't talk about this now with her daughter.
She turned off the ringer on the phone and went to her computer and she booted up and she counted the hours in her head. She'd go till dawn. She'd have fourteen hours, easily. She'd write ten thousand words. Her Windows desktop appeared before her and she loaded WordPerfect and her book came up and Marie Therese, the Southern belle vampire, was standing before the man she loved. He was still whole. He was still human. His blood was still untainted. She wanted him badly. Okay. Josephine's hands went up, her fingers curled, she hung over the keyboard.
And she hung. And hung. Nothing was coming out of her fingertips. And then Josephine noticed that her nail polish was chipped on the forefinger of her right hand. That needed to be fixed. So she went to the master bath and got her nail polish-arterial red-and she threw herself onto the chaise longue and she tried to patch the chip and that wasn't adequate, not in the least, it all had to be redone, and she took the polish off each fingernail and repainted each one meticulously, and then she did her toes and dried them with a hair dryer, and then she emptied the trash can in the bathroom, and then all the trash cans in the house. In short, she was blocked.
Fourteen hours later the house was freshly clean, every pore on her body had been examined, she'd lingered over a Lean Cuisine dinner somewhere along the way and then over popcorn and then over three glasses of wine, which induced her to take a two-hour nap, which she expected to put all to rights, but it did not.
It was nearing dawn, she figured, and this had never happened on a Mardi Gras night, this silence. Never. She'd been sitting for the past two hours before the computer, punching the Enter key to retain her words whenever the screen saver-a photo of Josephine's house dripping blood from the roof-kicked in. She'd performed every trivial chore she could dream up to keep from writing and she'd kept from thinking about the obvious source of this writer's block, too. But as the grandfather clock downstairs chimed seven, Josephine noticed a thin strip of daylight showing beneath the lowered shade and she cried out in fear, as if she were Marie Therese herself, desperate to escape the sun.
Josephine squared hard around before the words on the screen. Her hands rose. The freshly painted fingertips hovered and hovered and then Josephine pulled back. Her hands fell. She sighed, deeply, wearily. She could write no more for now. And she knew that the LeBlanc House sat in the center of this terrible, wordless night.
Josephine went out of her house, and before going to Jackson Square, she drove to Magazine Street and parked at the end of a block she'd once known very well. This place had filled her head with voodoo and jasmine in the dark and with the essence of an octaroon girl who was transformed, by the act of her mother, into the undead and who was torn, by her love for a human, between two irreconcilable worlds. Josephine walked along the block, and the coffeehouse and the bookshop and the run of antique stores were closed tight. And there, up ahead, on the other side of the street was the LeBlanc House. When Josephine had first noticed it, Desiree flashed by in an upstairs window instantly, in the arms of the man she loved and could never marry. Now Josephine stood before the house and it was still beautiful and brimming with the stuff of her imagination. It was stuccoed brick washed the color of early afternoon sunlight, and its two-story galleries were lined with wrought-iron swirls of flowers and fruit and vines, and the great shutters at the French windows on the second floor were open. Josephine thought she heard music. She strained to listen, but there was nothing. A dog was barking somewhere. Nothing else. Then even the dog fell silent.
Josephine crossed the street. She hesitated at the realtor sign hung with a red SOLD placard, and then she moved beneath the windmill palms and up the front steps to the door, set off-center to the right of two leaded stained-glass rosette windows as tall as she. Josephine loved this house. Why hadn't she thought to buy it herself? For one thing, to have any house but her father's house never had crossed her mind. And there were a dozen Josephine Claiborne literary sites around New Orleans. Two dozen. She could start buying them and never stop. But standing on the porch of the LeBlanc House, she suddenly felt heavy-limbed with regret. It was true she desperately wanted this place to stay always the same, though she knew that was impossible. Only vampires could live forever. And now she simply felt weary. She thought to turn to go. But something made her step to the door. She cupped her hands around her face and leaned into the glass. A grand staircase led up to the second floor. She put her hand on the doorknob and there was no reason to expect it to turn, but it did. She opened the door and she thought: they don't even care enough about the place to lock up. She hesitated a moment and then called, "Hello?"
There was only silence in reply. No one was here. She did not hesitate now. She stepped in.
And Rafferty stepped forward to the priest. He closed his eyes as the priest's thumb traced the cross of ashes on his forehead-Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return-and Rafferty moved away from the altar, up the side aisle. He'd seen Max well ahead of him in the line of penitents and wondered if his son had seen him. He pushed through the doors into the narthex, and there was Max, waiting, a newspaper folded under his arm. As Rafferty approached, Max whipped the paper out and began flipping the pages. "Did you see it?" Max said, though Rafferty was suddenly struck by the cross of dust on his son's forehead. He wanted to reach up and rub it off. "Look," Max said.
Rafferty looked at a full-page ad that screamed STOP THE DESECRATION. Rafferty didn't want to read any more, though he took in the next block of type, only slightly smaller than the first: A PRECIOUS NEW ORLEANS LITERARY LANDMARK IN PERIL.
"I've seen enough," Rafferty said.
"I'll take care of it."
"No, Max." Rafferty tried to keep his voice steady.
Max rolled on. "There's a lot of boilerplate crap about history and literature in there to give it the illusion of rationality, and it's signed 'Fans of Josephine Claiborne,' but the outbursts are actionable and we know who's really behind this."
"They know they can't sue, so they try this stunt, turning the public against us. Well, now we can sue."
Rafferty reached out and put his hand gently on his son's shoulder. "Max. We should think this through. Ask some basic questions. Is this particular building so important . . ."
"It's important to me," Max said, and there was no anger in his voice, no issues of control, only the hurt of a child. "It's for me, Dad." He seemed to hear his own tone. He sharpened his voice and waved the newspaper. "This can hurt us. All over town."
For the second time in two days Rafferty felt panicky, this time at the prospect of his son telling him to choose-Josephine or him. "Let's talk about this later," Rafferty said.
"Don't you trust me?" Max said.
"I do. That's not the issue."
"Then what is?"
"You sent me to Harvard . . ."
Rafferty thrashed around for a way to end this for the moment. He said, "Max. Let's argue later. We're standing in a the middle of a goddamn church, for Christ's sake."
Max blinked and then he shrugged and shot his father a little smile. "You're a goddamn good defender of the faith there, Dad," he said, and he turned and went out the doors of the cathedral.
Rafferty stood for a time in the narthex and tried to figure out what it all meant. He looked at his watch. Josephine would be arriving any minute. This cleared his head. They'd talk about the LeBlanc House directly. They'd work it through.
So Rafferty stepped out of the cathedral into Jackson Square and he sat down on a bench and he watched the Catholics going in clean and coming out soiled with their own mortality, and a fortune-teller set himself up nearby, ready to resume his alternate view of the future, and a skinny young man took a saxophone out of a case and laid the case open for donations and he started licking his reed. Rafferty looked at his watch. The ashen foreheads drifted by. The musician licked his reed some more, licked on and on until Rafferty wondered if this was his talent, he would lick his reed all afternoon to the delight of a crowd of tourists. Rafferty looked at his watch. She was late.
And it got worse. Rafferty sat, and eventually the saxophonist actually played, and Josephine did not come. Neither did any crowds for the saxophonist, and he stopped and packed his instrument and went away, and the fortune teller fell asleep-didn't he know from his cards that there'd be no customers today?-and Josephine was forty-five minutes late, and then an hour late, and Rafferty rose. He'd been able to suspend all serious thought till he could talk to her but now there was no keeping his worst fears out of his head. She'd stood him up. And the ad was her declaration why.
For a long moment, Rafferty didn't know what to do.
Along Magazine Street, the restaurants and the coffeehouses and the antique shops and the bookstores were open, the hangovers and the penance of their owners having been dealt with by noon. The LeBlanc House sat implacably beneath its palms and there was no sign of life in the windows. A car whisked by. A bald man trailed behind a small white dog who snuffled past on a leash. Another car ground its gears and accelerated along in the opposite direction, and the street fell silent. The palm fronds quaked almost imperceptibly from a low-grade breeze. And then Rafferty McCue was standing on the sidewalk, contemplating this house.
Max was right. It would make a wonderful restaurant. But Rafferty was paying a very high price. Perhaps higher than he could imagine, even with ashes on his forehead. He sagged before the LeBlanc House, sagged as if he were as old as this place and fallen into shambles. What was the point of coming here? He turned to leave.
But he took a last look at LeBlanc House. It was his, after all. It was Max's. He quaked at this thought as faintly as the palm fronds, and he didn't know why, though he knew it wasn't from pleasure. He stood in suspension for a moment and then he stepped forward, hesitating briefly at the realtor sign hung with the red SOLD placard, and then he moved beneath the windmill palms and up the front steps to the door. He peered in. There was a staircase before him. And for the second time this day a veteran resident of New Orleans who should never have expected a door to be unlocked on an empty house tried the knob.
He instantly followed the swing of the door and he closed it behind him. He stood in the foyer and drew in the smell of the place, deeply, that strange mixture of mildew and old flowers and cooking oil that had burned away years ago and some animal something, which was perhaps just two hundred years of humanity come and gone in this space. He and Max would fill it with the smell of good food and they would fill it with people talking and laughing and taking their ease. Rafferty felt good about what he was doing with his life. And he felt terrible, standing in this foyer, knowing that what he was doing made this woman he'd held in his arms despise him.
He thought to turn around and leave, but the house itself had let him come in. He had to know her. He thought to go to the kitchen. But that felt like a slap in Josephine's face. He should appreciate the place first as she no doubt appreciated it. He looked up the staircase. Max had spoken of the large room on the second floor and Rafferty climbed the stairs.
There was a landing and a turning and he went up and his footfalls grated in the silence and then he emerged into blindness, the light from the French windows wiping his senses clean for a moment in their contrast with the dimness of the stairway and now the great room that lay around him. He stood now facing to the rear of the space, and his eyes adjusted and in the dimness he could see an old trunk and a few tattered boxes against the far wall and a long table listing downward over a missing leg. The floor felt vast. The ceiling was high. There was a vague glimmer of a chandelier in the shadows. He turned to the front of the room and jerked back. Between the two windows lay a body.
Rafferty moved toward it, squinting against the light. It was a woman. She was dead. And then he realized it was her. Josephine, lying on her back on the floor, her hands folded on her chest, her mouth slightly open, her eyes closed forever. He threw himself forward onto his knees, leaning to her, flares of panic streaking through his head, his arms, and he reached out, his hand trembling, and he pulled it back. He couldn't touch her. He had to touch her. This was his fault. And so he bent down, very near, bent to her and he kissed her on her barely parted lips. She was still warm. And she stirred.
He jerked back again. "Thank God," he cried.
Josephine opened her eyes and she looked into the face hovering over her and she thought for a moment that she was in her coffin, that she'd awakened to find the man who would drive a stake through her heart. But no. It was Rafferty. She was merely sleeping. "You should have awakened me," she said.
"I did," he said. "I thought you were dead."
"You think you woke me from the dead?"
"No. I . . . it's OK now. I was wrong."
"Did you kiss me?"
Rafferty was ashamed. He'd taken advantage of her. "I . . . well . . . I thought I was kissing your dead body."
"That's an excuse?" she said, though she knew she wasn't angry. "It's a good thing I woke up. Who knows what else you might've done."
"But if you were dead, you never would have known."
"It's hard for me to say, Oh, well, that's OK then. Don't you know how to make up better reasons?"
"Not on Ash Wednesday."
Josephine sat up and leaned back against the wall. "I fell asleep," she said. "I broke into your restaurant and fell asleep. I was up all night."
"Not writing, thanks to you."
"Look," Rafferty said, "I know I'm Catholic, but I can't take all this guilt. I'm still dealing with your ad."
Rafferty realized at once that Josephine knew nothing about it. He eased himself onto the floor beside her and also leaned against the wall. "It's just something between our kids," he said.
"Our kids." Josephine suddenly felt weary again.
They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Josephine said, "It's a lovely space, isn't it."
"It will be."
"It is now. Has always been." She tapped her forehead with her fingertip. "In here."
Rafferty looked at her and he understood and he smiled. She did not see the smile. She was seeing the floor lit with gas lamps and aswirl with dancers and Desiree and Marcellus spun by, staring deep into each other's eyes. And she heard the music. But it was out of period. Desiree and Marcellus danced to the Masquerade Waltz.
And now Rafferty was standing before Josephine and he was offering his hand and the same music was in his head and he felt the sudden brilliant flare of the chandelier and the music was all around and Josephine took Rafferty's hand and she rose with quite wonderful grace and she slid into his arms and they swirled around the floor onetwothree as if this were the dance they'd danced at the beginning of their story onetwothree and they spun but now the masks were gone their faces were naked and they looked into each other's eyes and they each were ready to say to their children give it up onetwothree and they were ready to touch onetwothree and just as each step they took was as one so too did they stop at the same moment on the same beat and the music played on in their heads onetwothree and Josephine whispered "Bring your face close" and Rafferty did and Josephine rose to him and she bared her teeth and she bit him on the neck, very gently, drawing no blood at all.