I wrote this little story a few years ago, but I’ve continued to revisit it every once in a while as time’s passed. I think it’s ready to be shared. It’s a bit dark and has elements that may be upsetting to some, so please proceed with caution. Thanks for reading, and I’d love to her what you think of it!
The St. Charles Streetcar Line
By: Elizabeth Thomassie
There might have been a jukebox. There may have been people too. No, wait; there definitely were people…and…music? Yes, of course there was music. I was dancing, and he was dancing…was he dancing? Where is he? Who is he? We might have eaten dinner before we left, I don’t seem to recall, but there definitely was music…a throbbing bass groove. I can’t remember what we said last night…
The bass is still pounding in my head as the spinning room slows to a teeter, and I find the will to sit up in my bed. I pry the leaden crescents of my eyes open through the cement of glitter and black smudge. The afternoon rays of bright June sun are so unholy to a person in my condition.
I slump back against the luxurious white covers of our four-poster canopy bed and glance at the alarm clock on our bedside table, covered in rings from the constant abuse of many a chilled beverage. It’s 2:27 p.m.
I guess my husband had lunch at the office again. Lately, he’s made that a habit. In fact, I haven’t actually seen Don’s face in about two days. I think it’s been two days, but I could be wrong. I often am. I feel the weight of his strong form beside me, around me, against me at night, but my eyes have not seen what my body has felt in quite some time. I can’t even remember the last time I looked at him with sober eyes.
My indifference to my husband’s absence used to alarm me. We were once a team. We jived to the same beat. Those were the days of the second story flat down on Decatur with the perilous balcony that tiled down toward the street at too large an angle for comfort. Those were the days of fresh French bread and avoiding the cops who didn’t care for people who walked along the Mississippi at night. Those were also the times when we shared bottles of Yellow Tail and Jack Daniel’s, our intertwined forms writing on the couch, knocking over the amber and crimson liquids that pooled together to form what was sure to be a permanent stain on the rug. And that was okay. That was a time when stains were okay. Now we’re living uptown, and he’s a serious lawyer with a serious job and a pristine house and a not so pristine wife.
Now when I break out the bottles and sashay over to him with the intent of seduction, he just looks at me blankly. No…not blankly…almost with…disdain. His gaze is painfully sober. His shirt is crisp white, and his dark grey pants have a defined crease. He only drinks scotch, and he only drinks this scotch with “business associates.” When this transformation began, I used to try my hardest to reach down into the shell he was developing and pull my Don back out. I’d put on Louis and Ella and sway in the dim light, trying to reignite the light in his eyes that once illuminated my world.
On our third night in this new house, on the three month anniversary of his getting the job at one of the big law firms downtown, I really went all out to try to bring back the days of passion. I made a trip to the French Market to pick up some bread, wine, cheese, pralines, and a few pounds of boiled crawfish from Jeremy who sells seafood behind Café du Monde. Don and I used to get crawfish every Sunday afternoon from Jeremy when we lived in the Quarter. I walked up to him, and he got up from his chair to give me a hug, wearing his trademark faded jeans and LSU t-shirt.
“Good to see you, girl! I ain’t seen you or Don for a minute. How y’all doing? How’s the uptown life?”
“It’s so good to see you too, Jeremy! It’s been nice. It’s so beautiful up there.”
Jeremy nodded his head and chewed on the end of a straw. He looked down at the sidewalk. There are two kinds of beauty: aesthetic beauty, and the beauty of the truth. Jeremy was familiar with how people often used one kind to mask the other.
“Good, I’m glad to hear it. How much y’all havin’ tonight?”
“Why don’t you give me ten pounds, we’re celebrating,” I added with a strained smile.
Jeremy’s head shot up, “You ain’t pregnant?!”
My eyes widened at the question, and I threw my head back and laughed.
“Haha oh God of course not! I’m not an old maid yet, Jeremy!” I winked at our old friend. He chuckled gruffly and without a smile.
“Heh, don’t let anyone tell you that twenty-seven is too old for kids, Gail.”
After gathering my treats, I took the St. Charles streetcar line home and began to set the scene for Don’s return from work. I pulled out the old record player he gave me for our one-year dating anniversary and put on Sidney Bechet. I lowered the lights and lit some candles. Wearing my favorite black, slinky, sequined dress, I mixed myself an old fashioned. I spread the food across our long mahogany table and added a bottle of scotch. I was sure that would pull him in. I expected my darling home at seven, and when that hour came and went, I had about four drinks in me and opened up a bottle to nurse a glass of pinot noir. At ten o’clock, I was beyond my own mind and called the neighbors to come over. Somebody had to eat the food.
What resulted was the first of a succession of raging house parties that eventually everyone came to know us for. What also resulted was Derek…I think his name was Derek. Never did I ever think that I would be the type to cheat on my husband, but what happened happened, and there’s no changing the past. Don and I had grown painfully distant, and I never felt so alone. After Derek, I knew Don and I were on a time limit, and the scene he came home to that night at three in the morning set our current pattern of living into motion. He called me an immature whore, and I told him he would know about whores. I also said something insinuating that he was dead inside, and that he was dragging me to an early, soulless grave with him. We slept in different beds that night.
I turn over on the clean white sheets and look at my wedding ring on the bedside table. For two people who were once so in sync, so…in love to be so distant now…the space between us feels impossible to traverse.
I roll out of the four-poster and make my way across the worn hardwood flooring on a quest for caffeine, passing the remnants of last night as I stagger to the kitchen. There are broken bottles everywhere. Various articles of clothing lay strewn about. Someone even drew a mustache across Don’s lip on our marriage photo. I think it’s fabulous, but if he hasn’t noticed it yet, he will when he gets home, and he’s going to yell. At lest I’ll get to witness him express some kind of emotion.
Ah yes, there was in fact a jukebox, and there still is. Someone is propped up against it, still sleeping off the fun. Don won’t be happy about that either, the jukebox, I mean. It’s frivolous, outdated. He’ll say “It’s enough that your animal friends trash my house, but why do they have to constantly litter my home with their junk? What’s the point of a jukebox? Use a computer.” Use a computer. Use an e-reader. Use a cell phone. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand that I don’t feel connected to material things like he does now. I don’t want to be. My friends don’t want to be. So, we use a jukebox, a big old antique jukebox, and that’s who we are. That’s who I am. It used to be who Don and I were, but the times have changed, and Don is speeding ahead of me. I no longer have any desire to catch up.
I ponder these thoughts as I sip my freshly brewed coffee made in roughly a minute by my Keurig, a gift from Don back when we first moved into this house. He sold my French press in a garage sale. Don moves very fast. He says, “Gail, I don’t understand why you can’t just get your shit together long enough to get anything done. You don’t do anything. You sleep all day, and you drink all night with all the bums in the city! You bring those people here to my house, and for what? You’re going nowhere fast. You’re on the slow road to nothing.” I know he’s right. The hot liquid warms my insides, and the warmth makes its way down to the very tips of my toes. But I don’t want to go anywhere fast.
The streetcar screeches its stop outside my window.
Don used to love the parties we had downtown. People would walk, streetcar, bus their way to us from all around the city. Don’s an Arceneaux, so he’s related to practically everyone. He’s got relatives from Grand Isle to Shreveport, so I was able to get acquainted with folks all over the state pretty quickly. Southern Georgia isn’t so different from southern Louisiana, but it’s a different world altogether from New Orleans. Don’s a native of the bayou area, so he grew up basking in the glow of the Big Easy. His interest in the party scene quickly faded into terrible things like dark ambition and steely competition. The charm of the city has cast a stronger spell on me.
Back home in Blakely, Georgia, “party” doesn’t have quite the same meaning it does here. When I turned eighteen, we had a proper barbecue, no beer, no liquor, just sweet tea, lemonade, ribs, and burgers. We got up for church at seven the next day. I hated it. I felt trapped in a cycle of life that left me no room to move, and I knew I needed to get out. A week after my eighteenth birthday, my mom and dad sat me down to have a little talk. My daddy was a businessman and looked like your standard, run of the mill fat cat. He heaved himself into the head seat at the dining room table.
“Now Gail—Margret, grab me some iced tea, wouldya darlin’?—Gail, you have any gentlemen in mind?”
“Daddy, you know I’m seeing Don.”
Don and I had met three months earlier at a mutual friend’s beach party at Orange Beach. We hit if off instantly and we’d exchanged telephone numbers. My daddy was never too happy about that monthly bill.
Margret, my sweet mother, set the tea down in front of her husband.
“Here you go, Frank.”
“Thanks, love. I’m talkin’ about marriage, honey. Don’s all the way in Louisiana, and I don’t know if phone calls alone make for marriage material. Besides, he’s just a kid.”
“I’m eighteen, and Don’s twenty-two, and he’s going to Tulane Law next year.”
“Well that’s next year, and you need to start thinking about your future…unless you want to go to college, which your mother and I certainly do not discourage.
I rolled my eyes, pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “You know that’s out of the question.”
“Alls I’m saying is that you have to do something.”
My mother looked over her shoulder as she washed the dishes. “You know your father’s right, dear.”
I watched my mother. She spent her days minding the house, her Sundays minding the preacher, and her life minding her husband. I decided then and there I had to leave Georgia. By November I was in New Orleans, beginning my life with Don.
Once again I glance at the clock. This one is lodged in the screen on our refrigerator. It’s 3:15 p.m. I place my mug in the dishwasher, and skip over the downed lamp poles and toppled furniture back to the bedroom. If I hustle, I’ll make it to 5:00 mass at the cathedral. I’ll streetcar, and Don will disapprove. But he’s not here, so that doesn’t matter. I like going to mass downtown because the St. Louis Cathedral is absolutely breathtaking. I love going because the place is always packed with a diverse mix of people. I hardly ever pay attention to the priest’s words. I just enjoy feeling the presence of everyone around me. I can look to my left and see a middle-aged woman at the end of my pew raise her eyebrows and scowl at me, and then I can look to my right and a few rows down and see an older man smiling and nodding at everyone who passes him. So many lives all sitting together in one place, each a part of the bigger whole, everyone belonging. That is what religion truly is, and I hate that I have to wait for Sunday to feel like I’m part of something bigger than myself.
I twist the brass doorknob of my walk-in closet, and an avalanche of silk, cashmere, tulle, and pearls greets me. My black silk halter dress is on top, so I guess that’s what I’m wearing. It’s a questionable choice for church, but I suppose there are worse decisions to me made. I should know.
The slinky fabric slides easily across my body as I step into my red patent leather pumps, and I glance out the window. There are moving trucks outside, much to the dismay to impatient commuters immune to the charm of St. Charles. I chuckle as I hear the horns and yells. Rushing. People are always rushing. I rushed once…to get out of Georgia as soon as possible. I do regret leaving my family so hastily, so impatient to forge my own path, but there is no erasing the past. Besides, Mom and Dad are dead now, so there’s nothing really to go back to. I wish I would have remembered to call my dad on his birthday five months ago, but I was passed out in the bathtub. I got the news of his death the next morning.
As I flutter down the stairs, I become lost in my memories. There was a time when I wanted to be a journalist. I thought I would travel the world, writing articles about important news stories, meeting all types of people, and traveling the world. Since I was eleven, I’ve kept a journal filled with mock articles. I dreamed of seeing my name in print, and I would even practice my news anchor voice for when I got older and wanted to settle down and do television. I didn’t realize what the world was like then.
I ponder this as I study my reflection in the living room mirror. My lips are cherry red, but cracked. My hair falls in soft auburn curls, but they are slightly peppered with silver. My complexion is smooth, but the lines that blemish it are deep and unrelenting. My eyes are a clear gray, but they seem to absorb rather than reflect light.
I look tired. I look old, used.
I flop onto the sofa. On the coffee table sprinkled with the ashes of old cigarettes is a nearly full bottle of Percocet. These aren’t hard to get. Derek is a doctor.
I pour myself some whiskey and water and gulp down some of the pills. Oh, what am I doing? The liquor stings my throat and unsettles my stomach, but I know I deserve it. Don is soulless, but I am lifeless. Don lives in the future, and I can’t free myself of the past.
I get up from the sofa, grab the bottle of whiskey, and set out into the afternoon sun. I’ll walk to church. It’s a beautiful day. All of a sudden a soft melodic sound fills the air. I allow the notes to flood my mind with their vibrations and color. I sway to its rhythm as I descend my stoop. It isn’t until the music stops that I realize that it came from my cell phone. I press the callback button without looking at the screen. Don’s deep, booming voice fills my ears, and I have to hold the phone away from my ear for a minute to let the throbbing in my head subside.
“Gail, I’ve been trying to reach you all day! Are you okay? Have you gotten out of bed yet?”
I laugh softly to myself, as if you care, and I mumble, “Go to hell.”
“Yes, honey! And I made dinner too!” I chirp in a mockingly perky voice. I take another swig from the bottle.
“Did you remember your appointment with Dr. Collins?”
Oh damn. I did not, in fact, remember to go to therapy today. Don set up the appointment for me the day after I found out that Daddy had died. That was the day after I passed out in our bathtub with a bottle of Percocet and the shattered glass of a bottle of Absolute sprinkled around me like fairy dust. It was lucky that I woke up before Don got home that day. I had time to clean up, but I couldn’t stop the flood of tears. I played up my sadness at my dad’s death to hide my real sorrow…the feeling that nothing matters.
“I did. I think it’s really startling to help.” Another swig.
“That’s great. Do you think we can cool it with the parties? I’m sure they’re not good for your progress.”
“I’ll be working late tonight, so I’ll—”
“I don’t love you, Don. It’s over.”
“What did you say?”
I hang up.
I get up and walk along the streetcar line. I finish the bottle with a smile on my face.
The beautiful houses and old oaks swirl together as I trudge toward the cathedral in my dress, heels, and pearls. I’m free. I can do whatever I want! I laugh out loud, and I push my hair out of my eyes. The sidewalk looks like the yellow brick road, and here I am, Dorothy, on my way to Oz.
My heel catches my dress, and I go sprawling onto the tracks. I try to get up, but my head is spinning too much to regain my footing. In the distance, I can faintly make out a headlight coming my way. It had the luminous quality of Christmas lights viewed through frosted glass. I roll myself off the tracks to avoid the approaching streetcar.
As I lay there on the concrete, Don’s face suddenly flashes in my mind. Oh God, I told him I didn’t love him. Hot, salty tears run down my face.
“Don!” I scream internally, “Don, I’m so sorry!”
I can now hear the streetcar. It is still a few blocks away.
What is my life? What is the point? Booze and men and plastic bottles of shame…and Don. No…not Don. Not anymore. I should have listened to my father. I should have gone to college. I should have done something. I’m thirty-three. I have no kids. I have no family. I have no Don. I have nothing but liquor and pills. Liquor, pills, and pearls.
The streetcar comes closer. Its rolling, mechanical hum completely overcomes my senses.
I have nothing. Here I am, in one of the most magical cities in the world, and I’m stuck. I’m trapped in an empty existence I’ve created for myself. I have to get out.
The streetcar is a mere feet away.
I shut my eyes. I’ve made up my mind. I hold my breath and roll into the tracks.
As I’ve said, I revisit this story from time to time, and I feel more and more like Gail’s story doesn’t end here. Maybe I’ll see where else I can take her. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments!
I chose to pair this story with a refreshing yet deceptively intoxicating summer drink that matches the decadence often associated with New Orleans. It’s super easy, customizable, and delicious.
Lemonade Champagne Cocktail
- Bottle of champagne or sparkling wine, chilled
- Lemonade, homemade or store bought, pink or yellow…The possibilities are endless.
- About two tablespoons of granulated sugar (can be more or less as desired)
- Zest of one lemon
- Juice of one lemon
- Mix the lemon zest with the granulated sugar, and spread the mixture on a flat surface such as a plate.
- Coat the rim of your pre-chilled wine glass or champagne flute in lemon juice, and then dip into the lemon zest and sugar mixture.
- Fill the glass about halfway with lemonade and top with champagne.
- Garnish with lemon slices, and enjoy!