November 2018 Contest Winner
Toby LeBlanc is a mental health professional in Austin, TX. While he and his family sleep under the Texas stars, his roots find ground in the bayous and prairies of South Louisiana. Originally from Scott, the Boudin Capital of the World, he graduated from LSU in Psychology. Toby now spends his time in the company of words. Whether they be words of pain and strength from his clients, words of promise and bliss from his family, or words of memory and wisdom from his French-speaking parents and grandparents, he enjoys every story almost as much as he enjoys the storytellers.
After the Lundi Gras by Toby LeBlanc
By some voodoo I manage to get my flask out of my bra without flashing George Hidalgo. Now I can’t get it back in. George smiles a little too much. They don’t even put a break in between that two step and the waltz we’re slowing down for. So, I politely say I’m tired and head for the sidelines. Plopping down on my seat next to Betsy Fontenot I let out a big breath. She insists on always being between me and her husband. She smiles like a cottonmouth. I don’t know what she’s worried about. Between the fur in her husband’s ears, and his skinny legs, he looks like a damn mule. John really should be here. He is no fun on the dance floor but at least he’d make all of these sideways glances stop.
Pauvre bete, Mr. Hildago. He looks pitiful across the dance floor. It must be two years since his wife died. I bet it’s so hard coming to these balls without her. We’re both pitiful. My husband’s working. I don’t even know where my kids are right now. I hope they are having fun. I hope God is protecting them.
“Bee, why you frownin’ so much on Lundi Gras?” Since Alice Hoffpauir started heading Krewe de Bijou, she thinks she’s in charge of how much fun we have, the bossy old goat.
“I was frowning thinking about my kids. Hmm. That didn’t come out right.” She’s even got me watching what I say now.
“Why don’t you go get another dance with Hildalgo instead? He’s had his eye on you all night.”
“He has not.”
“What’s he doing right now?”
Sure enough, there’s old Hidalgo, looking away when my eyes reach him. He fumbles his Miller Lite all the way to his lips. His head turned, I can see how he still has all of his hair. John hasn’t had hair like that since his early thirties. Ok Beatrice. That’s a sin. You’re married. And he probably misses his wife. He’s looking at me again. Being drunk makes it hard to figure through this. Wait, is that a wink? It must be, because now he’s walking toward me. What am I supposed to do? What do other married women do without their husbands around? Panic tells me to go to the restroom.
The toilet seat is pleasantly cold on my ass. Everything needs to go down a degree or two, to slow down. Whiskey is like a hot lover: gets you worked up fast but leaves you feeling dirty and used after. My breath runs back in my nostrils as I fan myself. Holy shit, I’m drunk. My thoughts come in spurts and fits, interrupted by the slamming of stall doors and conversations of other drunk women. Trying to hold the thoughts in my head, hold my dress above my waist, and hold my purse under my arm, proves to be too much of a juggling act in my current state. The purse falls to the tiles, spilling out. I dive for the rolling lipstick and fall headfirst into the wall of the stall. Not wanting to kneel on the dirty, sweating floor to get my balance, but without a sure footing in these damn heels I have to let my head continue to balance me against the stall wall as my left hand chases after the lipstick. My bare ass is now wobbling in the wind. Wind is what it is because all this misère after that jambalaya has farts busting out of my ass faster than I can catch them. Catching my lipstick, I use my head to push off the stall wall and plop back down on the toilet. It’s only now I can see I knocked open the stall door in the commotion. Standing outside watching me are Betsy Fontenot and Alice Hoffpauir. Betsy’s smile is of a snake that’s had its fill. Alice looks like she just found her next party. Behind them I can see in the mirror my hair is flattened on the side I used as a counterbalance. My makeup is run with sweat. My dress fell underneath my bare ass, into the toilet.
“You got it, Bee?” Alice asks.
A stare is all I can offer back.
“You need some help?” Betsy hums as if she’s giving melody to my embarrassment.
“No,” I finally respond, “I think I got it now.”
I sit up, pulling the door shut, feeling water drip from my dress onto my calves. My teeth sink into the heel of my hand until I hear them, and all the stories they’ll tell about me, leave the bathroom. Then the sobbing starts. How much more do you have for me, God? What did I do to deserve all this? I don’t know how I’m getting home. I should have thought this through better. Feeling so honte, so ashamed, I don’t think it matters what happens now. My soggy underwear back up where it belongs, I wonder if there are alarms on the back doors. Picking up and then dropping the contents of my purse convinces me preserving my dignity doesn’t matter now. The last thing I pick up is the crucifix Julie’s friend what’s-her-face gave me. Its wear and tear looks out of place in a Hilton bathroom; the Savior attached still seems serene. It’s timeless and simple like the ones I’d see on rosaries at the Five and Dime when I was a kid. This is the only friendly thing I think I have in my life right now. It’s like when Julie walked into my shop for the first time. Her first impulse was to help. Like sun after a good afternoon summer thunderstorm, a small smile appears long enough to stop the tears.
Almost no words passed between Julie and me as she picks me up. We go about a mile before I realize we are not heading toward my house. A sober thought finally arrives. Julie might have been otherwise been occupied when I called her at midnight on Lundi Gras. Wherever she is taking me, I’m not ready to handle any more tracas. I need home and a bed, my own empty bed.
“Julie, I’m sorry. But home is back that way.”
“I know. I’m not taking you home. You look like you could use some taking-care-of.” The words are a chorus. They’re words I’ve waited for my whole life. Who is saying them is suspect. I’m getting pictures of a séance or a feminist pep rally. “We’ll tone down our weird, wild women stuff. We want to make sure you’re ok.” In this damn whiskey drunk I can’t tell if I’d been talking out of my head or she knows me better than I know myself at this moment.
A hippy smell hangs in the air. It makes me sleepy but my headache lessens. Jackie, the what’s-her-face, stands in her cluttered hallway with a cup of coffee in one hand and a bottle of wine on the other. “Do you want to crawl out or get deeper in?” The deep belly laugh begins before I know what is happening. Having asked myself that question many a night, I collapse to the floor, still laughing but with threatening tears. I’d be asking that question of myself, alone in my house, had I gone home. Continuing the hysterical laugh, I point to the coffee. She tosses a sweat suit my way and motions to the bathroom, handing me the coffee on the way. The bathroom is spotless. She doesn’t have kids, so I don’t need to feel bad about how dirty our bathrooms are at home. I struggle with the zipper on my dress. Without knowing how long I’ve been doing this, Jackie walks in, unzips my dress, and refills my cup. It all happens before I have a chance to protest. With how fast she came in and out, it’s hard to think she was trying to see me naked. The lacy bra I bought last week, for no one to see, comes off too. Naked except for my panties, I look in the large mirror. My reflection shows something crawled out of a crawfish pond. Legs wither beneath me. Words try to come out of me, trying to explain what happened to me to make me like this. But the whiskey still rules my tongue and only nonsense makes it out of my mouth. So focused on my lamenting I never notice the hands cleaning my face and pulling the bobby pins from my hair. They pull the sweat pants over my legs and the top over my head without ever touching my body. There is no choice but to accept their help. Strangely unconcerned by these two women, whom just moments ago I was convinced were some sorcières, I let them brush out the hairspray and refill my cup. This time a table spoon of white paste is stirred furiously into it. This was all so they could drug me.
“Coconut oil,” she explains. “It’ll help with the hangover.”
“I need some boudin.”
“Fresh out,” she says with pleasant smile. “Now you stay in here as long as you like. We’ll be in the living room chatting when you feel like joining us.”
Dreading how she’s tainted my Community, I taste the coffee. I’ve never tasted poison, except in the form of my family’s hostility, and it definitely doesn’t taste like this. This taste like someone caring, for once. I wonder if traiteurs know this trick. Feeling human again, I notice more of the bathroom, other than how clean it is. There is a picture of a man in the little hutch over the toilet. It’s from the eighties. He’s shirtless…and he should be. They don’t make men like that anymore, I don’t think. Tan, muscles, and hair in the right places; Jackie has taste in more than good coffee.
Outside of the opening of the living room I listen to their soothing voices. There is a freedom in the way they talk I don’t understand. They say things which make no sense to me, but the other always gets it. They don’t seem to ever misunderstand each other. Entering quietly so as not to disturb this magical communication I settle into a covered chair. It’s cluttered like the hallway, but having seen the bathroom I know now it’s not dirty. Their goblets of wine swirl as they gesture and laugh.
“Feeling better yet?” Julie asks.
“Rough night?” Jackie asks.
“Mmm,” I mumble, staring into my cup. A replay of Hidalgo, and the stall, and the looks of those two old crows is reflected there.
“Where was John?” Julie asks from the other side.
“Working.” I can feel their eyes on me as I stare into my coffee. Catching them communicating to each other with a look, I try to explain. “His job is unpredictable. He never knows if he’s fixing to get on the road to go check on one of his tools at any moment.”
“And what’s that like for you?”
What kind of question is that? What is it like? It’s like a lie. But I can’t tell them that. “It is what it is.”
“And what is it?” Jackie continues.
“Who’s the man in the picture in the bathroom?” I hope she’ll be nice enough to not make me answer that last question.
“Thomas? He’s my ex-husband.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I offer.
“I’m not. It was something amazing. And then it wasn’t. He wanted kids. I couldn’t have them.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry.” And I really mean it this time.
What is it with these questions? Who talks like this? Apologizing is good for everything. When things are uncomfortable for someone, I apologize. If they misunderstand me, I apologize. If I tell them the truth, my truth, I apologize. Because I’m good at being the one at fault.
“I guess I think about what that must be like to not be able to bear children.”
“A mixed bag, like most things. It sucks to not taste what others feel is a big piece of womanhood. A piece that seems to define us more often than not. But I got to have pieces of me I would not have had otherwise. You know? What are some things you always wanted to do but couldn’t because you were too busy being a mom?”
“Oh I don’t know.”
“Let’s stop,” Jackie interrupts, watching my face closely. “Bee’s night has been hard enough. Now, you look like you’re feeling better. We could either bring you home or you could stay here.” I stare into my coffee cup where a new picture swirls into focus. A house, empty, with me crying out my loneliness floats there. I take a sip and look again. The image is still there. If I sit here long enough, between saying I want to go home, and not saying anything, I can stretch out this moment where I don’t have to choose. “Or there’s a compromise. We could talk until you feel like going home. And you can pick what we talk about,” Jackie smiles. Julie does too.
“I don’t want to impose. And I got to get to the parade early tomorrow. I have to be on the float by seven.”
“We can get you there,” Julie offered.
Julie hasn’t complained about a single thing this morning; not about waking up at five after staying up until three, not about driving me home for clothes and a shower, not during the forty-five minutes it took me to pick something to wear under my costume – in fact she even cheerfully gave me opinions and options. Not even now, as she walks a half mile from where she parked, with an armful of bagged beads that aren’t even hers, does she do anything but smile.
“Bien merci, Julie. I can’t thank you enough.”
“My pleasure, Bee,” she replies with genuineness. I climb onto the float quickly before Betsy and Alice see. But it’s too late.
“Beatrice Mouton? Good morning! I didn’t know if you would make it, seeing how much fun you were having last night.”
“Good morning, Alice. Yeah. It was rough there in the beginning, but I’m here and ready to throw.”
“Who’s your friend?” Alice’s face has all the practiced pleasantness of a southern woman who doesn’t like what she sees and wouldn’t dare show it. I hope my version of that face isn’t this obvious.
“Alice, this is Julie Denburg. Julie is my partner in my store.”
“You never told me you had a partner?” Alice adds extra surprise to the statement to make sure I feel framed. I look up at Julie, feeling horrible. It’s true I don’t talk about her much. Look at how much she’s done for me since last night, or even since the moment she walked in my life. Only after this grinning carencro sees Julie am I able to see her. How awful am I? There are a million things to choose from which could explain this away or change the subject. Trying to decide on which one could show Julie it was not intentional – though it was – and get Alice to focus on something else, I’m cut off.
“Oh Bee doesn’t need to talk about me,” Julie says back, matching Alice’s contrived pleasantness. “She does so much it’s easy to be a silent partner. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Denburg, you said, Beatrice? Where are you from, Julie?”
“Here,” Julie says with continued and unwavering pleasantness. “Born and raised in Lafayette.”
“Oh. Well it’s nice to meet you.”
“Yes, Julie is home grown. And a really hard worker,” I finally say.
“Ok,” Alice says to let us know she’s had enough of the conversation.
“Bee, I need to let you go. I bet there are a lot of things y’all need to do to get going. Jackie and I will be at that road right next to Fatima church. We’ll be looking for you!”
“That’s a popular spot. You might have a hard time finding a place to stand,” Alice critiques.
“Oh, I know. But that’s been our spot since my Momma was a little girl. And I’m sure at least two of my seven cousins are drinking there already, wondering why I didn’t join them. So I better get going, too.” She leans in and gives me a kiss on the cheek. “Have fun, Bee. We’ll be looking for you.”
We pull through USL and I start looking for Addison. Finally I hear my daugther’s voice. The only good beads I have left to throw are the ones I bought for myself. I pitch those down to her and follow it up with my last moon pie. She smiles back up at me like I’m the momma she still wants. Pulling past her I feel naked with only trash adornment left around my neck. Sipping my beer I remember Julie. I didn’t keep any good beads for her. Sifting through the bags at my feet, none magically manifest themselves. We’re getting close to Julie. The float stops a few lights away from Fatima because Alice wants to offload to some of the clients at her husband’s law firm. While she’s distracted, I take the chance to steal a box of moon pies and some knotted beads from Alice’s stash. Passing the Ground Pati we arrive in front of Julie’s street. Quickly spotting her, I begin unloading everything I got, quantity and quality alike. Alice, too, unloads double, or even triple the haul I’m dropping onto them. Julie, and what looks like her nephews and nieces, love it. As I wave like a coullion, I spot Jackie. I wave harder. When we’re finally out of eyesight, I chug the rest of my beer and look at Alice.
“She seems nice,” she yells over the Wayne Toups song. I ignore her and keep waving.