An Empty Stage
No one stirred out on the street as Terri and her unshaven daddy, Screech Mason, drove down Esplanade to Ramparts early on Sunday morning and turned east where it changed into St. Claude. Mourning doves and seagulls were the only ones up and moving, as if all of New Orleans couldn’t bear to leave their beds yet, still hugged their pillows and dreamed of how the Saints beat the Eagles the night before. Terri had fallen asleep to the noise of the party still raging at Liuzza’s long after she and her family had crisscrossed their way home through all the traffic and crowds milling around the Superdome, drifting toward to the Quarter. She’d have been there herself if she was old enough. That morning after, when the two of them left Screech’s brother’s house up in the neighborhood of Bayou St. John, it was as if the game had never ended, still hushed the world outside while the neighbors held their breath in front of TV screens.
Terri and Screech passed through Bywater and crossed the bridge over the Industrial Canal, into where the quiet was more a nightmare than a dream. After all these months it still shocked her to drive through the moment-stuck-in-time, the place still broken, like so many unset bones left to grow back crooked and useless. More than once coming down off the bridge and looking out over the rooftops—she pictured Munch’s Scream, the painting stolen for two years from the museum in Norway. Stealing The Scream, how sad is that?
An E-Z station had reopened on St. Claude, disturbing the disquiet in the Lower Nine. A couple customers filled their tanks as Terri and Screech passed by. He made a U-turn and doubled back for several coffees and a bag of donuts. Terri followed him in and asked for a hot chocolate in a voice still hoarse from yelling at the game. She looked as scruffy as her daddy—him with his gray mustache and shaggy brown hair—her in jeans and a hoodie.
Two of Screech’s musician friends would meet them at his house in Arabi to help hang dry wall. Screech wanted to get the dining room finished today, and maybe the living room too. Terri would work along with them as she’d done many weekends before, since the family evacuated almost a year and a half ago and rented a house in Baton Rouge. No one else ever came—just the two of them.
“How many times can you lose everything,” her mama liked to say. She’d seen it all before with Betsy when she was seven, same as Screech.
“So what did you lose then?” Terri had asked her. “Your dolls?”
“My family’s house flooded, as you well know.”
A flooded house is bizarre to walk into, especially when it belongs to you. Things you thought of as permanent are all turned sideways and upside down. Muddy walls, garbage smell—you can’t imagine it ever being right again. Terri’s cousin’s house was ransacked once, still all messed up when Terri and her mama came over to help. She thought of the ransacking when she first stepped over the threshold and wondered, who did this? Who turned all our stuff into a trash pile in the middle of the room?
“The Corps’ gonna give in,” Screech had argued. “They’re closing MR-GO. It’s history, Annette. There’s no reason for us not to rebuild. Our street never flooded before they dug the canal.”
“What about the river? Surge could come up there too.”
A hurricane can spend the energy of thousands and thousands of nuclear bombs before it runs its course. Terri had seen it for herself, mile after mile. Munch’s volcano spent even more, shocking air waves around the world seven times over. The sky bled red everywhere for days and tsunamis hit the shores. They say Yellowstone will be even worse. Terri hadn’t ever noticed things like this before; now they offered strange comfort. Now: the world. For her, now, the world was this moment.
Now the world was this moment.
The real reason Terri’s mama wanted to stay in Baton Rouge was because her own mama and daddy had moved there. Second, all of her six brothers and sisters moved there with all their kids. Even Screech’s parents had moved there and all of his sisters. Only his brother came back with his family to live in their house on high ground by the bayou after the evacuation. “Why should I move back to Arabi when you’re out on the road all the time?” Annette had said to Screech. “There’s nothing for me there anymore. The block’s half empty; it’s not safe.”
Funny what can happen; how you can live in a way you never thought possible. People in trailers, three, four generations crowded into one house, people driving long commutes. New towns, new jobs, new schools—all the newness sucking the life out of you so you can’t even think about the mess you’ve left behind. They argued, mother and daughter, in Baton Rouge while loading the dinner dishes, just as they had in Arabi, making good use of their quality time, Screech would call it.
“Lots of kinds of work can take people away from their family. What’s your problem?” Terri would ask.
“It takes everything away,” her mama said. “And now this New Orleans thing—him begging musicians to go back— like he’s some kind of prophet or something.” Annette made a fist, squeezed her sponge. Veins popped out along the inside of her wrist, stuck out like a bone.
Terri didn’t know exactly when her parents’ argument began. It had buzzed in her ear as far back as she remembered. Screech and Annette had known each other since high school—had been a couple before her father strayed a little too far. Annette blamed his saxophone as well as his band mates for covering up the one-night stands, the second girlfriends. They broke up and got back together two or three times before marrying at twenty-eight. Annette had even been engaged to a medical student at LSU for a whole year once, trying to break away. She couldn’t, ironically—leaving New Orleans was part of the package. Screech moved in hard after the breakup, convincing Annette he’d cut the crap, which he did.
Terri and Screech passed Jackson Barracks, turned right onto Marais and drove straight ahead toward the river a few blocks down. Red sat on the stoop waiting. A second man walked up from around the side yard. Terri’s body went rigid. “I thought it’d be Fly,” Screech said as he got out of the truck, “but Manny’ll do just fine.”
I can’t do this, Terri said to herself. She’d had a crush on Manny Perez since she was seven and he started playing trumpet with one of Screech’s bands. A playboy, Annette had called him. He’ll never grow up. Annette liked him though; most women did. It was the hair—dark and thick, trimmed and combed straight back. It was the lean body. It was the quiet way he had about him.
“What the hell are you mothers so happy about?” said Screech.
“Hey baby,” said Red, jumping up to high five Screech, “three f***ing points.”
Terri opened her door and stepped down over the curb onto the parish side of the sidewalk where roots from their magnolia tree swirled around her feet. They were lucky the tree survived, kept making it through the seasons, graduating from one year to the next just as Terri had done. At first she didn’t like the new school she and her sisters attended, didn’t like going co-ed after the comforts of Cabrini, but she made friends, stayed focused. Her life was so great before, getting off early everyday to go to N.O.C.C.A.—the school for the arts—for theater design. Working on the school plays had saved her and this year Terri was instrumental in the selection of The Tempest for the spring production. The boys would come in handy. There was one, Jason—she liked him. Think of him, she told herself, instead of Manny and how he makes your temperature rise.
After drinking a cup of coffee the guys started unloading sheets of dry wall from the truck to add to those stored in the vacant house. “Still there,” said Screech, as they laid the panels beside the pile he’d left. Terri checked the beadboard in the dining room. She’d stained it the week before and left it scattered and propped against various surfaces to dry, where it remained, unmolested. She moved it all into the kitchen, clearing the space for them to start in on the dining room. Two of them held up a sheet of dry wall while a third drilled in a line of screws. Terri marked the position of the studs, handed tools off, drilled a few holes.
She’d made drawings for The Tempest and met with the director several times collaborating on designs. She’d love to stage it outside along the river in Baton Rouge, or better yet back home along a breach in one of the canals. She’d only seen one Tempest production, a couple summers ago at Tulane. The set was minimal, the lighting more complex.
After almost two hours the drill finally went quiet. The big stuff out of the way, just the cutting over windows and outlets remained. Screech said he’d get those later, maybe tomorrow, and that it’d be great if they could move onto the living room.
Terri had read the play a dozen times, in and out of order, not only studied it for staging but compared it to passages of Huxley’s Brave New World for AP credit as well. Miranda’s words from The Tempest: “brave new world.” Optimistic as Screech, only his brave new world was right here on the uninhabited enchanted island.
St. Bernard Parish—enchanted? Not any more, her mother‘s voice snorted inside of Terri’s head.
Why not? Terri argued. Charged by the life-changing event, the interruption, the breaking into pieces—the Shakespearean test of character. With its cushion gone, the place becomes an empty stage with nothing left to block the light.
Terri and her father stayed over at his brother’s house on Sunday night so Screech could get some trim work done on the house the next day. Monday was the Martin Luther King holiday and Terri had off from school. Aunt Rose and the kids were in and out while Terri wrote at their computer, comparing Miranda’s use of the term “brave new world” in Shakespeare’s play to John’s in the Huxley novel. Both teenagers had only known the island, the savage place—the old world—and were glad to leave it behind, but John’s new world turned out to be filled with morons.
To start over, to settle.
Terri’s family—not. The tempest still left it bare, cut to the nerve. “My spirits, as in a dream, are all bound up.”
Terri read over what she’d written, polished it up and printed it out before saving it to her disk. She was free and suddenly couldn’t wait to get out of the house, off by herself, left to roam without anyone harping on how only Iraq had a higher murder rate than New Orleans.
She wrote a note before locking up and walking down Esplanade across the bayou to catch the streetcar in front of City Park. She didn’t know where she was going but the red flash of a streetcar heading towards her fueled her sense of spontaneity. She got a window seat and stared out at Carrollton Avenue as they moved at a steady clip, then turned onto Canal. Terri got off downtown just before the end of the line, where the holiday kept people out of business suits and into Saints’ jackets, jumping on the chance to escape into the carnival mood—like the city offered its tourists, until the storm blew our cover. Maybe it’s our own fault, thought Terri; some people don’t want to believe we exist. Maybe they just can’t imagine we’re real, just like them.
Jason had asked her to bring back a souvenir. Terri fingered her ticket stub in the pocket of her jeans. They’d gone out a few times last spring but then he got together with another girl over the summer. When fall rolled around he wrote a letter saying he was sorry. He started calling her but she told him she just wanted to be friends. Other boys were into her, wanted to hook up. She didn’t need him around to step all over her again, but he’d kept on calling and she had to admit, he almost always made her laugh. They ate together at school and worked together on the plays. He wasn’t seeing anyone else.
Terri cut across Canal when the light changed, then walked down to Chartres. Jackson Square swirled ahead of her. She ambled toward it with all the other foot traffic but stopped short, puzzled by what she saw up ahead. She kept her distance, leaned against the brick wall next to the shutters of an art gallery. Screech walked toward her from the opposite direction and entered the Napoleon House with a blonde, his hand at her elbow—a woman who came by to say hello to him at the Saints’ games.
Terri turned and backtracked to Conti, took a right onto Decatur, ending up at the Louisiana Music Factory. She went inside hoping for live music to drown out the scream in her head.
Sure enough, a pre-performance anticipation buzzed the air as a couple guys ran back and forth for sound checks. Customers gathered along the bottom of the stairs.
“Terri?” Someone called from across the room, by the cashier.
“Mr. William?” A drama teacher from N.O.C.C.A. smiled over at her. “You remember me?”
He laughed and gave her a hug. She hugged him back. He wasn’t a tall man, but massively built. He’d been in the Tulane Tempest production. “We miss you,” he said to her. “Your class is scattered all over the place.”
“I miss y’all too, you don’t know.” Terri thought she might cry.
“Where are you going to college? They have a good set design program, I hope. Let us know if you need any letters.”
“I don’t know,” said Terri. “I need to earn a living.”
“But you can earn a living,” he said. “Don’t tell me one of our most creative kids has lost her confidence.”
“Yes, you. Of course, you, Terri Mason, set designer extraordinaire.”
“No one over in Baton Rouge talks like that,” said Terri. “They’re all so, you know—everyone goes in-state.”
Mr. William squared his stance, put a hand on each of her shoulders. “What do you want to do? Where do you want to go?”
“You played Gonzalo,” said Terri, “in The Tempest, at Tulane.”
“You liked the island, remember? Sebastian said he thought you’d carry it home in your pocket and give it to your son for an apple.”
“You’ve been studying the play.”
“New Orleans is the island. I don’t know if I want to leave it.”
“Maybe I’m afraid I won’t like the brave new world. Or maybe it’s right here, under my feet, the old turning into the new.”
“Yes, there’s that.”
“Mr. William,” she said. “I really miss N.O.C.C.A.” She cried then, crumpled against his shoulder. She should’ve been here in New Orleans—lived with her aunt and uncle where everyone knew what she’d been through, where she could watch the city crawl back to life. Mr. William’s hand rested on her back, in between her shoulder blades as they shook, right there in the middle of the store where the McDonogh 35 High School Choir had gathered around the mike and broke into His Eye Is on the Sparrow. The vibrations of their song came up through the floor; their voices covered hers, muffled by the muscles in Mr. William’s shoulder. She’d wanted to ask her parents if she could apply out-of-state, leave them all behind; but she’d let it go. She dried her eyes and blew her nose like a nerd by the time they finished and went on to Oh Freedom.
He held his arm around her shoulder until she stuffed her tissue back in her jacket then stood close by through the rest of the songs and all the clapping for the choir came to an end. They were leading her alternate life. Where did they get these kids? Strong, not innocent anymore. Singing together for her, with her—Terri—strong like they were strong. Life happened. It was bigger than anyone of them. Just a metaphor before something washes it all away. Other people didn’t know. Some things you just had to fold up and put in a pocket that covers your heart. You just had to hide it there until someone came along who’d been through a similar event. You could take it out then, unfold it like a ticket to a Saints’ game—run your hands over it to smooth it out flat so both of you could sit down and read it together. She would smile then when that happened, deep, like she smiled now; and the other person who understood would nod his head and take her hand, and she’d let the music let her life start all over again.
Christine Murphey has lived in New Orleans for 19 years and currently works with a consortium of homeless agencies. A will appear in an upcoming issue of New Laurel Review and a nonfiction work is included in the Summer 2010 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. Her poems have appeared in Negative Capability, The Maple Leaf Rag, New Orleans Review, Sistersong, Earth Daughters, Louisiana English Journal, Louisiana Literature, Tulane Review (best poem) and Bot‡nica Los Angeles.