by Jack Butler – Me and Emmolene always liked bones. She didn’t go around making ooo and ick and yuck. She wasn’t afraid of the real thing. Whenever we went camping, we hunted for bones. A cow backbone in a pasture, a beaver skull down by the creek, a possum jaw in the woods.
Bones were like rocks. Old and nice. Peaceful.
To us, a bone meant something was alive back there in the past. Something besides what’s here right now. Just like our bones someday.
Maybe somebody somewhere a thousand years from now will turn a shoulderblade over. He won’t know it was her or me, but he would know it meant we were alive back here. Everything’s alive, no matter how far back you look or how far up the line. Most people think bones are death, but they aren’t, because life is what makes bones. Without a skeleton you couldn’t even stand up.
We used to joke, whichever one of us went first, the other one got to keep the bones. But you don’t of course. They got these laws.
I loved that little curly-headed brunette. We always had bright colors around us, fresh flowers on the table, too many animals. Pets. You could play with that woman all day long and not get bored.
We would have had children, and they would’ve been the best children ever. They would have bounced out of the nest and taken over the world.
She didn’t make me shave on my days off or mow the yard when I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to fix the car, anyway we could afford a mechanic. I didn’t have to sweep or mop or wash dishes unless I felt like it. Which was okay, because sometimes I felt like it. Sometimes I felt like she did about it.
We didn’t have a washing machine, because she liked washing dishes. She liked the feel of it, being up close with soap and hot water and making things clean with her own hands. That was the kind of woman she was.
Being married to her was like being a bachelor except no other women were allowed. Which was okay too, because who would ever be better?
So I guess in a way you could say it happened to the right people.
If it had to happen. Which it didn’t.
I don’t blame the restaurant. This city really does have the best restaurants. I don’t want to turn you off. I worked my way up till I owned a restaurant myself. You probably know its name. This was before that, I was the main chef but not the owner yet. That night we were giving our business to the competition.
It’s all in the game, you know. Have a little fun with it.
Maybe it was my fault. I mean, I told the boy no onions, both of us told him, not even a touch of onion, not even in the sauces, no matter how long you cook it. That’s hard for a New Orleans chef, but I learned to do it cooking for Emmolene. We told them, Garlic is okay. Garlic is a completely different family. We love garlic. Give us lots of garlic.
The boy was out of his depth. I should have asked for his superior. Reverse pride, you know. He didn’t recognize me, okay, I wasn’t going to tell him. Let him find out later. It would buy us a lot of credit, a lot of making up. His boss would be very unhappy with him when he found out how the boy treated me.
I guess what happened he didn’t make it sound very serious to James-Jean—he was their chef—and since the boy didn’t know me, he couldn’t tell James who I was and James-Jean didn’t know how important no onions was.
Me and Emmolene were cutting up too, making faces, trying to get a laugh out of each other. Maybe the boy thought we were kidding around, it was just a matter of taste. I mean who in New Orleans cooks without onions?
You can see I’m trying to make excuses for the boy.
Once or twice a year Emmolene would get hold of say a bechamel that began with braised shallots or a paté that had been tickled by a leek. The attacks came on like asthma with a rash and joint pain. She would have a bad few days, but eventually the benadryl would knock it out.
It had been a long time since the last one, though. We didn’t realize the allergy had gotten so much worse in the meantime.
They call it anaphylactic shock.
One minute you’re sitting there having appetizers with your beautiful beautiful wife and you’re crazy in love and you have a all the money you need and she’s showing a little nipple just for me when she leans over for another forkful of etoufée. That wicked little curl at the corner of her smile.
Then suddenly it’s all sirens and hospitals and idiots who are probably professionals doing the best they can and you’re the real idiot and cops with bored questions and a couple of hours go by and you’re back out on the street and there’s your car in the parking lot under the streetlamp and you’re supposed to get in and turn the key and drive back home and get a good night’s sleep I guess.
She didn’t have any close family left, neither did I.
The cops called the next day to say they were sorry for my loss but it didn’t seem like a criminal matter.
“It’s gotta be manslaughter at least. I mean, culpable neglect.”
“Sir, the D. A.’s judgment is that there’s just no basis for a criminal charge. Maybe you could try civilian court.”
“That won’t bring her back. All I could do is take their money, isn’t that right? I’ve already got money.”
“Sir, it’s a terrible thing, but it could have happened to anybody. We just don’t see criminal charges.”
“So you’re saying even if I sued them I’d lose?”
“Sir, I’ve eaten in your restaurant. It was a mighty fine meal.”
That evening James-Jean called, it wasn’t his fault exactly, but he probably felt bad about it anyway. I let it go to the machine. After “This is James-Jean” he didn’t say anything. Finally he said Dammit and hung up.
After that, nobody.
We had friends. They came to the funeral. But nobody called. If you’re a widow, they call. If you’re a widower, they don’t.
People don’t like to talk to sad men. I don’t know why.
You get used to it. You can get used to anything.
I wouldn’t let them put any fluids in her. They could make me bury her in a box in the ground with other dead people, but they couldn’t make me let them stick fluids in her. And they couldn’t make me buy an upholstered maple coffin all shiny with brass and padded out with red velvet. I wanted her in a plain box, and a plain box is what I got. So the rain could soak down and she could dissolve gradually and eventually there’s no barrier between her and the dirt and she gets absorbed back into the roots. She always did like to sleep naked.
So a couple of years go by. I’ve worked through three-quarters of the restaurant people. It’s taking a long time because I’m not interested in going to jail. I mean, I don’t blame them, you can see I was trying to make excuses for the boy.
But you make mistake that big, you have to pay. There has to be some kind of balance. A hit-and-run here, falling off a pier there. Digitalis in the sous-chef’s salad greens because he has angina. Everybody knows he loves to make his own wild salads, he’s always talking about writing a book about wild food. Digitalis grows wild. It’s all over the place, he probably just made a mistake.
The waiters. the floor manager. the second sous-chef and like that were easier. They move around more, change jobs, move out of town. Nobody keeps up with them. Somebody drowns in Port Arthur, nobody connects it with New Orleans. It’s the higher-ups you have to be careful with.
The chef—poor James-Jean—the maitre-de, the owner. They take longer. Money buys them time. Money and reputation. But it didn’t save them.
I don’t know if this is connected. But I keep thinking about it.
A couple of years before she dies we go down to the quarter, Jackson Square, the perfume shop, Marie Laveaux’s. Marie was a voodoo queen, the shop isn’t hers of course, she’s been gone a long time.
It was summer.
This was before a couple of years before Katrina. She died before Katrina. It all happened a long time ago now.
But there’s this counter girl. Woman. She’s got the look. The smoky eyes, the face that never changes except you can see somebody behind the eyes who is very amused at the kind of things people get themselves into.
She watches as Emmolene sprays her wrist, sniffs. Emmolene makes me smell all the colognes. I love shopping with the wife. Whatever she wants to do, it makes me happy. Besides, I’m a chef, I live for taste, and taste is mostly smell. I can tell a top note from a low note, citrus from sandalwood.
She holds up her wrist for me to smell. She spins away laughing. I’m thinking how it’s going to smell on her bare skin when we get back home and she’s kind of sweated into it. Warm woman perfume. Life is good.
“You two have the real thing,” the woman says. “For now. But life is full of change, and when things change, they usually change for the worse. How would you like a potion to make your love last forever?”
“How?” I say. “You related to Marie?”
“No, but I know where to go.”
“Thanks,” I say. “We’re good.”
But Emmolene likes the idea. “Oh, Feet,” she says. “ Let’s do it!”
Feet is her short for my given name, Lafitte. Which is I guess is a corruption of Lafayette. Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not Cajun. Creole neither.
Maybe by blood, but I don’t do that yit and yat and all dat. I love this city, used to love it, anyway, but I grew up in the north part of the state. Bogalusa if you really have to know. Skanky piney woods and stink-ass paper mills.
You can imagine what that did to my nose.
So anyway that’s why I don’t have an accent.
So the Marie Laveaux woman, Wilma, I learned her name later, takes us down to the Florida projects, to this run-down cabbage-smelling cement-block apartment where they’re all smoking ganj and drinking Jack. I gotta tell you, the potion tastes exactly like chicory coffee with milk of magnesia stirred into it.
Emmolene is just loving it, of course.
There was only the four of us, us and Wilma, and Walter. I mean, me and Emmolene are the only ones who drink the stuff. Walter and Wilma are smoking and drinking, though.
The whole thing is a kind of a high, going through the projects, supposed to be dangerous and all that. But people are people. Treat em like people and you’re mostly okay. I learned that when I was a little peckerwood on the Bogue Chitta. Somebody gets your leg out of snapping turtle’s jaws and takes you home and bandages you up, you get a good look at who that person really is.
We wind up in one of the bedrooms crosslegged on a stink-ass stained mattress with Walter, who is barefoot and not wearing a shirt. The smell from his armpits at least takes your mind off the cabbage.
He offers to share a joint about as thick as a needle while talking fast in a high thin voice about how he has to cut an evil-doer later on that night. Man gypped him on a bag, like I can’t tell oregano from weed? But you don’t have to worry about this man, this is the real stuff. Thin as a needle.
I get it. Walter is not a man to be trifled with.
“Romantic enough for you?” I say to Emmolene. She punches my arm and makes a googly face and sticks her tongue out.
Wilma, has disappeared. She’s gone ten minutes or a couple of hours. Who can tell? Who cares? We’re partying down with Walter. What potion?
Suddenly there’s Wilma again, handing plastic cups to the two of us. The red one, scorched by a hot plate once, is for me, the yellow for Emmolene. Walter growls about keeping promises. I don’t remember any promises but we give each other a look which means maybe it’s time to drink this and be on our way. We chug it down in spite of the the taste.
For which we pay the now smiling Wilma, and she divides with Walter. I don’t mind. All God’s chillun got to make a living.
Walter decides he better walk us back to the car for safety, though I imagine there might be people in the projects who had a bone to pick with Walter, just he had a bone to pick with some of them, and what if we ran into one of those people? For Walter, the journey apparently requires unlaced sneakers but still no shirt.
Hell, summer, it’s hot.
He keeps telling us goodbye over and over, with the warmth of feeling that comes from having broken through to the real people inside the yuppie stereotypes. Oh yeah, we’re yuppies. Except Emmolene is smart like a genius, and you wouldn’t want to come across me in a dark alley.
But all this was just a memory, like about a thousand others. I would take it out and look at it every now and then, like all the others, like all those polaroids of when she was alive and laughing.
Beyond that I don’t think about it. I don’t even know if all this really has anything to do with what happens later. But that love potion. Maybe it was real. Maybe it was stronger than death.
So I’m having a video experience one night about three years after Emmolene dies. A year or so after Katrina, we’re trying to put the city back together. Video experience.
Translation, I’m watching a crapload of bullshit tv because I’m too tired to do anything else. I’m full owner now, a lot of people didn’t come back after Katrina, but I stayed with it and got us through the hard times, and I’ve trained a couple of new chefs, I don’t have to work so hard any more. But every night I’m tired. Every night since she died. I don’t even care about cooking any more.
This is before Netflix and Hulu and all that came along, not that would have given a shit. I’m still alone.
I mean, I’ve been thinking about dating, but there aint exactly a boat-load of good candidates out there. Sooner of later I’m gonna have to settle for less than Emmolene, probably. But three years, it’s not long enough, I’m just not ready.
I still feel the glow.
Comes this scratching, scratching, scratching at the front door. Like that Poe guy. The one about the crow. Except I get the impression for him it happened real quiet and spooky. For me, not so much.
The dogs jump up from their rug in front of the tv and run to the door barking and jumping like fools. The cats are zigzagging low knocking lamps and magazines every which way trying to escape because the dogs have gone crazy like the cats always knew they would someday.
I figure it’s another stray dog. Three years and they still haven’t gotten the message, Emmolene’s not here any more. We must have the dog equivalent of a hobo sign on our door: “These people will feed you.”
So I open up, but it’s not a dog. Or a cat either.
It’s Emmolene. On the other side of the screen, giving off a powdery dusty musty moldy earth kind of smell.
Not much left but bones. Dirt clinging to her in places and rotten pieces of that purple silk dress she liked to wear at Mardi Gras. I buried her in it with no underwear because that’s how she used to wear it.
There’s some dried-out meat sticking to the bones and her skin is this raggedy leathery thing with holes and patches of five or six different colors of fungus. There’s dead leaves in the eyeholes but some of her curly black hair still on the skull at the back. Like that. You’ve seen it a million times in the movies. Or maybe in the horror comics if they’re not before your time.
“Well, I say. “You can’t come in like that. You’ll mess up the whole house. Besides, Jesus, what about the dogs?”
Actually the dogs are happy now, slapping me with their wagging. I don’t know if they recognize her or if it’s just usual dog happy. I’m afraid of what they might do to a pile of smelly old bones.
I’m thinking fast. She’s in no condition for the neighbors to see. Also if they find out, they’ll probably take her away, make me bury her again.
“Tell you what,” I say. Come around to the side gate.”
I leave the animals inside. Dark out, but I don’t want to turn the lights on. We don’t need any extra attention just right now. At this point I just want to feel my way along, figure out what we’re doing here. This is all new to me.
It’s a soft March night, and the mosquitoes aren’t too bad yet. We’ve got one of these walled back yards. Maybe I come from Bogalusa haulers, but now you can look me up in the Garden District.
We also have a claw-foot outdoor bathtub. I wanted a hot tub, but Emmolene said How often do people ever use a hot tub, especially in this climate? She said she wanted a bathtub in a bower, where she could take a cool bath in the heat of the summer after gardening.
She explained what a bower was and I had one built.
So there the tub is, up on a brick platform under the wisteria.
The bricks are nice and mossy now. We put a lot of that moss on them, taking baths together. She used to use biodegradable soap and shampoo, so we could could drain the tub directly into the flowerbeds.
I get her in the back yard without anybody seeing and I get her in the tub and hose her down good. Just me and Emmolene out in the cool evening, and the water out of the garden hose sounds just like a fountain.
I get most of the mud and dirt and roots off. I have to twist the nozzle to high speed, but it seems to be okay with her. Most of the skin comes away. I save a lock of the hair and later I shampoo it and dry it and she wears it tied to her humerus with a bright yellow ribbon. Yellow’s her favorite color.
But right now there’s a lot of slippery gooey left-overs.
Well this is too bad, I tell her, but we can’t let you in the house just yet. I’m going to have to wait till morning to figure out what to do. You caught me at a disadvantage. I’m pretty worn out tonight. She nods, she understands.
She can’t talk, which it figures.
I don’t guess it matters to a dead person, I say. You probably feel like you got all the time in the world. She nods again.
What I do, I bring out a pallet and some pillows, and some old rags, and I towel her dry–I have to throw the towels away in black garbage sacks, and spray her with Lysol and bring me out a couple of cigars to help with the problem, which is not much of a problem to me. She used to wake up with the breath of a bear coming out of hibernation, and her farts would knock you over. Way worse than mine. I had to make her promise to quit eating broccoli.
This is just stuff between a man and his wife, you know. I wouldn’t talk about it with just anybody. You know how it goes though.
So we stretch her out on a stack of bricks the workmen left. Just a couple of months ago I decided to finish the art studio we always used to talk about but never got around to. Maybe part of me knew she was going to come back.
I lie down beside her and we sleep together for the first time in three years, out under the stars. I think about how we used to love to camp out. I dream I’m camping out in the desert with bones, her bones.
I wake up, I am camping out with her bones. Weird.
I wonder how things were for her that night. I didn’t know if she was sleeping. Do skeletons sleep? I wondered. Maybe she was just lying there. I don’t know how it feels to be a skeleton. I ask her, she tries to explain, but she can’t talk.
That morning I feel like a million dollars. Bright blue overhead, I piss a river on the honeysuckle fence, I’m hungry like you wouldn’t believe, I got my baby back, I got my baby back. Oh man.
Remember how I got that dolphin’s skull, I tell her. That time on Saint Randolph? That’s what we need to do for you.
This baby dolphin had died and washed up on the beach.
A baby, but it had to be seven feet long and weigh three hundred pounds. You could smell it from anywhere on the island. The flies were after it pretty good.
We were only renting the house for one more week, two weeks overall. I came back every day, but with two days to go it was obvious the maggots weren’t going to make deadline. So I buried the body, dug a deep hole and rolled it in to hide it from the fishermen. I was planning to dig it up when we came back.
A hurricane came and washed all my signs away. Never found it again.
But I had cut off the head before I buried it. A dolphin’s skeleton is mostly cartilage anyway. But the head had some good hard bone. All I had to cut with was my pocket knife. Didn’t seem right to use the owners’ kitchen knives. The ligaments were still fresh and tough. The thing stank to high heaven. I had to take seven showers and burn the warm-ups and gloves.
But I finally got the head off. Problem was it still had too much meat. Next two days I trolled it in the Gulf of Mexico. Probably looked like a fisherman, but with a nylon cord instead of a surfcasting rod.
Two days in salt water and the waves washing back it back and forth in sand. We brought home a dolphin’s skull. I felt a little guilty taking it away from the sea and its mother but then I thought how wonderful it was that a dolphin’s skull was going to live in the air and be full of sunlight. I promised to take it up into in the mountains whenever I got my cabin in Montana.
That’s what I would have wanted if I was a dead baby dolphin. To see that kind of light. I figured there was no other way a dolphin would see mountain light.
I told the dolphin it was my ancestor, I needed its bones.
So that’s what we’re going to do to you, I said to Emmolene.
I laid the workmen off for a couple of weeks. Filled the tub with salt water. Used ocean salt, old ocean salt from salt flats in Utah, she had gotten bags of it from the health food store and I had never thrown it away.
I used a lot of salt. She would soak in the salt water all day long, and several times a day I would come out with a wire brush and take her out of the tub and scrub her bones and hose her down good. We’d sit around together in the sunshine and at night I would help her back into the tub.
I wasn’t sleeping outside any more, it was getting too warm and the mosquitoes, and anyway, I didn’t need to. What was a few more days?
I told her bedtime stories. I told her about the restaurant staff. I made it funny. She wanted to know how many were left.
Two, I said.
Two too many, she said.
She was signing. I should have told you that before. It took us a while to think of that. She taught at the deaf school, she was their favorite teacher. I had picked it up, another way to talk to her.
Like when the guy in the movie line is totally drunk and you want to laugh about him to each other but not let him in on it.
Sign language is great because there isn’t any big difference between talking and touching. You know? It was all just movement. Sweet movement.
Signing works just as well with bones as it does with bodies. Besides which she developed all these clicks and clatters. Like Ameslan with castanets. Latin, sort of. Mamba, mamba. Or cha-cha-cha.
On her birthday I declare her officially skeletized. Nothing but nice gleaming ivory. She wants me to bleach her, but no way. I tell her the patina is better. She tells me it looks old and worn and decayed and she wants to look young. I say you are young. You can’t get younger than bones.
I’ll bleach myself then, she says.
Go ahead, I say. And I’ll love you just as much and I’ll get used to it. But think about it. It’s like whitening your teeth. Turns you into a cartoon. Besides, bleaching might weaken the bones. We’re going to have to be really really careful about calcium loss. How about a nice varnish maybe?
Wax, she says. Real beeswax. If we’re going to go natural, we might as well go all the way. That’s my girl.
That’s pretty much the story. We get our routine back, with a few changes. She plays the piano all the time now, crazy jazz and shit. I used to could never get her to play, but now she just loves to tickle those ivories.
I don’t know what she hears with.
She can’t sing. She says she doesn’t miss it, she loves her xylophone and snares and tympani and and bells and marimba and spoons, but I wonder.
Never heard sad percussion before.
I don’t think it’s time to bring up the artificial voice-box yet. It wouldn’t be like wires and switches. Battery operated, stainless steel, set into the collarbones like expensive jewelry. Very artistic.
She’s not afraid of machinery, it’s not that, she’s just not ready to admit she needs it. Definitely not afraid of machinery. She says we ought to get her a motor and some cables and pulleys and nylon joints. She could really motor with a set-up like that. Like one of those transformer robots for the kids they have nowadays.
Or convert into a light plane and fly us where we wanted to go.
When she went backpacking she could carry all the gear and a lot more useful stuff at just the cost of a can of gasoline.
And so on. She thought her condition was ridiculous, but she wasn’t making fun of it. She meant it about the motors. She wanted a bunch of micro-miniaturized motors for fine control at very high speed. She loved her studio when we got it finished, and she wanted to be able to turn out thirty or forty paintings a day. There’s so much to see, she said.
It was the painting that started the rest of it. She was turning out two or three a day and figured she could thirty or forty with the micro-motors.
You can see so much, she says.
When you don’t have anything invested in the light, she says.
I don’t see how you see at all, I said. What do you see with?
I’m in the light, she says. I don’t have any more dark places.
I almost understand that.
She says she’s going to keep my bones when I go. She doesn’t know how, but she’ll figure out a way. She’ll have all her motors by then, and we’ll get me fitted out, and then we can go toodling along together for thousands of years. You don’t know Emmolene when she gets her mind made up.
Now you get to love me for my mind alone, she says. We’re sitting beside each other on the sofa watching Frazier. It was a long time ago now. She loves Frazier. I think it’s silly, but I like it okay. I guess. If she does.
I look in her earhole. My arm is around her. I stick one of my fingers in the earhole on the other side. From this one I can see it wiggling like a pink worm.
I put my mouth to her earhole. Hello-o-o-o, I say. What mind?
That fetches me a rattling whack on the thigh.
Man, those finger-bones can sting.
I’m hungry, so I get up to eat a slice of left-over delivered pizza. No point in cooking for her any more, so I’ve kinda lost interest.
But no farts, that’s one good thing, no farts at all.
We have all kinds of fun we never used to have. She has an incredible sense of humor. She likes to be decorative. She sleeps on a rack over my head most nights. She’s my nightlight. Turns her skull into a reading lamp. She says she likes having a skull full of light while I read. She’ll turn her eyeholes or open her jaws to throw light where I need it. That’s another thing, we could mount headlights on her. Really ought to if we take her out in public. Running lights at least. A collision would not be a good idea at all.
Turns out skeletons don’t sleep. What would be the point?
The whole thing, she says, is kind of like a lucid dream. Kind of like being awake in your dream. You know it isn’t real, but it feels realer than real.
Sometimes, with the light in her head, she’ll look around the room and throw these crazy projections. Eyeholes, earholes, giant jaws opening and closing and coming after me. The gauzy shadows of dead relatives behind a windowscreen in the moonlight. Wings of whitness beating down to carry me home. Doors that open onto windows that open onto mountains.
Lakes and aeroplanes. Nobody says aeroplanes any more, but these don’t look like airplanes. They look like aeroplanes.
The fence across the backyard of the place you can’t remember where it was but you went there all the time when you were a baby. Somebody’s used-to-be famous face in an old newspaper.
Sometimes she’ll cover the holes with colored art paper, the thin crackly translucent stuff, whatever you call it. Kind of waxy.
Then we have color comics and stained glass and neon flowers.
She makes me see things. She takes me places. She takes me into the dreamworld. She puts me to sleep and turns herself off.
Sometimes she crawls down to my arms. She can’t cry any more, but she can still ache. She craves harmony like a tuning fork, but the air is full of jangle and and noise and bad tunes. I polish her bones and it soothes her.
Hell, it soothes me.
But we can’t do it any more and that’s a real loss. We tried some foam rubber and latex and vaseline for a while, but it was just too undignified. She likes to bring me off but it bugs me I can’t do anything for her.
She gives one hell of a massage. It’s amazing how deep those finger-bones can go, how strong they are. And she never ever gets sleepy and drops off in the middle of giving me a foot-rub. That’s pure gold.
But I do miss the sex.
She says I ought to get a girlfriend. She says she isn’t jealous, she doesn’t think of those things any more, at least not in the same way. I believe her, but for some reason I’m not really all that interested.
Besides, how could you ever find somebody who wouldn’t freak out?
But I give it a try. I even break my lifelong rule, have a few dates with the girls at the restaurant. Women, I’m sorry. It’s been eight or more years now. I’m middle-aged. Most of them would jump into bed with me in a minute though.
Things weren’t like that the last time I dated. Wish they had been. But then if they had, maybe I would’ve never met Emmolene.
The girls were a bunch of sweeties but then I started to think maybe I needed older women. I started with the help because they were the age of the girls I was dating when I used to date. But I’m getting older.
Young girls just don’t do it for me any more.
They can’t talk about anything.
But it’s harder to find out what the older women are made of because they’ve learned to cover up and hide and protect themselves. I’m thinking maybe the quality you get makes up for the time you lose getting through to them.
But the truth is, I’m losing interest.
If I can’t have sex with her, it just doesn’t matter so much any more. I don’t tell her. I figure just let it slide, and if that’s the way it goes, that’s the way it goes.
After a while it really doesn’t matter. There’s plenty other stuff to deal with. Now Emmolene’s getting restless. Tired of staying cooped up. She wants to come out of the closet. Like I say, it’s the painting that’s done that.
Her paintings are amazing. I say that and I’m not even the art type. You fall into them, you feel like you’re floating. You’re in the air, you’re in the sky, you’re hollow and full of beautiful light. You see how light is nothing but emptiness. Emptiness shines. Who knew?
Now she wants an exhibition.
She tells me to get hold of Wilma, the woman at Marie Laveaux’s, ask her over for dinner. She figures Wilma knows about things like this, won’t freak out when she sees Emmolene.
I still think it was milk of magnesia in the coffee.
“If she’s even still there,” I say.
“Oh, she’s there. She’s the staying type.”
So, long story short, I ask Wilma to come over. “This is not a pass,” I say. “You don’t have to worry about that. I just want to show you something really unusual. Very unusual. But very good.”
“I’m not worried,” she says. “You’re not the kind of person I worry about.”
She doesn’t know what I’m up to, but she comes.
“The best chef in New Orleans cooking for me personally,” she says. “I don’t see a way I can turn that down.”
When she meets Emmolene, it’s only weird for a little while. Emmolene is right about her. It gets normal so fast I can’t even keep track.
Emmolene watches us eat, then we all go into the living room, sit around on the sofas. its time for serious conversation.
I have to stay there to interpret. After a while it’s like I’m not even there, it’s just two women on the sofa yakking.
I have trouble staying awake. I love that little skeleton, but, man, I don’t see how women stay interested in all those details.
Every time I start to drop off, I get a whack on the thigh.
In among all the the questions and answers the two of them agree to let Wilma scout up some more likely candidates for Emmolene to visit with. Which, Wilma says, will mostly be old black women because they’ve seen everything there is to see and nothing shocks them any more. Especially now, after Katrina. Most of these old black women stayed through the hurricane. They didn’t have anywhere else to go, and anyway, if the floods took their houses, that would be all she wrote. All any of them had was a house. No insurance. No husband.
I’ve never been a racist myself, but I imagine I was mostly just tuning out how racist most of the people in the city are. After Katrina, I couldn’t do that. It was too obvious how much worse it had been for the blacks.
It had to be old black ladies, Wilma said. Walter, for example, wasn’t possible as somebody for Emmolene. Walter liked us but he’s too superstitious. Most men are, Wilma says, and I got to agree.
“What holds those bones together?” Wilma says at one point. “You don’t have any ligaments.” They look at me like I might have an answer.
Marnee was the first one of the grannies. We do the same thing at Winona’s a couple of days later, and then word starts to get around among the grannies, and there you go, Emmolene finally has some friends.
That first day, at Marnee’s, Emmolene wraps her skull with a scarf and puts on wraparound sunglasses and a big floppy straw hat and raincoat/ She doesn’t even have to leave space around her eye-holes. For some reason, she can see anyway, despite no eyes. I have no idea how this works.
She doesn’t have x-ray vision. She can’t see through walls.
So anyway, there we are, all set up with visits to friends and everything. But something is wrong, I can’t figure what. Something just doesn’t feel right. Somebody’s not happy. But nobody’s saying anything.
By this time Wilma is pretty much living with us.
Wilma’s a sexy woman, no question. Getting up there in years, but so am I. But it never even occurs to me to make a move.
Emmolene needed company, and it didn’t cost any of us much. It was hard to admit, but I couldn’t give Emmolene all the company she needed. I would be with her as much as I possibly could, but it was wearing me down.
You know how that is? Somebody needs you and loves you and you don’t want to let them down but you just don’t have the strength.
It’s a bad feeling.
So maybe I’m the problem. I don’t think so, not exactly, not knowing what I know now. But I was thinking maybe I was.
Nothing much seemed as important as it used to. I couldn’t get excited about the restaurant. I was a Democrat now, which made for plenty of arguments, but I wouldn’t argue with anybody. Who cares enough to argue?
It was all just gonna be bones someday anyway.
So one night Emmolene is in the studio, painting—sometimes she paints all night—and Wilma comes back in, she’s been out with Emmolene in the studio, and we sit down together to talk things over, me and Wilma.
We’re on the sofa, there’s one lamp on the table, that’s all the light, that kind of light, you know, all low and golden. I’m tired from all the tension lately and I want to get at what’s going on, but I feel like I have to approach the topic in a round-about way, and we’re not getting anywhere.
So I get up and I’m looking down at Wilma, and she looks tired too, tired and annoyed. She stands up, and there’s no room between us, and I’m thinking how I ought to give her some room, but afraid that if I do it’ll look like I had something in mind and chickened out. And I notice how pretty she is.
And there we are looking into each other’s faces, so close. Long to short, we almost kiss. Or I almost kiss her.
Anyhow I come to my senses and back out of there and make some stupid excuse about how it’ll be a long day tomorrow and I better sleep.
The next morning, at breakfast, Wilma is really mad. She clanks her fork on her plate when she’s through with her eggs. She stalks to the kitchen counter and clatters her plate down. She walks out without looking at either one of us.
“What was that all about?” I say, but Emmolene doesn’t sign anything to me. She’s looking at the door Wilma went out.
“Welp. No rest for the weary. I gotta go.”
I would make exceptions, but most nights I had to be at the restaurant. Noons too. So breakfast was the main meal we had together at home. Next morning Wilma’s still there. And she’s still mad.
She sits there not eating while I have my eggs and boudain.
Just before I finish and clear my dishes, she glares at Emmolene. who is sitting there with us but not eating, of course.
“Tell him,” she says angrily. “You have to tell him.”
“Tell me what?”
It turns out Emmolene thinks ahead. Way ahead. It turns out that the main reason she insisted on Wilma is because she’s somebody we both like, and Emmolene has decided now she’s somebody we can both trust. Emmolene knew I wasn’t seeing any women, and like I say, we had given up on sex, or pretend sex, or whatever it was we were doing.
Emmolene, being bones, was fine with no sex. But I wasn’t. I had turned off a lot of other things in order to turn off the sex because I wanted to be true to Emmolene. But I was getting boring. I was turning old too soon.
I can admit it now.
Emmolene wanted me to stay with her, but she wanted the real me. She didn’t want me all flat and boring and she didn’t want me angry at her for no good reason because I was turning myself off.
She figured I would pick fights, blame her.
Hell, it had already started.
So Wilma was there for me, if it worked out that way.
And it did work out that way. Eventually it worked out well enough that me and Wilma got married. It took a while, and it was strange.
But three of us got to a real good place. And stayed there.
And that’s all I’m telling you. The rest is private. You might not think there can be a privacy that has three people in it, but what do you know?
The only problem, the real problem now, is that Emmolene still wants to come all the way out into the open. It’s wonderful that me and Wilma and the grannies know all about her and she can relax, but it turns out that all that did was whet her appetite. She’s a social woman. She likes to be out and about.
And I’m not going to be able to put her off much longer. People need to see these paintings. They really need to know about Emmolene.
Jack Butler is the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and was himself an ordained minister but has not worked in that capacity since he was a very young man.
He is a poet, novelist, and essayist. His novel, Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Atlantic, and New York Times Book Review. Other novels include Jujitsu For Christ, and Nightshade, (a vampire-on-Mars tale. Hawk Gumbo and Other Stories is his first story collection. His poetry books are The Kid Who Wanted to be a Spaceman and West of Hollywood. He also published a cookbook called Jack’s Skillet. Jack now lives in Eureka, California.
This short story plus “Hawk Gumbo” and “Mrs. Lookadoo’s Walkabout” are published in our 2022 anthology, Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction).
Also by Jack Butler, published by Mud Flat Press:
Practicing Zen Without a License