Monthly Archives: June 2014

“….Is the Word”

Fill in the blank in my title for this post and you’ll have a good idea of where I’m going. And you can thank The Jersey Boys, the latest movie to re-visit the days of music past. And bring the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to an entirely new group of listeners.

We’ve been playing The Best of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in rotation as one of our in-store plays at the bookstore and when we do, one of two things usually happens: a teen or twenty-something female walks in and says “You’re playing The Jersey Boys, right?” and seems confused for a moment when we smile and say something like, “No, this is the original Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You know, the show was based on them.” Or someone, and here age and gender don’t seem to matter, walks in and says, “Do you have anything by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I just saw Jersey Boys and loved it! Have you seen it? You need to.” When we have the CD(s), we find them for the customer…but it doesn’t take much to deplete our stock. One bright note? We finally have the movie soundtrack in stock as well as the original cast recording.

My point? Every so often this generation of music-lovers, whether they love Maroon Five or Birdy, Sarah Brightman or Alfie Boe, feels the tug of the music that went before. If you listen, you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry on The Beatles, Bob Dylan on folk and protest songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, even the classic tenor of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. But more importantly the music itself resurfaces thanks to movies, Broadway’s new crop of musicals, even Pandora.
Grease brought back the doo wop and rock of the early sixties coupled with the now almost extinct Drive-In and high school hangouts…bowling alleys, drag races, and young love. The music was fantastic for those of us who’d been there back in the day as well as our kids. Eddie and the Cruisers with a young Tom Berenger and Michael Pare as members of a band making the transition from oldies to hard rock showcases some great music written by John Fogerty. Dark Side is still one of my favorite tracks from this one. Hair and the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night brought an entire generation into the late ‘60s with music influenced by the times and earlier artists but still unique. Today Broadway offers everything from Sweeney Todd to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder and the latest Rap musical based on the writings of Tupac Shakur. In between we can discover both old and new music in movies, television series, and the plethora of radio (yes, radio) stations, FM, online, Sirius, the aforementioned Pandora, and iTunes.

Me? I was extremely fortunate to have parents who believed in music. I’ve listened to everything from Big Bands to Ragtime to Elvis to whatever artist is playing right now in the coffee shop where I write. I love it all, sing along as much as I can when I can, look for ways to hear it live. I cannot imagine a world without music and melody. And neither could Plato…“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.” What about you?

PS. Mae will be back…she got sidetracked on her way home by a late-night Second Line on Frenchman’s Street, but never fear. Mae dances whenever she can but never forgets where she needs to be.

second line

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Hamlet Had a Point

Branagh hamlet

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So says Hamlet to his friend. And it’s true. It’s also true, as Hamlet should have known, that things can change in a heartbeat, reality can throw curve balls, and the way to decision can be murky even when we think we know all the answers.
Everyone has heard or read “Expect the unexpected!” at least once, whether it advertises a new movie, a grand opening of anything from an amusement park to a new shopping ‘experience’ or a three ring circus. We may be tempted to laugh at the silliness of a new surprise or astonishment being attempted in this day and age. So much has become commonplace; technology is still a mystery to some but used every day by most. We’re not surprised by anything, right? Perhaps we should be. When all is said and done, Life is the unexpected.
Sounds rather heavy, doesn’t it? The responsibility we have to navigate the churning waters of good and bad times, happiness and sorrow, sometimes flowing with the current, often paddling like hell against the wind. It can be daunting. Not worthy of the effort. Easy to hand the blame for our failures off on others. Especially when we do it all ourselves. I posted an earlier blog about friends so I’ll try not to repeat myself here, but the truth is this: friends and family make the journey through the unexpected easier to deal with most of the time.
But Hamlet, whether he meant to or not….and being in a perpetual state of melancholy not is probably more likely…also makes it clear that Heaven and Earth hold opportunity as well as obligation. While he entreats his friends to swear they will not disclose what they have seen, Horatio is struck by the strange wonder of it all. That possibilities exist outside his life experience so far amazes him. No matter what comes after…and of course we know it isn’t going to be good…Horatio at least knows there’s more to be had.
Even today we can and should share in Horatio’s sense of wonder. His friendship to Hamlet is a good one, his heart true. He is a prime example of good; even when surrounded by doubts he stands by his friends. He is also willing to take a chance now and then rather than sit back in the wings and watch the play go on without him. If he meets obstacles, he tries harder. When he fails, he mourns the failure and then goes on. When he succeeds, he celebrates and shares his good fortune with his friends. At least I’d like to think so, for while Hamlet has a point so does Horatio. Trust, believe in yourself and your possibilities, be a good friend, and look for the wonder of the unexpected. The caveat? Be prepared for the tragedy as well.

Of course this all can be said of Mae. Never one to sit back and let things happen, she takes the reins and acts to make things better, protect her brother, and help her friends. If it lands her in hot water, well…

Mae
Never push a Scotsman. Or Scots-anyone for that matter. I may be little but I’m fast, and I wasna’ about to be manhandled by someone whose manners needed changing. So I kicked him. Hard. Would’ve been harder if I’d been wearing me boots, but it did the trick. His low pitched voice rose three octaves and would have shamed the most respected coloratura soprano in England. It also brought Madame Marie-Therese striding through the doorway from the dining room to the foyer.
“Mon dieu, Benard! Such noise is not allowed in this residence. What in the world possessed you to…”
“He attacked me” from me and a “She kicked me” from Benard assaulted her ears at the same moment.
“I was just doing my job, Madame,” I said in me best manner, giving her just enough worship to keep her on me side as I flew down the stairs. “He snuck up on me and grabbed my shoulder. Gave me a bruise I expect. And then tried to murder me.”
“Murder you?” Well, maybe I’d taken it a bit far considering the tone in Marie’s voice.
“Oh Madame what would you think if someone you’d not laid eyes on before started grabbing at you and pushing you toward this long steep staircase? I feared for me life, I did. But I managed to get away long enough to kick him. In his…”
“Never mind, Miss Mae,” she cautioned me, “I will deal with Benard. Have you finished the family quarters?” I nodded. “Then you have my permission to take some time to collect yourself. Cook has prepared some tea and sandwiches for us in the garden. I’ll join you shortly and you may tell me exactly what transpired here.” She turned to my assailant, still slightly bent over and holding on to the railing as he took the stairs one at a time. “Benard, I will see you in my office.”

I had introduced myself to the cook, a lovely woman from Lafourche Parish…she volunteered that once she asked where I was from. I could call her Lila if I wished. It was only in front of the Madame (she meant Marie-Therese and not the mistress of the mansion) that we must be more formal. I had heard most of her and her family’s history, although she’d heard none of mine, by the time Madame Marie came through the kitchen door and joined us at the wrought iron table.
“That will be all, Cook,” she intoned as she sat down. “There is dinner to consider. Both the Mister and Mistress will be in tonight, so the usual number will dine in the smaller dining room. I expect Miss Mae here will be able to assist you in setting up the room. That of course meant I would. I didn’t mind. Lila had been here long enough to know if there was anything strange going on and chatty enough to tell me if I asked. As long as Madame was occupied elsewhere.
“Well, Miss Mae.” Madame poured herself a cup of tea and regarded me with no little concern. “It seems you and Benard have gotten off on the wrong foot.” The left one, I thought but kept me humor to meself. “Benard is one of the Mister’s business associates. He did not know we had hired a replacement for the last housekeeper and so was quite taken aback to see someone upstairs attempting to enter a private room.”
I was only doing me job,” I said meekly. And I’m sure he was doing his, although that was another musing I kept to myself. “And he did attack me, Madame.”
“Yes. Well I may assure you that I have spoken to him quite strongly about his actions and he is now aware of your position in the household. He sends his regrets in causing you any fright or discomfort and hopes you will forgive his rash actions.”
“Of course, Madame. I regret my own response was so extreme.” Like hell I did. I knew what he was up to.
“I do however have to repeat his caution to you. That room is locked and will remain so. There is no one in residence there at the moment. It is quite small so we—the family—use it mostly for storage. There is no need to trouble yourself with cleaning the items in there. They’re nicely covered or crated. Now. Have we an understanding?” I kept my eyes downcast as I nodded. No way could she see that her caution had made that little room the one place I needed to see.

Lila and I worked well together in preparing the dinner. She showed me what preparations need to be done, so after I had set linen and flatware for six people I returned to the spacious kitchen and began to chop the vegetables for the evening meal. There was more food prepared by the two of us then I’d seen in a week, and that included the unexpected bounty at the shelter.
“Prime rib is the family favorite,” Lila informed me as she lightly basted the main course in a mixture of herbs and spice. “They insist on no seasonings, but I cannot serve any meat without some enhancement so I make this gentle marinade and …” she smiled, “you will see how little there is left on the platter.”
The activity in the mansion increased as the dinner hour neared. Of course, I had discovered that dinner was often served later in the evening that I had been accustomed to in other places. There was an extended pre-dinner cocktail hour, complete with small but savory crackers, cheeses, and something called cruditays. These looked like vegetable sticks to me, but evidently they were meant to be dipped in a sauce and then eaten. I tried to be as invisible as possible as I moved around picking up empty glasses and plates and making sure the table which displayed the snacks never went naked. Lila was still involved with the main course and the garlic mashed potatoes which had to be “as smooth as a babe’s bottom or Mister will send them back”. Madame Marie was nowhere in sight despite her elevated position on the staff, so I was free to observe my employers. I had never met either of them; the Mister a tall dark and athletic looking man whose eyes looked out at the world through tinted glasses contrasted sharply to his Missus, petite, auburn haired (although it was too perfect to be natural), and stylish in flared pants and a floral blouse and sash. Not Celine. Each acknowledged me with a nod but afterwards looked through me rather than at me. Suited my purpose just fine since I wanted them to know I worked there but not who I really was.

My duties after dinner were simple and quickly accomplished. Each night I was to turn down the beds in the occupied rooms, make sure there was fresh water in the cut glass pitchers on the nightstands, and leave a small light burning. I helped Lila with the post-dinner clean-up and then filled a large carafe from the filtered water machine next to the mammoth refrigerator. Making sure I had a soft cloth in my pocket to erase any fingerprints which might mar the polished wood, I headed up the stairs, wondering whether I could risk another try at the locked room.
“Good evening, Miss Mae.” Benard’s voice greeted me as I reached the top of the stairs. Damn.
“Sir, are you planning to attack me again?” I managed to look wary and frightened. In reality I was annoyed. “Or are you on your way to bed? If you are, I will turn your bed down first. May I ask which room it is?” He indicated the room directly behind him and even opened the door for me. I tried to pretend he was not there as I accomplished the various items that needed attention and only gave him a brief nod as I hurried into the hallway.
“Miss Mae,” Again? I turned and raised one eyebrow at him.
“Sir?”
“I have been instructed to assure you that I meant you no real harm this afternoon.” He leaned against the door jam to his room. “I hope you know that.”
“I do,” I said. No real harm? I could feel the bruise on my shoulder. It would be purple and green by the time I got home. “And I apologize for…defending myself so harshly.”
“Just remember to avoid the room by the stairs. I would hate to have to remind you.” Without waiting for an answer, Benard turned and went into his room. As he shut the door firmly behind him, I took a deep breath. Family business associate my eye. Family thug more likely. Maybe Sylvain could enlighten me.

It was 10PM before I walked out to St. Charles and managed to catch the next streetcar heading toward the Quarter. Everything hurt, especially my shoulder and a few other muscles I hadn’t used for a while. I had questions for Sylvain, not just about Benard but about the family into whose lives I’d been dropped. Neither one of us was going to get much rest until I got some answers to help me in my search. And permission to search for more than just a missing sister.

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Fathers and Daughters

There’s so much unsaid in the definition of “father”. Whether the word is defined as “any male ancestor” or “a man who has a child”, each person fitting these broad strokes adds his own unique qualities, good or bad. We murmur “what a good father” when we see a man playing with or tending to his children. We criticize if we think a dad doesn’t pay enough attention or spend enough time with his son or daughter. We can do all this without even knowing the person involved. Why? Because we tend to judge others by the same standards our parents had for parenting, good or bad. It happens.

It’s much the same with daughters. How many times have you heard “She’s her father’s daughter” because a female child has shown characteristics, interests, and ambitions close to her dad’s rather than closer to what her mom’s goals might be? Good or bad, we make the comparison and then go our own ways never bothering to wonder if someone is saying the exact same thing about us.

Sometimes I wonder how people would characterize me. It’s Father’s Day and I’m thinking about my dad and how much I miss him. We used to talk every Sunday, him in Florida and me in my kitchen. Before cell phones. We might not talk for long, but I always felt better afterwards. I was his first child, the one that came after so many tries and sadness, and I look like him. I have no problem with that. He was quite the good looking man back in the day, and I have a picture of him in his slacks, suspenders and jaunty hat that always makes me smile.
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He put on some weight as he got older, seemed to shrink a little, but was forever cheerful in our presence. His parents came over from Germany (or Poland or Russia, depending on who was ruling at the time) before he was born, at the beginning of the 20th Century. He was born in 1913, the third oldest of eleven children and spent most of his time helping his family farm before leaving school at 15 to go to work in the Big City as a teller for First National Bank of Chicago.1929. I can’t remember whether the First closed its doors on black Friday, but I know my dad was working there three days afterwards so my bet is no. It was his only job and he retired at the age of 62 having worked in most areas of the bank. Monday through Friday he’d ride the old Rock Island commuter line from the station at the end of our block down to the old LaSalle Street Station and then walk the few blocks to Clark and Dearborn where the old bank building stood tall. There is no more Rock Island (Metra), no more LaSalle Street Station (Randolph Street) and First National has over the years become a different entity altogether (JP Morgan-Chase), but I remember going to visit him at work with a clarity that amazes me. It’s more than likely why, even after going to college to become a teacher of Spanish, I got a job at a bank after I got married. So did my sister once she graduated from high school. Our father’s daughters? I’ve since found out that somewhere in our ancestry banking was a family profession.

Every summer, especially in June, I think about the vacations we took. Always Wisconsin, at least when we were small, right after school let out in June, when the fish in the Northern lakes were biting. Dad was a sportsman in his younger days. We have pictures of our uncles and him pheasant hunting in the west, but after we came along he stuck to fishing. The only proof we had of his prowess with a rifle was a stuffed pheasant that perched on one of the end tables in the living room. As kids we were bored, but fishing was a way to spend time with both mom and dad so we learned early on to bait hooks and sit quietly in boats, our bamboo poles over the side, our eyes fixed on red and white bobbers. I don’t think I’ve fished since I was eighteen, but I have some good memories…even if we did end up wearing winter coats one June.
Mom might have been the disciplinarian but you didn’t want my dad to be angry with you. He didn’t have to say much to let you know how disappointed he was in you. And he didn’t forget easily either. But he did forgive, and he was as supportive as he could be when he believed you’d acted in the right way, even if it wasn’t the most popular one. He always somehow had our backs.

The autumn after my mom died I went off to college, at his insistence because education was so important to both my parents. I didn’t see him every day. And when I did come home I spent more time with my friends than with him. He was forever going to be there, right? And he was. He was there through my wedding, the birth of his only grandchild, and all the ups and downs of my life. He was as close as a 2 hour car ride. It was easy to take it for granted that he would always be that close. And then one night he called to tell me he was getting re-married. And moving to Florida. Wow.
Our stepmom loved to travel, and got my dad back in the mood as well. Two or three times a year they would hop in their car and come north to visit. They always stayed with my sister…she had more room and most of the family was still in the suburbs…but we managed a few visits coming and going. It was good to see him happy again. And during that time, he got to know my daughter as she grew up into a fantastic young woman and married a wonderful man. More memories and more trips. One or two medical issues, but never really serious. It was my stepmom who passed first, and for three years he was alone in Bartow. We still talked, but we saw each other far less. My sister finally convinced him to move back up north. He never did.
Dad lived to be 91 ½ years old. From the time we knew there was something wrong until the day he died was a period of three weeks. And we got to be there to say we love you, goodbye and god-speed. He still lives on in us though….we are proud to be our father’s daughters and granddaughter. He taught us much, and I hope I’ve passed it on.

One last thing. In October, 2013 we met at my sister and brother-in-law’s Florida home. On the 11th, we went to my dad’s favorite restaurant on the outskirts of Bartow Florida, Catfish Country. To celebrate his 100th birthday. His picture graced the table, we ate catfish, and we celebrated the man who had given us so much. Love you Dad. Always.
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In the Neighborhood

neighborhood

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood”. Who doesn’t remember Fred Rogers donning his trademark sweater and sneakers as he invited us to share his neighborhood, a blend of fact and fiction based on some of Mr. Rogers’ own experiences. Introducing us to Mr McFeeley and Daniel Tiger.
Daniel Tiger

We went to the bakery, the post office, the school, saw people doing jobs we’d never seen but just heard of, and learned that any boy and girl is capable of doing great things and having fun. Every day.
My own childhood neighborhood mixed older people, newly married couples, parents of grown up children who still lived at home (back in the day it happened more often than not), and parents of growing children who used the street for everything from riding bikes to playing tag and sledding down the hill in winter. These days I tell people I grew up in the ‘burbs…Chicago to be exact, but as a kid? Blue Island was its own city, not an extension of the Big City to the north and east…the one run by the Daley clan and cohorts. Schools, churches, a wonderful main street which ran north to the Chicago “city limits” and south to who knew where, a lovely mix of almost every European heritage.(There were rumors we even had a branch of Da Mob in our little burg.) My own block housed families with Italian names, German names, a French name or two, and Polish. We had the distinction of being a melting pot twice a day Monday through Friday as commuters parked their cars along our curbs and hurried to the commuter train station at the end of our street, an added bonus for us because my father didn’t have to go far to catch his ride to work at the old First National Bank of Chicago. And, we could take the train on school holidays to see Disney movies, go to the museums, and meet my dad for lunch in the bank’s cafeteria or go to The Forum…one of the largest buffet restaurants (although it too was considered a cafeteria back in the day) in the Windy City. We rooted for the White Sox, the Cubbies, the Bears and the Blackhawks and any other team that happened to come along bearing the first name “Chicago”. But at the end of the day we went home to our own neighborhood, tired and happy to see the green porch steps of our own little house.
People talked to each other back then more than they seem to now. As kids, my sister and I used to fidget whenever Mom stopped to chat with someone. If their own children weren’t around so we could play while the adults talked, it was downright boring. Today, a lot of us are lucky if we know the names of the people who live two doors down the block. Unless we see a moving van, we may not even know a family is moving until we notice a new car or face passing by with a wave of the hand. We wave back, but I can count the names of the people I know these days on one hand. Times change. If your children are grown and gone, there’s not a lot to share with the young couple whose kids are looking for playmates. If you work full time, it takes an extra effort to connect with the people not right next door to you. It’s possible, just not always easy. Life moves at a faster pace.
My point is not as depressing as you might think given the wistful tone of the last paragraph. I’m one of those generations who can truly remember the “good old days” when Fourth of July parades meant following the last entry to the city park for picnics and fireworks and family reunions. Not planned, just impromptu get- togethers of cousins and grandparents and pick up softball or badminton. Neighborhood block parties with music and hamburgers and Jell-o salads. Summer carnivals at the three different Catholic churches in our area complete with Italian Ice and Tilt-A-Whirls. It’s just that our neighborhoods have gotten busier and bigger. And that can be a good thing. Instead of being insulated, we’re exposed to new places and people. We can learn there is a world beyond the end of our street just by watching PBS or going to a movie. Museums are still there, many more than you’d think, just check the listing for museums in Chicago. Champaign has her own share; art, natural history, Champaign County history. You just have to know where to look. And find the time to go. It’s important that we do, y’know?
One final point and then you can have another visit with Mae, who has also ventured into a new neighborhood on her latest adventure. Neighborhoods are all around us…and summer is one of the best times to explore them. Check out your news source (online or otherwise) for what’s going on around you. Some of it is free, some of it is in your own backyard. Festivals, summer theatre, the local water park….it’s all become part of the larger neighborhood. Enjoy!

Mae

If I take the time to describe my new place of work to you it’s only because you need to know the lap of luxury into which my feet walked that morning. Shining white in the mid-morning sun, two stories with a wide porch, windows from floor to ceiling on one side of the bright green door—I found out later that people used to enter and leave through these windows rather than use the formality of the front door—that led to the first parlor. Wrought iron fence restraining the glorious colors of the flower bushes and a live oak planted centuries ago showing its bones after the autumn leaves had dried and dropped to its roots. Ebony shutters—for protection from the hurricanes I was told but so ornate they served as decorations for the house itself. On the opposite side of the house from the small gate I was told to enter was a gated drive with two fancy cars parked on concrete that reached the length of the house.
I opened the small gate and walked slowly down the stone walk leading to the rear of the house, watching my steps and inhaling the fragrance of the trees that somehow still held their blossoms. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the ornate chain that hung to the side of a plain wooden door and waited. I glanced quickly to either side and got a quick glimpse of what looked like a small landscaped pond before the door opened and my work began.
“Good mornin’ to ya,” I said in me best Scots burr. “Me name is Mae McFarland, and I’m your new housekeeper.”
“We’ll see about that. Bring yourself inside. Wipe your feet. And I will be needing those papers from the agency that sent you” The woman’s tone implied there was no way in Hades I’d be in her domain any longer than it took to scan through the folder I produced from my bag and handed into the talon-like fingers of her right hand. “My name is Marie-Therese Bienville. Madame or Miss Marie to you. If you stay.” Oh I was staying. Madame indeed. I bit the inside of me cheek to keep me from telling her though. Sylvain was depending on me to at least find his sister and I couldn’t do that from street. She flipped through the papers so quickly I figured I’d be out the door through no fault of my own and then stopped.
“It says here you spent several years as head housekeeper for…really? The de Villiers of Lafayette? You don’t seem the type to…”
“Madame Marie,” I interrupted, “pardon my boldness, but Mrs. Rebecca would be the first to tell you that my looks and demeanor are far surpassed by my abilities and efficiency. Their home was,” and I paused a bit for effect, “far more ornate than this one, as lovely as it is and I had only one maid to help me most days. I’m sure you must have heard of the many parties and functions necessary to their social status.” I threw her a bone. “And I know your employers were probably guests there more than once during my employ.” I smiled my best smile and waited.
“Of course.” I could sense the indignation coursing through her stick-thin form at any suggestion otherwise. Even the tight chignon at the nape of her long neck quivered. “So. Mae…”
“Mrs. Roberta called me Miss Mae, if that meets with your approval,” I said.
“As you wish. As I was going to say, we have several rooms which have not been tended to since our last housekeeper departed. They were to be your audition. Standard protocol for employment here. However, with your references, I’m sure there is no problem. When are you available?” Her attempt at politeness was accompanied by a smile, although it looked more like a grimace. Her right foot betrayed her impatience as it tapped briskly on the parquet floor.
“If I may look around the rooms I’m to tend, I can decide which supplies I’ll be needing.” I held up a hand to stop her protest. “Mrs. Rebecca favored certain items for fine wood and such and I’m sure you wouldn’t question her taste.”
“Of course,” she said again, her tone flat. “We can tour the house now if you like.” Her jaws clenched, she led me through the mud room, the ultra-modern kitchen, all steel and glass, and into the dining room, walls deep red with brass sconces and wall hangings so heavy I knew one could crush me with no trouble. A heavy oak table reigned in the middle of the long room, chairs pushed against it in precise order. “We hire someone to clean the tapestries,” she informed me. “Here and in the parlor. Not for you to worry about.”
The rest of the house was explained in much the same fashion although there were two rooms near the rear of the first floor that were “not to be entered without permission” as they were the Mister’s offices. Piqued my curiosity with that, she did. I made a note in my brain to ask Sylvain whether I should try and again access. The second floor was “family” and “guest” quarters. Here I was to arrange times with the occupants as to when was most convenient to tidy their rooms. Odd, I thought, but then it might give me a chance to chat with each person and get additional information. Especially about Celine. No restrictions on entry according to Madame, and no small ones or nanny mentioned. I would have expected something if there was a woman being held here against her will. Another concern for Sylvain I decided.
“…And your room of course will be on the third floor,” was the sentence that brought me out of my musings. Stay here? No. And no. I must have frowned at that, so quick was her reaction. “You knew of course that the housekeeper resides here?”
“That was not mentioned to me, Madame. Had it been, I would not have come. At the de Villiers I was there from late morning until after the children had gone to bed, but I had my own small apartment. Not the ordinary situation, I know, but….”
“And not acceptable.”
“I have an invalid brother, Madame Marie.” Drum was not well, that was true. “We can afford daycare for his needs, one of the reasons I work of course, but I’m the only one who can tend to him at night. “ And I have to be able to report to Sylvain as well. Not easy if I was trapped on the third floor of a busy house. “If this is not acceptable, as you say, I give you my sincere regrets. Mrs. Rebecca…”
“Be here at 9AM tomorrow morning, Miss Mae.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I will clear this with the Missus and will have a decision for you then.”

I left the mansion the way I’d come in, making sure not to look back to see if Marie-Therese was watching. I knew she was. That last about not being a live-in housekeeper was a departure from the plan, but I wasn’t about to leave Drummond on his own for who knows how long, even if Sylvain promised to watch him like a hawk. New digs or not, Drummond had his ways of disappearing on me, and I knew him. Sylvain had no idea.

“You what?” I’d expected my partner in crime to explode when I mentioned the change in arrangements to him. He and Drum had met me at the church and walked me down to our crib; an abandoned two story building not that far from the shed I’d been in not long before. My trunk and Drum’s duffel were near a long scarred wooden table, an electrical outlet nearby so we could plug in the hot plate I carried with us. Old cabinets lined one wall, high enough off the planked floor to keep the creepy crawlers away. The far wall was split by tall windows overlooking the railroad tracks which skirted the narrow strip of land at the banks of the Mississippi. There was sun, but indirect, and each window wore a faded cloth shade with a long pull string. We could shut out the night or the day whenever we wanted. I thanked Sylvain for the rooms and then dropped my bombshell. His smile vanished, his face clouded in dismay. “That was not what we agreed, Mae.”

“I don’t recall me being apart from me brother any part of this arrangement, Mr. Lionel,” I said. “Especially when it takes 20 minutes on the streetcar and a good walk to get to him if need be. It’s my way on this, Sylvain. Family trumps all.”

I’ll give the man credit. The last sentence caught him in the gut. I could tell, but he didn’t do more than simply nod his head. I gave him a minute to digest my speech and then set about unpacking. “I see your point, Mae,” he finally muttered. “I don’t like it, but I see it. And you’re right. But it cuts your chances of locating Celine.” He perched on the edge of the table and watched me work. “If you’re only there during the day, I mean.”

“I see it a bit different. Even with entertaining, and from some of the dust I see in the parlor there’s not much socializing right now, I’m not off duty until after dinner. Marie-Therese wants her twelve hour day, so I start at 9 and end at 9. From what I noticed today, the house is bigger than they need. No children’s toys or any need for the number of bedrooms on that second floor except for guests. Once I’m there, I believe Marie-Therese will disappear, either into an office or out the door. She seemed edgy enough to have been cooped up doing the housekeeper’s job for long enough. My bet is once she sees I know my job she’ll make herself scarce. Since my job is to clean, my best chance to find out whether Celine is even in the house is when I do the bedrooms. Any jewelry or other something that she wouldn’t ever leave behind? And a likeness would be nice.”
“I don’t keep pictures on me, Mae. Just in case.” In case what he didn’t say, but it added to the mystery I’d felt in this man from the get-go. A friend of Morales’ maybe, but not too anxious to share more. “But Celine always took pride in her hair. Kept it in one of those twisty arrangements that take a week to do. Dark dark hair. Not black but so close. The one thing I know she would have with her is an old locket with a small picture of our grandmother. Celine was named after her. If she’s not wearing it, it would be on her bed stand. You’ll know it because it’s a rectangle rather than round or heart shaped. And she’s tiny. Petite. But she wears these ridiculous heels.” Sylvain smiled at that. “I used to tease her about being able to cross the River without getting her hem wet.” Then he sighed. “We have to find her, Mae. Before something goes more wrong than it already is.”

“I’ll do what I can, but you need to promise not to press me. And to keep an eye on Drummond. Maybe he can spend time with Artie and his friends and get some work done around the church. Kind of pay back for our food and shelter there.”
“Done.”
“All right. Then get yourself out of here so Drum and I can get settled in. I’ll need some supplies for cleaning…I mentioned that my previous employer had certain pricey preferences…and maybe another set of clothes or two. Who knows how much dirt I’ll find?”

And so the next morning, precisely at 9AM, I was back at the mansion. Evidently my prior employment had been enough to induce the Missus to allow me to do my job and leave when the job was done. Bless the de Villiers for their social status. Now to set my own schedule. I waited until Marie-Therese had given me the news and then gave her some news of my own.

“Please thank the Missus for me for being kind enough to allow me to commute. Now as to my schedule for cleaning…”
“What schedule? “
“Surely each room does not need cleaning every day, Madame Marie. Of course I will make exceptions when there is entertaining on the calendar, but I believe the rooms not in use on a daily basis can be tended to every few days. The bedrooms however…”
“What about the bedrooms?” I could hear a tinge of suspicion in her tone.
“Every morning and early afternoon, depending on the sleep habits of the occupant, it has been my habit to not only make the beds but check to make sure there are no stains or soil on the bedding or the floors. Mrs. Rebecca was quite particular about that. Each member of the family got fresh linen twice a week, both in the bedroom and in the bath. I simply assumed that was the case here as well.”
“Well, it hasn’t been necessary for….”
“I’m not referring to rooms not being used at the moment, Madame. But when guests come those rooms will be freshened as well. Don’t you agree?” I reminded myself not to have too much fun with this, but I admit to relishing the discomfort on her narrow face.

“Oh yes, of course. But the Missus…”
“…deserves a well-run and spotlessly clean house,” I finished for her. “Now I have my supplies with me, so if it meets with your say so, I’d like to begin with the master bedroom. Would you show me the rooms again?”

“You remember that the offices on the first floor are not to be cleaned without permission, do you not?”
“So you said yesterday. But they are cleaned occasionally?” In case I need an excuse to get in there. If Celine wasn’t here, it might be my next move.
“Yes. The Mister lets me know, and I pass on the information and the key to you on the day he designates. The third floor is now off limits. Since you are not staying here, there is no need to concern yourself with that level.” Which meant that I would of course concern myself.
The second tour complete, I assured Madame I would let her know when I was done so she could inspect my work and then ignored her. After watching me strip the monster of a bed in the master bedroom, she excused herself and went down the stairs, heels clicking on the polished wooden steps. I took a deep breath and walked across the carpet to the doorway. I needed a cuppa but that was out of the question. I took note of the scattered area rugs that dotted the hallway. Useful if I wanted to cross from one side to the other without making noise, which I did several times as I opened the door of each room to see if it had been occupied. If it had, I cleaned it, changing the sheets as I went. Madame had pointed out the linen closet to me of course, with sheets coordinated to the room colors. Wasteful, I decided. Drum and me, well… I squashed the thought and kept on going until I reached the last room; the one located near the back stairs. I turned the knob with no luck. Locked. The clatter of steps on the stairway alerted me, but it wasn’t Marie-Therese who appeared, but a man in a well tailored suit and patent loafers. His shaved head and the frown on his face reassured me not one bit. As I stepped back from the door, he reached me and grabbed my shoulder.
“That room is off limits. And who the hell are you?” Before I could open my mouth, he pushed me toward the staircase.

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Give Yourself a Present

gifts

With the way life barrels on these days it’s a wonder any of us knows exactly where we’re going, not to mention where we’ve been. Frequently I have to remind myself what day it is. Three day weekends or vacation time can warp my sense of time… not the hours necessarily but the days of the week. When I’m working my schedule keeps me on track with little trouble, but a day off mid-week or a shift picked up to help a co-worker can make me question whether it’s Thursday, Friday, or even Monday (when I usually don’t work…my day to do all those pesky things like appointments and cleaning).
I know I’m not alone in this confused state. People I work with or talk to often tell me they need reminding of times and dates. We all write down our schedules for work. I transfer mine to a wall calendar and my smartphone. Business types use their day planners, paper or electronic, to keep track of their multi-tasking lifestyles and plan things from one day to one year ahead. I envy those who can simply look at their future duties once and remember where and when, and a lot of the time why.
But, these appointments and commitments don’t just fall to us alone. My clinic for example will call me several times to remind me not only of my appointment “on Monday, June 2nd at 9AM” but also to “arrive 15 minutes early” and “bring your health insurance information”. While I’m grateful for their support I wish they could also tell me if my doctor is running on time on the actual date of my appointment. I don’t have that far to drive, but sitting in a waiting room without any idea of how long my simple follow up visit will take always seems to raise my otherwise normal blood pressure. Hence the Monday scheduling. It helps to keep me relatively calm. My pharmacy does the same thing for my auto-fill prescriptions…every 24 hours or so until I pick up the meds. Sometimes irritating but always a good thing, right?
So, what can I…any of us really…do to slow things down? Well, I’ve decided that for me living in the “now” one day a week might be a worthy experiment. Since most of my Mondays are planned out appointment wise for one thing or another, I’ve decided to “give myself a present” on Sundays. Get up in the morning and decide then and there what I will do for this one day. Yesterday I decided to do a bit of laundry, clean one room in the house and get some writing done away from the house before tackling anything else, including dinner.
It won’t be perfectly spontaneous of course. I will be making dinner, and Sunday evenings are my talk-time with my daughter. Exceptions are rare (and usually planned ahead of time). Still, the Sunday slots on my calendar are bare. Me time. I’ll let you know how it works. Maybe we can start a whole new (or old-fashioned) trend. The past is a memory. Our future awaits us. So we deserve to give ourselves a present.
And yes, a bit of Mae follows: enjoy! And let me know what you think.

Mae
It would be lyin’ to say I slept well, but by the dawning of the delta sun I knew I was going to help Sylvain. If it had been anything but family, I’d more likely have turned him down flat, friend of Alex or no. Family however is how and why I ended up traipsin’ all over creation after Drummond. Family trumps everything, at least for me. Time enough for me own wishes when my current task is done. Sylvain and I had set a signal to protect me in case I agreed. Drummond was to get himself to the Riverwalk around noon and settle down near the man with the saxophone who always played on the steps. Sylvain would be waiting nearby, but Drum would drop a coin in the sax man’s case as a sign that I was ready to lend my assistance to his cause. The sax man would nod at me brother and hand him a flyer, but really be giving him the instructions for where I was to go later in the day.

Now I trust Drummond but only for a whisper of time. He can get distracted like a puppy out for its first walk, so I got myself dressed up a bit, borrowed a broad-brimmed hat from the rack near the shelter door, and left a bit after he did. I only needed to make sure he got the job done, seein’ as he was gonna be on his own for a day or two at the shelter. Once he took got to the sax man I hightailed it back to the shelter steps, ready to greet him on his return.

And he took his sweet time too. It wasn’t until well after the volunteers had finished their lunch shifts before I saw him loping up the street, his usually pale face tinged with pink from the sun and the exertion.
“Sorry I took so long, Mae,” he greeted me. “I had to wait a bit for him to finish his tune before I could place the coin and then I thought it would be rude not to stay to listen to another. You don’t mind, do you?” He reached inside his vest pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper advertising some club or restaurant and handed it to me. “Here’s the message. I didn’t even read it.” He sank down beside me with a half-gasp and stretched out his long frame against the steps.
“Wouldn’t have mattered to me if you did,” I assured him as I unfolded the flyer and noted an address and a time. That was all. “You’re involved because I am, so you need to know what I do. All I’ve got is instructions to go to the Old Mint near Frenchman’s Street about 5PM and settle myself on one of the stoops. That’s where Sylvain will find me and get me the details.”
“Should I follow and keep watch?”
“No need, dear one. It’s a meeting, nothing more. I’ll be back here for the supper hour and lights out unless our friend has found a place for us to be settled in right away. See if you can line up some gardening work from the custodian to keep you occupied.” I didn’t want to scare him, but life being what it is I thought to add, “and if I’m not back right away do not come looking for me. No worries, brother. Promise?”
“Aye Mae. I’ll bide my time here and try and earn a bit for us while you’re gone.”

Now I may be trusting as I said before, but I left the church shelter early and with one of those touristy maps in me hand. I was still not comfortable about wandering in the Quarter. Too many people out at the late afternoon hour, meeting for drinks, shopping, or just hanging about to soak in the atmosphere. I scanned the map until I found the icon for the Old Mint at the far end of the Quarter, and the street marked Frenchman’s. I read the street signs as I walked and looked at the map like a regular tourist, turning when I needed to but all in all trying to keep away from the Jackson Square where I’d met Sylvain the first time. I am cautious and twice seen in that area was more than enough for recognition, especially with me red hair and all. The one street I avoided was Bourbon Street. Too many people milling in and out of those gaudy bars already.
Dusty red brick and cracked granite steps marked the Old Mint. I walked around it once, noted some places to scurry into if need be, and found the street sign I needed. Enough time still before 5PM if I could believe the watch I kept in my dress pocket, so I strolled a bit, found a little store that had bottled water, and looked at the buildings surrounding me, Old. Houses and storefronts maybe older than Drum and me put together in years, but with a faded beauty—painted wood or stone—that surprised and delighted me. I was used to that in Dundee, not so much here on this side of the ocean.
Water gone, I disposed of the bottle and headed back toward the Mint, making sure I would be there early. I settled myself on a low wall near the shade of an ancient tree and waited for Sylvain. Instead, at just past the hour by my watch, I got the head bushwhacker from before.
“Come to ambush me again, laddie?” I pulled myself up and stared at him. “Braver without your lads this time I see. Or more foolish”
“No need to jump, Miss Mae,” he managed as I put my hand on one thin shoulder. “Mr. Sylvain was sidetracked so I volunteered to come and tell you, I swear.”
“Volunteered?”
“Yes, ma’am. And to say how sorry I am if we roughened you up the other day. No harm meant. And now I gotta be taking myself on home.” Before I could tighten my grip, he twisted around and sped down the nearest path.
“You keep strange company, Sylvain,” I muttered. “Sidetracked for how long?” My belly growled, reminding me I’d had naught to eat since breakfast, having given up the midday meal to follow after Drummond. Maybe one of those protein things from that little store would hold me over now that I might not get dinner either. I retraced my steps to purchase such a product and then took my time getting back to my perch, only to find Sylvain’s long form leaning against that tree, looking like he had nothing to worry about.
“Well it took you long enough,” Sylvain remarked around the toothpick in his mouth. “And here I thought you’d be waitin’ on me, so I sent Artie to let you know I was runnin’behind.”
“Artie? One of your bushwhackers. I know. He gave me the message. Skittish as a newborn calf seemed like.” I settled myself on the wall again and gave him one of my best glares. “Thought this was important, Sylvain. Instead I’m wasting my time here instead of finding Drum and me a place. So say your piece. I’ve got things to do too.”
“Now Miss Mae,” he began. And got no further.
“Look Sylvain, I know this is important to you, but the casual way you handle crisis don’t make sense to me. If my brother went missing, I’d be all over the police to find out what they could tell me. You seem to have some good connections, if I’m to believe your story, but all I have is that. So draw me a picture of what you worked out and let me figure out how I can make it work.”
Now I knew I could make it work. Never been any plan that couldn’t be arranged to, but this man was the one piece I fretted over the most. He never could get past his own charm and hunker down to the details. So I waited. And he pulled himself up and sat himself down beside me, giving me a long hard look.
“I’m late because I had to stop at that place I told you about.” He drew a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “You’re to be at this address tomorrow morning at nine. No need to go earlier,” he added as I looked surprised at the time. “This household rises late and stays up late. There’s a side entrance for the help and their cook should be ready to let you in. Marie-Therese is her name. Loyal to the family for longer than I can remember. She’ll give you a key to the side door and show you where the supplies are kept. Tomorrow should be your trial run. Satisfy her and you’re in. Think you can handle it?”
“You know I can or you’d never have pressed me to get involved. But I do need me some proper clothes.”
“Which are waiting for you back at the shelter.” He grinned at my puzzled expression. “I took the liberty of persuading Drummond to write down your size. He had to check your bag.”
“Shoes?”
“Those too. And your Louisiana drivers license.” He grinned again. “Morales sent me a head shot.”
“And where’s my car?”
“The license is just for show, Mae. You’ll be taking the streetcar to and from the house.”
“To where exactly? I can’t have them seein’ me at the shelter. Nor Drummond. Not if I’m supposed to be so good at what I do.”
“Took care of that as well. Once you leave the shelter, Drummond and I are moving you to that place you wanted. Not far from here. It flooded during Katrina and the company folded so I bought it a while back. Thought about turning it into apartments but never got past the thought. Drummond will meet you back here tomorrow afternoon, but he can tell you all that.”
Well. I could go so far as to say I was speechless, but that would be stretchin’ it. I did however gasp for a moment or so before I could say thank you and head back to the shelter to converse with my brother. Sylvain simply nodded and stretched himself back out against the tree again.

Next morning, Thursday to be exact, I took myself over to the address that Sylvain had provided along with the papers from the hiring agency. You’d never know it was heading toward winter by the flowers and shrubs I saw at the edge of every property as the streetcar went on its route up St. Charles Street. The Garden District he’d told me. Took my breath away. The agency paper said to get off the streetcar at Sixth Street and walk to Prytania. Then turn right and look for the house flanked by two white columns and a side yard with a brass-trimmed iron gate. That gate led through the side yard to the staff entrance. And there I would find Marie-Therese. After that it was all up to me.

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