St. Charles at Dusk started as a standalone story, but since then I have written several additional stories about the two central families, the Sullivans and Deschanels. This has turned into a series, The House of Crimson and Clover, and I am currently working on editing the second book, The Storm and the Darkness for publication in 2013.
I’ve decided to post the prologue for St. Charles at Dusk (approximately 600 words), in several installments here on the blog. Depending on how that goes, I may consider posting more of it as well. Obviously it goes without saying that everything I post here is my own creation and is copyrighted. Please do not reblog these entries without permission, however you are welcome to leave comments, and I always answer all of them.
PROLOGUE (Installment 1 of 4)
Present, Summer 2001
It was raining the day I laid my wife to rest. I had been watching her die for months, and it was hard to believe that she should die of something other than what had been killing her.
Water poured down from the heavens in sheets, and puddles formed all around us in the shallow Louisiana ground. I supposed that seemed appropriate and it was just what I could have expected, if one can ever truly prepare for such an event coming to pass.
Everyone donned their black mourning smocks and huddled together near the elaborate tomb under a sea of matching umbrellas as the rain beat down mercilessly. Her friends, family, co-workers, and of course my own people came to say goodbye. I felt hands from everywhere on my back and shoulders, whispering their condolences in low, cautious voices.
Friends of Janie’s that were hers and hers alone, girlfriends from a past that had not included me, also came to pay their respects to me and my daughter Naomi, who took her first steps not long before her mother died. She now stood on her own bravely at my side, her tiny hand glued into mine. Normally lively and talkative in the spirited way of a toddler, she said not a word to me or anyone else the entire day. She occasionally looked up at me with her mother’s big blue eyes and there was pain there, for sure, but I knew she would not understand the source of it until much later. She was simply infected with the general mood and disposition of everyone around her.
It suddenly struck me as funny, despite the somber overtone draped over the day, how even the loudest, most garrulous person could be rendered speechless at a Metairie funeral. Crisp suits and dresses, stickers on their cars that granted them access to the country clubs, and appointments to keep for later in the evening with manicurists and clients. Life did not stop for the dead here the way it did only a few miles away in New Orleans. None of the celebrations of the deceased were found in this cold, crisp suburb. None of the laughing, the gaiety, the sense of family and togetherness like the funerals I was used to, in the Lafayette Cemetery of the Garden District. It would be entirely improper.
And to think, I had gone through this yesterday at the wake. I found it inhumane that our traditions demanded I publicly mourn my wife over and over again. My own grandfather had done this not so very long ago after over fifty years of marriage. My grandmother had been his life partner, and we had been far too concerned with his own well-being, that it was months later that we truly began to mourn her. Yet no one, not even my grandfather, could possibly understand what the last week had been like for Naomi and me, despite the amount of people who came to my side to say that they did. I loved them all for being there, but at the same time hated them for that sense of relief they must feel at knowing when they went home, most of this disappeared for them.
During the service, Naomi cried because everyone around her did. The sorrow of the adults standing around in the rainy cemetery traumatized her. One of Janie’s many aunts would burst suddenly into sobs and Naomi would curl her tiny lips around each other and wail into the musty air. Someone would suddenly notice this. “Poor, sweet darling,” they would say. Oh, how I loved and needed her.
I stood motionless as the event and those part of the event moved like programmed animals around me. Was this really happening? I kept my eyes on Naomi. I would hear someone call my name or move in my direction and I would kneel down in front of my daughter and tend to her. I’m not listening, this action said. Don’t talk to me about this.
It was not, however, the last week that had produced this effect on the two of us; we had been living with this since Janie was diagnosed with breast cancer only a little too late. “Six months,” said the doctor.
What could she possibly do in six months? The doctor delivered the message as if it were better than what he expected. Better than three months, two weeks? How does that change the end result? The fact that Janie would not live to see her twenty-seventh birthday was inevitable with those words. And beyond that, the milestones of Naomi’s life would happen while Janie’s simply ceased to exist. Was six months supposed to warm our hearts with relief?
“Suicide,” people whispered, far from me but still within earshot. I had expected they would talk about it. How could they not? It was the very action that brought everyone together on the overcast day in upscale Metairie, a couple of months too early. Besides, it wasn’t every day that the daughter of a cigar magnate from the “good side of town” decided to throw herself into the raging Mississippi. When she drove her car through the break in the levee out on the west bank of the River Road, it had been nothing short of a miracle that Naomi, sitting in her car seat in the back, emerged without even a scratch.
So grateful I was that the man had stopped his car to help; so completely indebted to him that he had pulled my crying daughter from the car as the powerful torrent threatened to take it from where it lay barely wedged on the muddy bank.
“I tried so hard to get your wife out, son,” the man had said. “The river was just too strong for me.”
He and his wife had come to the service. The man blamed himself for not being able to save them both. I wished I had the presence of mind to disagree, to tell him that if it weren’t for him, my daughter would also be gone. I knew the man had risked his own life to save her.
Was it selfish to wonder how no one, save this kind man and his wife, stopped to wonder why a woman was driving her car through the levee break going twice the speed of other drivers? Had there come a point when even Janie realized the insanity? I felt that these questions would likely torment me until my dying day.
For the service, and especially for Naomi, I swallowed back the anger and confusion that encircled my heart. All the “whys”: Why wouldn’t she try any of the experimental drugs the doctor offered? Why had she turned from me in the end? Why had she taken our daughter out on the River Road that day? By that point, did she even know Naomi was there?
And what about the “hows”: How could someone of sound mind drive a vehicle over a levee and into a raging river with a twelve-month old baby in the back? And how could I not have seen these signs, read them for what they actually meant?
Why and how could she have done such a terrible, terrible thing? Why was I unable to see the signs, to stop her?
You did not love her enough. You did not love her enough to give her what she wanted, and you did not love her enough to let her find someone who would.
I looked down at Naomi and pushed the thoughts away.