The package was on the foyer table. Ordinary brown paper, return label: Pauline Frye. Postmarked New Orleans. Receiving a package would have been likely before the cremation. But subsequent to Aunt Pauline’s death five days ago, it seemed as if the clock was ticking the wrong way.
I lit a cigarette, took a sip of Bourbon, and ripped open the package. De ja vu washed over me. I picked up the small black lacquered jewelry box, wound the tiny key on the bottom and listened to the faint music. When I lifted the lid, a tiny ballerina popped up and spun around. Her hand was missing along with sections of her black painted hair. The tulle skirt had changed from vibrant pink to grubby brown. Lying in the bottom was a small black wiry doll with a white-tipped straight pin stuck between two white button eyes. Turning the doll over I wasn’t surprised to see the black-tipped pin dug deep into the doll’s back. I held the tiny doll in my hand and watched the ballerina as it turned around-and-around-and-around.
In the summer of 1966, things were changing fast. The Beatles were big time, along with the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution, not to mention my mama’s third wedding. I had just turned thirteen, so I was too old for camp, but too young to stay by myself while mama and hubby went honeymooning. So Aunt Pauline came to a decision to be mama’s unpaid helper for a week.
“Tulla, I don’t know what your mama sees in that half-wit Yankee,” said Aunt Pauline. “He’s stout, and his eye makes him seem to always be winkin’, entirely at odds with his lack of humor.” Hubby was cockeyed. One of his eyeballs was kind of lazy; it wanted to rest in the corner of his eye next to his nose. He was very unsure of himself and squinted his eye when he spoke.
After the ceremony, in front of god and everybody, Aunt Pauline offered Hubby some advice on how to handle his cockeyed condition.
“If you don’t want people to look at your messed-up eye, keep your heard straight and look sideways when you talk."
Hubby didn’t face up to her, but mama did. Shaking a spoon smeared with wedding cake in Aunt Pauline’s face, she furiously said, “Sister, I don’t need to tell you you’ve got a lot of nerve! Why don’t you just mind your own damn business, you whore-hopper!
“I may be a whore-hopper,” said Aunt Pauline in a clear, proud voice, “but at least I set my expectation higher then a one-eyed freak.”
It took a minute for mama’s anger to subside and for her to come back to herself. When her breathing slowed, mama made it very plain how she felt about the situation.
“I got someone who loves me. I’m sure your dead husband is rolling over in his grave at the way you’re spending his money like there’s no tomorrow. You think you have more money then God to buy the love of all those deadbeats you whore around with, but one day all that’s going to dry up just like your looks did ten years ago. Mark my words, all you’re going to be left with is a bottle of bourbon and a pack of cigarettes to keep you company.”
Aunt Pauline face burned. She looked at mama and rolled her eyes and mouthed the word “bitch.” My aunt was in a hurry to leave after the reception.
“Hey Tulla, com’ on, we gotta go,” Aunt Pauline yelled from outside. The comb was midway in its journey when I pulled it out, banged it down, ran downstairs, flung open the screen door, and kissed mama under the moss-hung oak. “Vroom, Vroom”. Hubby was in the garage roaring up his motorcycle; he seemed to be busy, so I just waved bye-bye and bounced into the passenger seat of the old black and white 57 Chevy.
“Whoopee! New Orleans, here we come,” I hollered.
Aunt Pauline chuckled and put her hand over her month. She did this when she was going to smile, because she recently had her front tooth broken in half.
She pulled her hand away from her mouth to dig in her pocketbook for the car keys, and said in a deep, raspy Southern drawl, “You know, Tulla, New Orleans is a good place, the life is faster, but the people are much friendlier. They’re a laugh a minute. Things aren’t perfect but people are more honest about the way they feel then they are in Mobile. If you don’t have old money like the Bankheads or the Duboses -- by the way, those names are synonymous with jackass -- you’re just shunned in Mobile.”
Aunt Pauline turned the key and threw the car into gear. The car shot out from the driveway with a squeal. I grabbed the dashboard to brace myself. I looked out the rear window and saw mama waving through a cloud of bluish-white smoke that hung over the street in front of the house. I watched her until the road curved and she was gone.
“Your’re gonna have the ride of your life, Tulla!” I didn’t say it out loud, but inside I was screaming, “Let me out! Now!”
Aunt Pauline must have been reading my mind because she said, “Don’t worry, I’m a great driver.” She punched in the cigarette lighter and when it was ready I got to light her cigarette. I coughed and then handed it to her. She took a deep draw and said, “Tulla, meet Miss Titts. That’s what I call my Chevy, ‘cause she has big headlights, and she’s the hottest car on the road.”
The drive was only two-hours from Mobile, but I was beginning to realize I was headed for a spine-tingling time. I settled back in my seat, rolled down the window and let the soft, cushiony June air flow over and through me. As we drove, the radio played tunes from Peggy Lee’s Fever . . . ya give me fever, to the Beatles, Yesterday . . . all my troubles seemed so far away, to the Beach Boys, Get around . . . get around around . . . I get around. I listened while Aunt Pauline carried on about her new boyfriend, Casanova.
“He’s the slickest-lookin’ fella I’ve ever seen in town. He’s a little hot tempered . . . likes his whiskey, but he simply adores me.” Aunt Pauline chuckled. “If he doesn’t love me, I’ll just have to kill him.”
I’m no mind reader, but it was written all over her face that she was head over heels.
“Casanova drives a Falstaff beer truck," she continued. "He delivers to the whole northern half of the state and is on the road five days out of every week. He drops by on Saturdays and tells me his experiences for that week.” Aunt Pauline glanced sideways. “Cutie pie, I don’t know if you’ve heard about ragin’ hormones, but I’m positively sure you’re too young to have heard of Sophie Tucker, the famous jazz singer. Well, she once sang, ‘I May Be Getting Older Every Day, But Getting Younger Every Night.’ Casanova makes me feel that good, Tulla.”
I could feel my face turn as red as a fire cracker.
“Oh, Honey, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. I ain’t done nothin’ most people ain’t done. I’ve just done more of it!” Aunt Pauline could make a frozen chicken blush.
We chit-chatted about school, my friends, and battled over the radio until we hit New Orleans, where the weather turned from lukewarm to a muggy scorching heat. It was 11:00 in the morning and my clothes were already wilted.
“God, it’s like an oven here, Aunt Pauline.”
She heaved a sigh from behind the steering wheel, “Merciful heavens, yes, Tulla. The bayou is so dreadfully hot in the summer and the humidity is so thick it can squeeze the life right out of ya. And if that doesn’t kill ya, the marshland on which the city is built is full of those giant blood suckin’ Louisiana State birds.” The ‘Louisiana State bird,’ was how she referred to the mosquito.
I wondered which would be worse: drowning in my own sweat or being injected by the likely fatal brain swelling virus of the state bird.
“On the other hand, Tulla, some health officials claim that if one can survive the threat of those disease carrying birds, New Orleans’ humidity is suppose to be advantageous for your skin.”
Aunt Pauline must have felt my stare because she shifted her pecan colored eyes in my direction, and said, “What?”
I thought this was as good a time as any to ask her about the bits and pieces hanging from her skin. “Aunt Pauline, what are those small icicle-shaped snippets of skin that dangle from your neck and eye-lid? Can the humidity get rid of those?”
Aunt Pauline threw her head back and roared. “Honey, that question is about as subtle as the barkin’ of a sideshow huckster! I can just hear it now -- ‘Come one and all -- You won’t believe your eyes -- The amazin’ Snippet Lady!’ Children really shouldn’t pose such questions to adults, Tulla. Since you did, I’ll tell ya. Their cause is a mystery. They don’t bother me, and they haven’t hurt my sex life either! But, if they bother you, I’ll have the doctor snip them off.”I should have known not to ask such questions.
After winding through New Orleans, the car finally drew up to the curb and screeched to a jolting stop. Aunt Pauline said in a grumpy voice, “I never can find a damn parkin’ spot right in front of my place. We’ll have to walk a few houses down.”
There was lot of small white houses that stood close to the sidewalk. All had steps leading to the porches and front doors. I got out of the car and stretched while Aunt Pauline grabbed stuff from the trunk.
“I’ve never seen houses like these before, Aunt Pauline. “Which one is yours?”
“This is what is known as Creole cottages. These wood-frame houses are very old.” Aunt Pauline came around the car carrying a bunch of things in her arms. “Here you go, Tulla, carry my cosmetic case and your hangin’ bag, I’ll get the rest.” While wrestling with our stuff, Aunt Pauline babbled nonstop about the cottages as we headed for her house.
“They were built in the 1830’s by French Creole families. There’re charmin’ but looks are not to be trusted ‘cause fire insurance is very high and the house needs repainted every three years or so ‘cause the intense humidity makes the paint peel.” Aunt Pauline pointed a long red fingernail in the direction of a cottage sheltered behind the black shutters. “Those long windows you see there, that’s where I live. The windows are cross ventilated to the back windows to keep the air flowin’. That’s our only air-conditioner, I’m afraid.”
Once settled inside, Aunt Pauline took out a block of ice from the ice box and chopped it into pieces with an ice pick. While she hacked, I went into the living room and plopped myself down on her plush red sofa with gold fringe and went through a stack of movie-star postcards on her coffee table. I’d seen cards like these before at the state fair. For 10-cents you could get fake scribbled signatures of Susan Hayworth, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney. I chose the Rita Hayworth postcard to stir up a breeze on my face.
“Tulla, I’m fixin’ some ice tea. Do you want lemon in yours?” Aunt Pauline yelled from the kitchen.
“Yes ma’am. Are you gonna make it sweet?”
“Are grits groceries? Go sit on the porch, and I’ll bring the sweet tea right out.”
We sipped our tea from two jelly jars, swung back and forth on the porch swing, and batted mosquitoes that were flying all around us. “I got an idea, Tulla. We’re goin’ to the French Quarter tonight. Go freshen up.”
She didn’t have a shower, so I bathed in a tub with lion paws holding it up. I dabbed on some pink Mary Quaint lip gloss, threw on a lime green mini-dress along with white strapped sandals. The wind from the drive had tangled my hair, so I pulled it back and looped it with a rubber band into a ponytail. Aunt Pauline changed into a low-cut cherry pink jumpsuit with a zipper down the front, which she filled out from top to bottom.
“Brin’ your ice tea, Honey, and lets go,” Aunt Pauline said.
After shutting all the windows and locking up, we headed for the French Quarter on foot.
“Tulla, I live in a quiet residential neighborhood, yet I’m only two blocks from the excitin’ Bourbon Street, and four blocks from historic Jackson Square. Aunt Pauline aimed her thumb over her shoulder. “Two blocks behind me is where the well-known Marie Laveau used to live.”
“Is she a friend of yours?”
“Mmmmm, I guess you have to live here to have heard of her. She’s what you call a legend. Not a child grew up in New Orleans without knowin’ and fearin’ the great Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau. Marie was mulatto. All that means, Tulla, is she had a white daddy and black mama. Marie was a tall statuesque woman, with curlin’ black hair, good features, and fierce black eyes. There’s an old sayin’, Tulla, blue eyes say, love me or I die; black eyes say, love me or I kill you. Marie Laveau died in 1880, but her hexes are still around.”
Aunt Pauline’s words were creepy, but I welcomed the chill up my spine and waited with bated breath to hear every word.
“Have you ever heard of a person who predicts things?” Aunt Pauline asked while blowing smoke rings from her cigarette into the thick hot air. Not waiting for an answer, she kept puffing and talking. “Marie was a Voodoo Queen, you know, a mind reader. She dabbled in sorcery and black magic, too. Prominent politicians would seek her out for help; askin’ her to predict their futures sort of thing. For a fee, of course, Marie could cast and remove spells. She was reputedly good with love potions and curses, too. But one thing she was particularly skilled at was gettin’ secret information about high-flyin’ locals. She divined her information not so much through clairvoyance as through a spy network of servants and slaves in New Orleans who feared the Voodoo Queen. Marie had once been a hairdresser . . . ”
All of a sudden the click of Aunt Pauline’s high heels stopped, lines leaped between her eyebrows, and wild panic lit her eyes. She swooped down, put her jelly jar of ice tea on the sidewalk, and in a horrifying voice, blurted out, “Heaven forbid! I forgot to put on my lipstick, Tulla!”
I was shaking like a leaf. “You freaked me out, Aunt Pauline! I thought for sure you’d seen the ghost of Queen Laveau!”
“Ooooo, Honey I didn’t mean to scare ya,” she said sweetly.
Taking her compact and lipstick out of her pocket book, while holding on to her cigarette, she puckered, smeared orange on her lips, smiled at herself in the mirror, and said, “Now where was I?”
I swatted a mosquito off my leg, “You were talking about how Marie had once been a hairdresser, Aunt Pauline.”
“Oh yea, uh-hum. Marie was a hairdresser and knew how the refined foolishly liked to talk. Society women would chat away with Marie as though she were a mere servant. In reality, these silly socialites’ were feedin’ Marie vital information which she would use later to her advantage.”
Aunt Pauline patted the back of her teased up French twist, and continued. “Men, couldn’t escape the beguilin’ Marie, either. “It’s believed by some that Marie Laveau once operated a house of prostitution on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain as a rather prosperous side-business. As she became more powerful, she had her spies listenin’ close in almost ever prestigious home in the city. Marie had many clever methods for recruitin’ new spies. One trick was to secretly place a Voodoo doll near the front door of her victims, usually the house-servants of distinguished New Orleans homes. The victims, upon discoverin’ the Voodoo doll, would be convinced they were being hexed by some witch other than Marie and would run to the Queen of Voodoo for help.”
“Does the French Quarter have Voodoo still?”
Aunt Pauline’s head tilted upward like she was going to tell the night moon something. Then she seemed to change her mind. She puffed out a small sigh and said, “Yes indeed, Tulla, it surely does. There’s a place on Orleans and Rampart Street behind the Quarter, an area which over time had many names: Place des Negres, which simply means Place for Negroes, and even Beauregard Square after the Civil War, in honor of a Confederate general from New Orleans. But the locals call it Congo Plains. Voodoo ceremonies are still performed there.”
“Can we go there?” I pleaded.
“There’s so much to see, Tulla. The French Quarter holds many ghosts that haunt all who walk her streets. They linger like cigar smoke in a closed room. The Quarter has survived fires, pirates, the Civil War, and slavery.” Aunt Pauline pointed to a two-story building with a wrought-iron balcony, and an outdoor cafe beneath it. “That was an old holdin’ pen for thousands of slaves who were purchased and traded away from their families. People say they get a numb feelin’ in their legs while eatin’ there, like shackles were around their ankles. There are ghosts of several children who hug your legs in there, too.”
I was beginning to notice I was the only kid around that wasn’t a ghost.
“Aunt Pauline, how come I’m the only teen I see on foot in this area?”
“Couples with children are afraid to live around here, Tulla, simply ‘cause the French Quarter is the wickedest area in the world, and is considered unsafe. But don’t worry, ‘cause I’m not gonna let you out of my eyesight. Nothin’ gonna separate us.”
I thought over how sad it was that slave children were separated from their parents, but took comfort in knowing there were kids around, even if they were ghosts. My daze was broken up by a white man, naked from the waist up, with long, stringy brownish blond hair, dirty jeans, and barefooted.
“What’s happening, Pauline! How ‘bout some pralines tonight? Two-for-the-price-of-one!” he said cheerily.
“How’s it goin’, Jesse!”
“Tulla, meet Jesse, the world’s leadin’ expert on pralines! These will be simply divine on the walk home, said Aunt Pauline.”
While my aunt was counting coins from her change purse, I stared into the ghost cafe. The waitresses were moving from table to table, collecting empty plates and glasses. I squinted my eyes at their ankles, waiting for the slave children to tackle their legs. Maybe the ghosts were sleeping, because nothing was happening, except for a noisy crowd of people eating and drinking.
“Thankyuh, Pauline.” Jesse held up two fingers in the shape of a V. “Peace! Enjoy now!” I waved good-by and kept an eye on him until he faded into a swarm people.
“Who was that dirty looking man?”
“That’s what you call a hippy. Don’t judge him on his looks, Tulla, ‘cause he’s a courteous man. One must tread very lightly in the South, ‘cause everyone is kin to everyone else. We are very cousiny people. Jesse might be kin to your mama’s uncle, who married his sister, whose offspring married your mama’s first cousins. C’mon Tulla, let’s do some French Quarter-hoppin’.”
I found myself trying to figure out the kin-folks mind twister, but I was sidetracked by curiosity, which led me in another direction.
People moseyed across the narrow streets, shuffled in and out of bars, and stumbled along with drinks in their hands. A creaky old negro tap-dancer and a young negro boy were slapping their backsides, hopping forward and backwards and stamping their feet right out on the sidewalks. I’d never seen such quivers and shakes. Jazz and ragtime, and cursing too, filled the sweaty night air. Someone cussed so loud I was sure he was going to be charged with nasty language in the presence of a child.
“Don’t pay any attention to all that cussin’‘cause the Cajun food makes up for all the bad language comin’ from their mouths, said Aunt Pauline with a chuckle.”
My aunt told me Cajun was a mixture of Spanish, French, and African. We ate crawdads and red beans and rice that night. At the French Market near Jackson Square, we had something that looked like a square donut sprinkled with white powered sugar for dessert. Aunt Pauline called them “beignets.”
On the stroll home Aunt Pauline munched on the pralines. I turned the pralines down because my stomach was churning from the red beans. Before going to bed Aunt Pauline gave me a big dose of Pepto-Bismol to ease the bubbles.
The next morning, Aunt Pauline and I began our day with a cup of hickory coffee, grits, and hot crusty praline buttered French bread.
“Tulla, I crushed the pralines up into tiny pieces and mixed them with some butter. Put some on your bread.”
Aunt Pauline was very keen on teaching me about food -- and prettiness. As she banged pots around in her kitchen, she rambled on about how to keep your skin wrinkle free.
“Now listen here, Tulla, you don’t have to worry about gettin’ wrinkles for a long time, but believe me, Sugar, if you wash your face with whole milk, it will reload the vitamin D you lose by not bakin’ in the sun. The sun gives a dose of vitamin D, but destroys your skin. Washin’ with milk gives you a creamy complexion, just like you see on all those soap-opera stars on TV. You know, like Lisa on As The World Turns, and Julie on Days of our Lives . . . I hear they had their obits made already.”
“What’s an orbit, Aunt Pauline? Is that like the spacecraft that went in orbit last year?”
Aunt Pauline let out a cackle. “No Honey, I’m talkin’ o-bit not or-bit. We see it all the time in the paper; an obit with a picture of a sweet young thing, and when you read on you learn that person is really eighty-seven years-old. So make sure, Tulla, to have your picture made . . . the one you want used in your obituary, before age thirty-nine, especially if you plan on livin’ a whole lot longer.”
“Oh Poot, I have a long time before I’m thirty-nine.”
“Trust me, it doesn’t matter how old you are, you have to anticipate agin’ with some degree of denial. Gettin’ old is the rudest awakenin’ you will ever have. You can leave your picture outside durin’ a hurricane and it would fare better then you will in the agin’ process. You’re never gonna look this good again in your life, Tulla, so you better take care of your skin. Time marches on, and I’m tellin’ you right now sweet child, it will march right across your face. You have to start early on to beat that ultimate stampede,” she said, in a preacher sermon voice.
“Yes, ma’am. Will chocolate milk do the same thing? I’d love to dive my face in some chocolate.”
Aunt Pauline cackled like a hen, then went into a coughing spell before she said, “We have plenty of chocolate people around here already, Tulla! Go change out of your pajamas. We’re going to the market.”
“Can we go to that Voodoo place, too?”
“Congo Square is sacred ground. Are you sure you want to go there, Tulla? Aunt Pauline said playfully.
Changing out of my pajamas into a pair of shorts and sandals we hit the hot streets. The sun was so hot that Aunt Pauline’s make-up was melting down her face. She took out her compact and handkerchief and dabbed her face before going into the voodoo store.
Under the sigh, “Crafts By Priestess Jean Louise,” the door bells chimed as we walked inside. Candles and incense were burning just about everywhere. The shelves had a mixture of Voodoo Self Help Kits, books, and handmade Voodoo Dolls. I picked up a tan leather bag with words written in red, Powerful gris-gris. Not To Be Ingested.
“What’s this, Aunt Pauline?”
“That’s mystery and medicine all tossed into one bag, each in equal part. Herbs to soothe the mind and body and gris-gris to set the soul right in its holy flight against evil.”
“What the heck is in it?”
“All kinds of peculiar things.” Aunt Pauline took a pair of reading glasses from her pocketbook and said, “Lets see what’s written here.” Gris-gris is a potion of herbs and natural or decaying matter, from the mundane to the bizarre, sometimes including powdered brick, ochre, cayenne pepper, fingernail clippings, human hair, and animal skin (usually reptilian). Powerful gris-gris is not to be ingested. It can be worn around the neck from a string, or left near the intended object of the charm.”
“It says right here, Tulla, that gris-gris brings either good or bad luck, depending on what you believe in. I’m gonna buy it for you for good luck!”
“Can I have a Voodoo doll, too?”
A large black lady, draped in a lavender tie-dyed dress with yellow starburst patterns and a big round head of black curly hair, flung open the multi-colored beads hanging from the doorway in the back of the store. Her midnight blue eyes were large and seemed to be staring straight into mine. Her skin was like smooth milk chocolate, and as she spoke, her words were broken up. I could only understand every other word.
The ample woman clasped her hands together and said, “Mad’ame Pauline!”
“Bon jour, “Jean Louise,” said Aunt Pauline.
“Who dat wid vous?”
Pulling on Aunt Pauline’s shirt sleeve, I whispered, “What’s she saying?”
“She’s asked who do I have with me? Tulla.”
“Aww, Tulla! What’s a pretty bebelle lak vous doin’ in a place lak dis? Vous ain’t hardly ol’da ‘nough to be weaned.”
“Tulla’s visitin’ from Mobile, and would like one of your Voodoo dolls to take back home with her. Pick her out a good one, will ya Jean Louise?”
Jean Louise asked me something else, but since I didn‘t know what in the world she was saying, Aunt Pauline answered for me.
Jean Louise picked up a wiry black doll that looked like an oversized Brillo Pad, and stuck a white-tipped straight pen right between the two white button eyes. She handed me two white pins and three black pins along with the voodoo doll. She told me, in her peculiar voice, that the white pins were for good spells, and the black pins were for bad spells.
Aunt Pauline reached into her pocket-book and brought out a $20 dollar bill to pay for the gris-gris-bag and the Voodoo doll, but Jean Louise pushed her hand away. She made a sound that wasn’t laughing and wasn’t weeping. My insides began to vibrate as I watched Jean Louise eyes darkened; the black pupils started moving over the blue part of her eyes, like when the sun passes in front of the moon. It was if she were gazing out of some one else eyes. I wanted to turn around and rush out of the store but my feet seemed stuck to the floor.
Jean Louise, said to my aunt, “Please, Vous and Tulla will need la luck.”
Aunt Pauline fixed her eyes on Jean Louise’s face for a few seconds.
“Tulla, say thank you and Au revoir to Jean Louise.”
I said thank you very much, and spoke my first French word, “Au revoir!”
Aunt Pauline seemed in a world of her own as we headed for the market.
“Aunt Pauline, who was that negro lady?” Did you see the way her eyes changed from blue to black? It was weird seeing blue eyes on a negro.”
“Honey, you’ve gotta quit sayin’ negro. The proper way to refer to them is black.”
“Yes ma’am. Aunt Pauline, is it all right if I use my Voodoo doll the black lady gave me for spells?”
“Sure, Honey, there’s plenty of folks out there just askin’ for it on a daily basis. And now that you have your very own Voodoo doll, you can give them what they deserve. The back side of your doll is for the bad spells. Be careful with the revenge spells, ’cause what goes around comes around.”
We shopped at the Farmer’s Market for okra, Andouille sausages, and a mess of sea animals, like oysters, shrimp and crab, because Aunt Pauline was going to fix gumbo for supper.
There was a note on the front door when we got home, from Casanova that read: “Try and stay home once in a while. I’ll call you tonight.”
I sat at the breakfast table while Aunt Pauline mixed flour and oil in a black cast-iron skillet on the stove.
“You mix the flour and oil to make roux, which gives the gumbo its color and consistency before addin’ water and sea food.” She washed all the sea creatures before dumping them into the seasoned liquid. Aunt Pauline said the washing was very important because, “You don’t know where they’ve been whorin’ around before they wound up at the market.” The soup simmered for a couple of hours before we sat down to a bowl of gumbo and rice, cornbread, and sweet ice tea.
After supper, Aunt Pauline settled herself in an armchair with a Bourbon on the rocks at her ankles. She lit a cigarette, closed her eyes, and blew smoke from her nostrils. The smoke circled her orange hair; her head looked like the sun flaming through a cloud. I was stretched out on the red sofa. She’d shut all the windows, except for in the bedrooms, because she claimed it was cooler and safer with them shut.
“Aunt Pauline, are you dozing?”
“No, Honey, sometimes I can see more with my eyes closed than with my eyes open.”
The heat kept swelling and made me feel like I couldn’t stay awake. I struggled to watch the Italian mouse, Topo Gigio, on the Ed Sullivan Show. Aunt Pauline finished her drink, tapped a cigarette ash into the empty glass, took a puff, and crushed it out on the ice.
“Tulla, I ’m fixin’to get ready for bed.” I pleaded with her to show me her face cleaning ritual before hitting the sack.
I followed her to the bathroom, which was a mess. Her cherry pink jumpsuit peeked out from underneath a bunch of towels, panties, and her over the shoulder boulder holders. My aunt had a habit of not putting her dirty clothes in the hamper, but choosing to simply pile them on the bathroom floor. I watched from the door instead of standing in the pile of dirty clothes.
Aunt Pauline set her radio on the fluffy yellow toilet cover. “I’ll be right back after I heat the milk on the stove.”
There was a news report telling about how bad the weather was, and I groaned when the guy said, “If you think it’s hot now, wait until tomorrow, the temperature is expected to rise to 102. In fact, we won’t be seeing anything below 98 degrees for the next four to five days.”
Aunt Pauline came back tugging a medium size pot of heated milk. “Put the stopper in the sink and move out of the way, Tulla, ‘cause this pot is scorchin’!” I jump out of the way because it seemed liked an urgent situation. She poured the milk into the sink, sat the empty pot on the matching fluffy yellow bath rug, and switched the station to a woman singing in French; she said the voice was Edif Pief.
Looking at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, she took a bunch of toilet paper and wrapped her head -- Aunt Pauline had her orange hair ratted up professionally once a week and never combed through it otherwise -- and put on a big hair net. While holding her breath, like a pelican diving for fish, she dove her face into the milk. She came up for air and dipped again.
“You keep dippin’ until your pores feel like they’re openin’,” she said. Aunt Pauline claimed the open pores allowed the vitamin D to enter the skin and the impurities to escape.
I watched and waited for her pores to erupt like a volcano oozing with deadly glowing orange and pink lava, but nothing happened. She patted her face with a fresh hand towel and threw it on top of the pile of clothes.
“Pre-forty, Tulla, you can wash your face with clothes detergent and use car wax for moisturizer, toss on a little lip gloss, and win the Miss America pageant. And don’t waste your time on all those fancy labels promisin’ everythin’ short of actual rebirth -- none of them work. My advice to you, Sweetie -- when the time comes, of course -- go out and buy the cheapest makeup available like Max Factor; I buy it at the drugstore right over the counter.”
After she cleaned her face, I had a better understanding way she wore make-up. I mean, her whole face looked like a white canvas. There were no eyebrows, no lips, no eyelashes, and her skin was three shades lighter. She looked spooky.
“What you lookin‘ at, Tulla?
Before I climbed into bed, Aunt Pauline dabbed mosquito ointment on my bites, pulled the sheet over me, and directed the floor fan towards the bed. “Where’s your gris-gris bag, and voodoo doll, Tulla.”
“I left them in the kitchen.”
She came back and placed both on my night stand, and then kissed me on my cheek. “Good night, Sugar. Don’t forget to say your prayers.”
I was yanked from my sleep by the ringing of the phone. Aunt Pauline’s whisper became a shout.
“Don’t talk to me like that! Hear me?! Hear me?!”
I rushed into the living room as she slammed the phone down. Tears were in her eyes.
“What’s the matter, Aunt Pauline?”
A moment later the phone rang again, she didn’t pick it up. The ringing continued. Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen rings. Finally it stopped. Aunt Pauline lit a cigarette and exhaled the smoke.
“That was Casanova. He got back to town early, and I suspect he’s had one too many tonight. What he earns he spends pretty near all of it on whisky.” She pulled the jack from the wall. “Go on back to bed Honey, everythin’ all right. Aunt Pauline wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her pale pink silk robe. “He better behave or we’ll just stick a black pin in that voodoo doll of yours.”
I went back to my room, picked up the voodoo doll, closed my eyes, and whispered: “Make Casanova see the hurt he caused Aunt Pauline, make him feel the pain she feels. Get rid of the pain from her heart.” I opened my eyes and stuck the black-tipped straight pin deep into the backside of the doll. I lay awake for awhile, and then floated into a sleep with weird dreams.
The next morning, Aunt Pauline looked tired, but was in a cheerful mood. “Today, Tulla, I’m gonna take you to the graveyard and show you were Queen Laveau is buried! But first, I want you to wash your hair. Does your mama let you go this long without a washin’? If you get all those tangles out, I’ll give you a bonus beauty tip.”
I washed my hair and got most of the tangles out, pulled on white shorts, a red ruffled short sleeve blouse, and a pair of Kids sneakers.
“Come here, Tulla, I wanna show you my secret weapon.”
After Aunt Pauline smudged two round patches of red rouge on her cheeks, she opened the bathroom cupboard and took out a container of body dusting power.
“The powder is my secret weapon. It’s a myth that powder accentuates the lines around the eyes. When lightly dusted with a puff it will soften a look, eliminate shine, and it keeps the foundation firm.”
Her face looked all mushy like flour and water mixed to make dumplings. I didn’t nitpick about how the power was filling into her creases like a flood, because I was curious about the graveyard.
Aunt Pauline parked the car down the street and we walked on foot to the entrance. “Tulla, welcome to the city of the dead. St. Louis Cemetery is the oldest existing cemetery in New Orleans. Unfortunately, many of the tombs had fallen into disrepair and ruin as owners failed to maintain them. See that big ol’ tomb over there? A whole family is buried inside, one on top of the other.”
Aunt Pauline must have noticed how quiet I was.
“What are you thinking, Tulla?”
“I thinking about being dead. Looking at these graves makes me think about how relatives after relatives of the same family are all gathered together . . . dead!”
Aunt Pauline laughed. “That’s awful! I never think about dyin’. I think about how life goes on! One thing for sure, I don’t wanna be buried on top of a bunch decayin’ family members. I wanna go out solo . . . in a burnin’ blaze! Enough of these morbid thoughts. C’ mon Sugar, I’ll show you Queen Laveau’s grave, then we’ll leave.”
Marie Laveau's tomb was covered with Mardi Gras beads, flowers, coins, a cross made of twigs, and a green bottle filled with some type of liquid. Aunt Pauline picked up a small piece of brick that was lying on the ground and handed it to me. She told me to rap three times on the tomb, mark three Xs with the piece of brick, and then ask Marie for a favor. Go ahead, Tulla, she said with a gentle smile. I thought to myself, “Marie Laveau, please let my Aunt Pauline live for a long, long time.”
I left the graveyard in a down mood. Aunt Pauline said, “Nothin’ cheers the soul better than eatin’.” She was right. We had fried oyster poor-boy sandwiches for lunch at Felix’s Oyster House and I felt a whole lot better. After that, Aunt Pauline drove back to the house.
It was a lazy day, so she asked if I wanted to rummage through her wardrobe. Aunt Pauline fixed some ice tea, and then we went to her bedroom. I ignored the sweat pouring down my body, and just admired how beautiful I looked in the black hat with netting and the glittering dress with a brown velvet collar. I twisted the fox wrap with the feet still attached around my neck and slid my feet into an over sized pair of black high-heel shoes with open toes. I twirled around and made faces into her dresser mirror.
“Take those thing off, Tulla, you’re sweatin’ like a whore in church.”
I sat with Aunt Pauline and looked through old pictures albums while she told me stories about what it was like growing up during the Depression, and what she, as the oldest sister, had to do to survive.
“At fourteen, in Evergreen Alabama, I married a man three times my age. He died when I was in my twenties, and left me a house and enough insurance money to live on. I tell you right now, Tulla, you can fall in love with a rich one just as fast as you can fall in love with a poor one.”
Aunt Pauline put out her cigarette in her ice tea jar, and went on. “Dean was a good man who made a good living. Rich old men are generally more attractive than poor young men. Take Frank Sinatra, for example, he’s datin’ that skinny girl, Mia. You know, the star on the soap opera Peyton Place. She’s only 21 and Frank is 50! Anyway, Dean was always sending me flowers and gifts." The kane back chair squeaked when my aunt stood. From the top of her closet, she pulled down a tiny black box with a pretty flower design on top.
“When Dean was stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he sent me this beautiful little jewelry box.” She turned the box over and wound the tiny key on the bottom and we listened to the faint music. Aunt Pauline lifted the lid, a tiny ballerina with black painted hair and a bright pink tulle skirt popped up. She handed it to me and I held the black lacquered jewelry box in both hands and we watched as the ballerina turned-around-and-around. Aunt Pauline sang along with the music in a soft voice,
“I’ll be loving you . . . always . . . with a heart so true . . . always.”
“Tulla, a friend of mine, a famous jazz trumpet player known as Dizzy Gillespie, once said: ‘The idea of life is to give and receive.’ Aunt Pauline took hold of my face with both of her hands. “One day, pretty girl, this jewelry box will belong to you.”
Later that evening, after dinner, Aunt Pauline taught me how to play Gin Rummy. She said if I won she’d let me have a few sips of her Bourbon on the rocks. I went to bed kind of early because the Bourbon made me sleepy.
That night I woke up when I felt cold air hit my face. I heard a knock at the door, then a more urgent beating against the shutters outside the front window. I rose quickly, turned on the lamp, and from the bedroom doorway, I hollered out for Aunt Pauline. That’s when it happened.
Aunt Pauline glimpsed at me and put her finger to her mouth. “Sh-h-h.” Who’s there?” she asked.
“It’s me, Baby.”
“It’s late, call me tomorrow, will ya?”
“I just want to apologize for last night . . . then I‘ll leave.”
I stood frozen as Aunt Pauline shoved the dead bolt aside and opened the door. She stepped back, staring at the wild-eyed figure approaching her. The color drained from her face.
“What in the world is the matter with you, Casanova?”
She leaned on the door to close it, but Casanova shoved and staggered in.
“Don’t you ever hang up the phone in my face again! You understand me?” He raised his hand high in the air, looked down at her face, and struck her with his fist.
She stumbled backwards and fell, her head smashing into the side of the coffee table. Aunt Pauline was lying on the floor, dazed, trying to struggle to her feet. Blood trickled from the gash on her forehead.
He looked over at me with a terrible smile. My voice stuttered. “Stop! . . . leave . . . leave her alone!”
“Tulla,” Aunt Pauline said, “Look at me. Run! Run now!”
“Shut up!! You ugly bitch!” Casanova screamed.
I darted around the red couch. I felt a hand snap around my wrist.
“You’re a sweet young thing. Where’d you get those pretty blue eyes. I might want to give you a kiss right on the mouth.”
He threw me down on the couch, grabbed my face, and jammed his tongue between my clenched lips. He unzipped his pants.
“You want to touch it, baby girl?”
I begged. “Stop it . . . Stop . . . Pleaseee!” His body weight pressed up against me as he pulled at my nightgown. He was crushing me, I couldn’t breathe. Tears pour out. I twisted my head and saw Aunt Pauline stagger to her feet and disappear. She came back with something shinny in her hand.
“You bastard! I’ll kill ya! I’ll kill ya, you bastard!”
Aunt Pauline screamed over and over as she stabbed him with an ice pick. I watched from underneath Casanova. Her eyes were wild with fear and hate. Her floor-length silk robe had come untied, his red blood was staining her naked chest and stomach, and pieces of her orange hair were stuck to the blood on her face. Casanova rolled off of me and drop down to the floor. His black eyes were dark empty holes.
I sat on the porch holding the gris-gris-bag I’d left on the swing. Aunt Pauline’s arms stayed wrapped around me until the police came and twisted them behind her and snapped handcuffs on her wrist. We left the house in separate police cars.
I knew it was self-defense, but the jury thought otherwise. They judged Casanova’s murder a crime of passion. I know she was protecting me. Aunt Pauline was sentenced to 18 years in the federal penitentiary in Louisiana, a year for each stab wound.
We exchanged Christmas cards over the years but, I even went to visit her a few times. But never did we discuss the details of that horrible night.
I placed the ballerina back in the black lacquered jewelry box, pulled the black-tipped straight pin out of the wiry, doll’s back, closed the lid, and crushed my cigarette out on the ice.