Life’s Desire

Written by Kerry E.B. Black for Rachel (years and years ago.)

The bar tender at The voodon Bar smiled over his left should at Jan before adding a third shot of amber-colored rum to the hurricane mix.  “Ooohee, he likes you,” laughed a man sitting on a tall bar stool beside Jan, unabashedly admiring the tourist.  Jan self-consciously glanced down at her starched white linen blouse to be certain that the buttons were all properly closed.  Contented that they were, she gazed past the leering patron, prepared to pay for her drinks.  They were presented in translucent plastic cups, fruit dancing on the rim.  The bar tender gave another hopeful smile, but had to content himself with a small tip.  Jan did not even smile in return, simply took the drinks, one in each hand, and walked out of the ornate wooden door to meet her friend, Lindsey, on Bourbon Street.

Not at all a surprise, Lindsey was not where Jan left her a few moments before.  A man in Gombay-inspired clothing walked beside a transvestite whose smeared eye-makeup made him look tired.  This colorful couple was followed by a man in a purple bejeweled polyester suit lurching along on stilts.  Jan glanced their way out of the corner of her eye, careful not to make her observations obvious.  It was no wonder so many great writers resided in New Orleans, she decided.  Such colorful characters people the historic streets.  She shuddered to imagine how crowded it would be on this very spot when Mardi Gras was in swing, but she and Lindsey were much more comfortable visiting during the “off season” when they could tour without the outrageous press of partygoers.

“Jan!” Lindsey’s voice danced across the cobbled side street, drawing her friend toward a shop advertising “magiks.”  Lindsey was slight-built like a pixie, with dark red hair and elfin-tilted woodland-colored eyes.  Jan, with a nearly military straightness, stood easily ten inches taller than Lindsey’s hard-earned five feet.  Although they looked nothing alike, their friendship was like kinship, instant and filled with trust.  They were often foils for each other, as evidenced by their clothing.  Lindsey looked like the perfect bohemian, while Jan more resembled a traditional school marm.  Lindsey was enthusiastic in her interests, plunging right in to each new experience, while Jan took delight in quiet observation.  Both girls were drawn to the Big Easy, tempted by its rich culture, but for Lindsey, the appeal went deeper, her interests in the occult almost obsessive.

Taking a sip of her drink, Lindsey squealed with delight.  “Mmmmm!  It is delicious!” she exclaimed.  Lindsey keep her own concern about the strength of the alcohol private, with Lindsey nearly skipping as they made their way to the gothic St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America.  She commented on the many paintings that artists lining the street displayed for sale, and both girls clapped for two young tap dancers, dropping coins into their black-silk top hat that so resembled a magician’s prop.  Tawny draft horses shook in their harnesses as the girls walked by, apparently anxious to pull their intricate white carriages.  One pawed his huge, metal-shod foot, bowing its head as they passed.

Their visit was to be only for today, a night for the college friends to spent in a place of adventure on their way to visit Jan’s grandparents in Mechinsburg, MS.  Thus, the two intended to experience as much of the flavor of this old southern city as they could during their short stay.  “We need to try beignets and pralines.  I want to at least peek in to the Three Sister’s Restaurant.  I heard that it is fantastic, but we could not afford to eat there,” Lindsey outlined as they made their way toward the above ground cemetery, sipping their hurricanes.  “There is so much to see!  We can not possibly take it all in!” she gushed.  Jan nodded her agreement, a small smile on her lips.  She loved her friend’s wonder.  By nature shy and reserved, Jan found comfort even in Lindsey’s ceaseless prattle.  While planning the trip, Jan arranged an architectural walk through the French Quarter scheduled to begin shortly.

However, Lindsey insisted on having their palms read before the tour.  Madam Fortuna looked the part of a medium, with raven-black tresses falling over bony, pale shoulders.  She wore dramatic, smoky eye makeup which sunk her eyes into her milky head, making her resemble a sun-bleached skull.  She imparted the wisdom gleaned from their quivering hands with whisky lips enhanced with ruby lipstick in the dramatically deep, husky voice of a smoker.  Jan did not take any of it seriously, skeptical, but Lindsay’s eyes grew wide with enthusiasm.  “You’re about to be offered a chance to change the course of your existence, girl.  Chose well,” she advised.  The friends dropped their donations onto the fortune teller’s silk handkerchief and left the shop smelling of sandalwood incense.

On their architectural tour, the girls learned of Juliette bars installed to prevent amorous trysts and ornate iron railings, the historic district’s restrictions on changing existing structures and acceptable colors.  Lindsey rose up on tip-toe to whisper to her friend, “I wonder how many ghosts live in these old buildings!”  Giggling delicately, like a graceful porcelain ballerina doll, Lindsey twirled around on her toes to get a better view of the home of one of her favorite authors, Ms. Anne Rice.  Jan stepped back, freeing space for her shorter friend closer to the anticipated site.  Lindsey sighed wistfully.  The tour concluded at Jackson Square, with its Parisian-inspired landscaping and equestrian statue of its presidential namesake.

Lunching on gumbo and jambalaya gave them the strength to take in a hurried plantation tour, followed by a boat ride through a swamp to see alligators eager to impress the tourists in order to snap their powerful jaws on the boat operators’ offered meat.  After a riverboat jazz dining cruise spent enjoying the nods to such greats as Louis Armstrong, they made their way to a side street off of Charles Street to meet their guide for a night time look at the vibrant city whose resilience allowed it to survive wars, corruption, and the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

On the way, Lindsey shared recollections of a coworker who wore her hair pulled back into a tight, high pony tale, convinced that this repeated practice would eventually cause damage to the coworker’s hair.  She gushed about the techno-music from the soundtrack to the movie “Blade.”  Jan eyed their surroundings, uncomfortably, while her friend chatted.  She reached into the pocket of the black cardigan that she’d donned, reassuring herself that her pepper spray was handy.  Lindsey’s wrap was a beautiful, Spanish-style lace shawl that dripped to the hem of her patchwork peasant skirt, covering the puffy-sleeved top cinched at her tiny waist with a burgundy and gold belt.

“I wish that we would have been able to ride on a street car, especially if it is called ‘Desire,'” Lindsey sighed.  “There is one called ‘Desire’, Linds.  I booked a street car tour tomorrow morning to see the mansions on St. Charles Avenue before we leave for Mississippi.”  Jan did not look at her friend while she imparted this information, hyper vigilant in the darkening, unfamiliar surroundings.  She felt uncomfortable standing under the street lamp, two young women in a strange and potentially dangerous city.  Lindsey clapped with enthusiasm, hopping up and down, gratified by the outing planned for the morning.  “You are the best planner, Jan!  Thanks so much for asking me to come along with you!”

Jan did look down at her friend then, her head tilted to the left.  “I am glad that you came, Lindsey.  I would never have come on this side trip to New Orleans alone.”  Lindsey’s smile broadened, impossibly stretching toward ears hidden by auburn tresses.  “If you weren’t so tall, I would think that you were like Piglet,” she laughed, eyes sparkling mischievously.  “You know, from Winnie the Pooh,” Jan’s friend clarified.  “Timid.”  She reached out a hand and twirled around the lamp post, her skirt flaring out like a swirl of autumn leaves caught in a breeze.  A small smile played on Jan’s lips as she watched a group of tourists approach, boisterous in their alcohol consumption.  If she were Piglet, then perhaps Lindsey was Tigger?  Such innocent speculation halted when a quieter couple approached from the back of the alley, emerging from the dark shadows.  Jan was wary of their approach, unaware that the alley was a throughway, assuming that it dead ended.

“Oooh, I bet that they are our guides,” Lindsey indicated the couple.  They looked as though they emerged from the cover of a steampunk graphic novel, Victorian-style clothes made a bit more practical in tailoring, layered with black silks and jet accessories.  The man wore a top hat over his long brunette hair and crossed his gloved hands over a mahogany walking stick topped with a silver skull.  His black suit was tailored to his thick proportions.  The lady’s bustled skirts were shortened to reveal high-laced leather ankle boots.  She wore a black and burgundy velvet, puff-shouldered jacket left open to reveal an ornate, black laced corset worn outside of her white lacy blouse.  Her hair was piled atop her head in ornate curls, and the choker-style necklace resting on her pale collarbones dripped with onyx and marcasite from silver chains around an art-Nuevo inspired depiction of a lady’s face.

The noisy drunks quieted when the woman guide glided her way toward them, her booted footfalls echoing as an eerie fog sent bold tendrils to encircle their ankles.  “Good evening,” the man said, cinematically with a fine impression of Gary Oldman.  When he spoke, his teeth glinted in the lamplight, pointed.  Jan shuddered, and Lindsey grabbed her friend’s hand, fairly bouncing with anticipation.  “I’ve heard that there are vampires in New Orleans,” she whispered to her friend, clearly thrilled by this development.  Jan did not share Lindsey’s fascination.  “We will take y’all on a tour that you will not forget,” exclaimed the female guide, Leticia, adding, “N’ahlins after dahk is spectacular!” Her tiny red lipped mouth bursting into a flowery smile that also revealed sharpened canines.

Jordan, the male tour guide, donned half-moon sunglasses, resting them on the bridge of his aquiline nose so that he could look over the ruby lenses.  His heavy brows shadowed his eyes, but Jan was certain that Jordan was sizing up her companion.  Under the yellowing street lamp, Lindsey’s cheeks darkened in a blush, and she drew her shawl closer to her throat with an unsteady hand.  Jan stood beside her friend, feeling as protective as a bulldog. After collecting their tour fees, the trek began.  “This way,” sing-songed Leticia with a high-pitched cackle.  The group followed, Jan acutely aware of Jordan, his walking stick tapping out his progress theatrically, just behind them.

“This charming little yard has seen its share of bloodshed, my darlin’s!” Leticia indicated the fenced courtyard of a small parish house thick with night-blooming moonflowers.  She related the tale of two men who fought with rapiers for the love of a flaxen-haired beauty.  Alas, both sustained such fatal blows that neither recovered, and the heartless maid went on to toy with the affections of other city gentlemen.  Another yard was the site of a bloody pistol duel fought, also, for the hand of a lady.  “Do you sense a theme, my dear?” inquired Jordan in a deep voice, leaning close enough to almost brush the top of Lindsey’s head with his lips.  The friends startled, Lindsey backing into Jan who stood pillar straight, eyeing the creepy guide.  He chuckled deep in his throat and walked toward the front of the group.

He indicated a site of famous quadroon balls and homes with bitter and bloody pasts.  They made their way passed the House of the Rising Sun where men were introduced to the mysteries of women.  Jordan sneered toward the girls, winking at Lindsey who was uncharacteristically quiet.  One of the drunken party asked Letitia if she were really a vampire, with those theatrical teeth.  “What do you suppose, chere?” she asked, her head cocked unhealthily.  Everyone giggled nervously.

The group approached one of the St. Louis Cemeteries with its above group crypts.  Jordan told of the water table in the town which prevented in-ground internments.  “The protestants tried, but with each rainstorm, they had to chase the remains of their dearly departed down the avenues,” he explained.  Leticia interjected, “so they put great slabs of stone atop the burial sites to correct the situation.”  She sauntered over to Jordan, taking his hand and smiling up at him with her unnervingly sharp canines glinting.   He dispassionately looked Leticia’s way before pointedly turning directly to Lindsey, saying, “On rainy nights, you can still hear the poor souls’ coffins thumping against the barriers,”  He pulled his hand from Leticia’s, raising his walking stick, pointing it at the little red-head, “as though they wish to walk about with those living on the streets.”  He took two long strides to stand beside Lindsey, looming over her, to quietly add, “Can’t blame them for wanting to walk with you, sweet lady.”  Lindsey gasped, smiling, clearly pleased.

They saw graffiti, repeated patterns of three x’s on the graves of known voodoo practitioners, entreaties from the living believers for intercessions. Ornate houses stood in rows, statue sentinels glowing in the moonlight.  One of the drunken party asked about ghosts, but Leticia laughed.  “Y’all don’t need to worry ’bout spirits, even voodoo queens.  More likely you’ll run into a mugger in these parts!” she added.  The drunks grumbled, but Jordan said in a carrying voice, “You all are right now under our protection.  Not an outside soul will harm you while you are in our company.”  His eyes never left Lindsey.  She sighed.  Jan stood as straight and severe as the armored angel statue behind her.

“We have reached the end of our journey together, however, and sadly must part ways,” came a falsetto from Leticia.  “So long.  Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

Quick as a snake strike, Jordan grasped Lindsey’s hand in his own.  “I do hope that you enjoyed your journey with us through the Big Easy,” he nearly growled.  Lindsey giggled, saying that she did, indeed.  Jordan glanced up at Jan and gave a nod.  Jan did not respond, though, just continued her observation while Letitia guided the rest of the group out of the cemetery, glaring over her shoulder at Jordan, annoyance clearly written on her face despite the deep shadows.

“I sense in you a kindred spirit, a desire for the dark, am I right?”  Jordan asked, leaning intimately toward Lindsey.  Lindsey silently nodded confirmation.  “You are drawn to the night, feel invigorated when the evening descends.”  He leaned still closer to Lindsey, his cologne making the girls dizzy.  “You know the names of the nightmare creatures and wish to know them,” he paused before saying suggestively, “better.”  Lindsey was breathing rapidly, Jan all but forgotten in the shadows behind her.  Jordan loomed closer to the diminutive Lindsey, whispering, “Come with me, and I will introduce you to the ones who dwell in the deepest dreams.”

Jan put her hand on her friend’s tight shoulder, suggesting that they go.  Now.  Jordan met this quiet pronouncement with a literal growl.  “Go away,” he snarled, showing his sharpened teeth and boring with his eyes through the gloom, trying to intimidate Jan.  This effort did not produce the desired effect.   Jan stood her ground, protective of her friend.  Lindsey looked confused, craning her neck to volley between the taller companions.  Ever aware of her friend’s nuances, she asked, “Linds, what do you want to do?”

Lindsey smiled.  “It is time for us to go.  Jordan, I will never forget meeting you.”  Shock registered on his face, clearly unaccustomed to rejection.  “I am offering you the fulfillment of your very wishes!  Your dreams can come true!  You are standing on a precipice, poised to make a huge life decision.  Do not make the wrong choice.  Come with me now, beautiful little one, and I will show you wonders,” he persuaded in a sultry voice.

Lindsey nodded, torn for a moment, before bidding the man a good night.  The friends walked out of the cemetery to their hotel.  Jordan did not pursue.  Once safely out of the shadows and seemingly magical pull of the place, Jan asked, “I know about your fascination with such things, Linds.  What made you decide not to stay?”  With a bemused smile playing on her lips, Lindsey vaguely  answered, “Life.  And desire.”

After a night of lucid dreaming, the friends were shocked by a news report of a mass murder outside of the cemetery they visited.  They could not be certain, but they suspected that the victims accompanied them on their walk through the haunted sites.  They left New Orleans after their tour on the streetcar named Desire.