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Vol. 5, No. 1

Rafferty and Josephine
by Robert Olen Butler

When Josephine arrived at her house, the sidewalks and neutral ground along St. Charles were awash with Mardi Gras trash, but the crowds were mostly gone, having migrated downtown. There was a message on Josephine's private answering machine. Delphine said, "Mama, I thought you were going to wave at the Rex parade from your window. I had a photographer ready." There was one beat of silence, then another, as Delphine apparently reviewed her tone of voice, which clearly sounded miffed. She softened only a little bit. "I need to talk with you about this whole LeBlanc House thing. Earl says there's really nothing we can do in the courts. But don't worry. I'm going to carry the ball, Mama, and they're not getting off the hook. Call me on the cell. Bye."
    Josephine's hand went to the phone, but then pulled back. Who taught her to use language that way? she wondered. Josephine felt as if she herself were on the hook, as a matter of fact, and she didn't know what ball to carry. She did know she couldn't talk about this now with her daughter.
    She turned off the ringer on the phone and went to her computer and she booted up and she counted the hours in her head. She'd go till dawn. She'd have fourteen hours, easily. She'd write ten thousand words. Her Windows desktop appeared before her and she loaded WordPerfect and her book came up and Marie Therese, the Southern belle vampire, was standing before the man she loved. He was still whole. He was still human. His blood was still untainted. She wanted him badly. Okay. Josephine's hands went up, her fingers curled, she hung over the keyboard.
    And she hung. And hung. Nothing was coming out of her fingertips. And then Josephine noticed that her nail polish was chipped on the forefinger of her right hand. That needed to be fixed. So she went to the master bath and got her nail polish-arterial red-and she threw herself onto the chaise longue and she tried to patch the chip and that wasn't adequate, not in the least, it all had to be redone, and she took the polish off each fingernail and repainted each one meticulously, and then she did her toes and dried them with a hair dryer, and then she emptied the trash can in the bathroom, and then all the trash cans in the house. In short, she was blocked.
    Fourteen hours later the house was freshly clean, every pore on her body had been examined, she'd lingered over a Lean Cuisine dinner somewhere along the way and then over popcorn and then over three glasses of wine, which induced her to take a two-hour nap, which she expected to put all to rights, but it did not.
    It was nearing dawn, she figured, and this had never happened on a Mardi Gras night, this silence. Never. She'd been sitting for the past two hours before the computer, punching the Enter key to retain her words whenever the screen saver-a photo of Josephine's house dripping blood from the roof-kicked in. She'd performed every trivial chore she could dream up to keep from writing and she'd kept from thinking about the obvious source of this writer's block, too. But as the grandfather clock downstairs chimed seven, Josephine noticed a thin strip of daylight showing beneath the lowered shade and she cried out in fear, as if she were Marie Therese herself, desperate to escape the sun.
    Josephine squared hard around before the words on the screen. Her hands rose. The freshly painted fingertips hovered and hovered and then Josephine pulled back. Her hands fell. She sighed, deeply, wearily. She could write no more for now. And she knew that the LeBlanc House sat in the center of this terrible, wordless night.

~

Josephine went out of her house, and before going to Jackson Square, she drove to Magazine Street and parked at the end of a block she'd once known very well. This place had filled her head with voodoo and jasmine in the dark and with the essence of an octaroon girl who was transformed, by the act of her mother, into the undead and who was torn, by her love for a human, between two irreconcilable worlds. Josephine walked along the block, and the coffeehouse and the bookshop and the run of antique stores were closed tight. And there, up ahead, on the other side of the street was the LeBlanc House. When Josephine had first noticed it, Desiree flashed by in an upstairs window instantly, in the arms of the man she loved and could never marry. Now Josephine stood before the house and it was still beautiful and brimming with the stuff of her imagination. It was stuccoed brick washed the color of early afternoon sunlight, and its two-story galleries were lined with wrought-iron swirls of flowers and fruit and vines, and the great shutters at the French windows on the second floor were open. Josephine thought she heard music. She strained to listen, but there was nothing. A dog was barking somewhere. Nothing else. Then even the dog fell silent.
    Josephine crossed the street. She hesitated at the realtor sign hung with a red SOLD placard, and then she moved beneath the windmill palms and up the front steps to the door, set off-center to the right of two leaded stained-glass rosette windows as tall as she. Josephine loved this house. Why hadn't she thought to buy it herself? For one thing, to have any house but her father's house never had crossed her mind. And there were a dozen Josephine Claiborne literary sites around New Orleans. Two dozen. She could start buying them and never stop. But standing on the porch of the LeBlanc House, she suddenly felt heavy-limbed with regret. It was true she desperately wanted this place to stay always the same, though she knew that was impossible. Only vampires could live forever. And now she simply felt weary. She thought to turn to go. But something made her step to the door. She cupped her hands around her face and leaned into the glass. A grand staircase led up to the second floor. She put her hand on the doorknob and there was no reason to expect it to turn, but it did. She opened the door and she thought: they don't even care enough about the place to lock up. She hesitated a moment and then called, "Hello?"
    There was only silence in reply. No one was here. She did not hesitate now. She stepped in.

~

And Rafferty stepped forward to the priest. He closed his eyes as the priest's thumb traced the cross of ashes on his forehead-Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return-and Rafferty moved away from the altar, up the side aisle. He'd seen Max well ahead of him in the line of penitents and wondered if his son had seen him. He pushed through the doors into the narthex, and there was Max, waiting, a newspaper folded under his arm. As Rafferty approached, Max whipped the paper out and began flipping the pages. "Did you see it?" Max said, though Rafferty was suddenly struck by the cross of dust on his son's forehead. He wanted to reach up and rub it off. "Look," Max said.
    Rafferty looked at a full-page ad that screamed STOP THE DESECRATION. Rafferty didn't want to read any more, though he took in the next block of type, only slightly smaller than the first: A PRECIOUS NEW ORLEANS LITERARY LANDMARK IN PERIL.
    "I've seen enough," Rafferty said.
    "I'll take care of it."
    "No, Max." Rafferty tried to keep his voice steady.
    Max rolled on. "There's a lot of boilerplate crap about history and literature in there to give it the illusion of rationality, and it's signed 'Fans of Josephine Claiborne,' but the outbursts are actionable and we know who's really behind this."
    "Max."
    "They know they can't sue, so they try this stunt, turning the public against us. Well, now we can sue."
    Rafferty reached out and put his hand gently on his son's shoulder. "Max. We should think this through. Ask some basic questions. Is this particular building so important . . ."
    "It's important to me," Max said, and there was no anger in his voice, no issues of control, only the hurt of a child. "It's for me, Dad." He seemed to hear his own tone. He sharpened his voice and waved the newspaper. "This can hurt us. All over town."
    For the second time in two days Rafferty felt panicky, this time at the prospect of his son telling him to choose-Josephine or him. "Let's talk about this later," Rafferty said.
    "Don't you trust me?" Max said.
    "I do. That's not the issue."
    "Then what is?"
    "Later."
    "You sent me to Harvard . . ."
    Rafferty thrashed around for a way to end this for the moment. He said, "Max. Let's argue later. We're standing in a the middle of a goddamn church, for Christ's sake."
    Max blinked and then he shrugged and shot his father a little smile. "You're a goddamn good defender of the faith there, Dad," he said, and he turned and went out the doors of the cathedral.
    Rafferty stood for a time in the narthex and tried to figure out what it all meant. He looked at his watch. Josephine would be arriving any minute. This cleared his head. They'd talk about the LeBlanc House directly. They'd work it through.
    So Rafferty stepped out of the cathedral into Jackson Square and he sat down on a bench and he watched the Catholics going in clean and coming out soiled with their own mortality, and a fortune-teller set himself up nearby, ready to resume his alternate view of the future, and a skinny young man took a saxophone out of a case and laid the case open for donations and he started licking his reed. Rafferty looked at his watch. The ashen foreheads drifted by. The musician licked his reed some more, licked on and on until Rafferty wondered if this was his talent, he would lick his reed all afternoon to the delight of a crowd of tourists. Rafferty looked at his watch. She was late.
    And it got worse. Rafferty sat, and eventually the saxophonist actually played, and Josephine did not come. Neither did any crowds for the saxophonist, and he stopped and packed his instrument and went away, and the fortune teller fell asleep-didn't he know from his cards that there'd be no customers today?-and Josephine was forty-five minutes late, and then an hour late, and Rafferty rose. He'd been able to suspend all serious thought till he could talk to her but now there was no keeping his worst fears out of his head. She'd stood him up. And the ad was her declaration why.
    For a long moment, Rafferty didn't know what to do.

~

Along Magazine Street, the restaurants and the coffeehouses and the antique shops and the bookstores were open, the hangovers and the penance of their owners having been dealt with by noon. The LeBlanc House sat implacably beneath its palms and there was no sign of life in the windows. A car whisked by. A bald man trailed behind a small white dog who snuffled past on a leash. Another car ground its gears and accelerated along in the opposite direction, and the street fell silent. The palm fronds quaked almost imperceptibly from a low-grade breeze. And then Rafferty McCue was standing on the sidewalk, contemplating this house.
    Max was right. It would make a wonderful restaurant. But Rafferty was paying a very high price. Perhaps higher than he could imagine, even with ashes on his forehead. He sagged before the LeBlanc House, sagged as if he were as old as this place and fallen into shambles. What was the point of coming here? He turned to leave.
    But he took a last look at LeBlanc House. It was his, after all. It was Max's. He quaked at this thought as faintly as the palm fronds, and he didn't know why, though he knew it wasn't from pleasure. He stood in suspension for a moment and then he stepped forward, hesitating briefly at the realtor sign hung with the red SOLD placard, and then he moved beneath the windmill palms and up the front steps to the door. He peered in. There was a staircase before him. And for the second time this day a veteran resident of New Orleans who should never have expected a door to be unlocked on an empty house tried the knob.
    He instantly followed the swing of the door and he closed it behind him. He stood in the foyer and drew in the smell of the place, deeply, that strange mixture of mildew and old flowers and cooking oil that had burned away years ago and some animal something, which was perhaps just two hundred years of humanity come and gone in this space. He and Max would fill it with the smell of good food and they would fill it with people talking and laughing and taking their ease. Rafferty felt good about what he was doing with his life. And he felt terrible, standing in this foyer, knowing that what he was doing made this woman he'd held in his arms despise him.
    He thought to turn around and leave, but the house itself had let him come in. He had to know her. He thought to go to the kitchen. But that felt like a slap in Josephine's face. He should appreciate the place first as she no doubt appreciated it. He looked up the staircase. Max had spoken of the large room on the second floor and Rafferty climbed the stairs.
    There was a landing and a turning and he went up and his footfalls grated in the silence and then he emerged into blindness, the light from the French windows wiping his senses clean for a moment in their contrast with the dimness of the stairway and now the great room that lay around him. He stood now facing to the rear of the space, and his eyes adjusted and in the dimness he could see an old trunk and a few tattered boxes against the far wall and a long table listing downward over a missing leg. The floor felt vast. The ceiling was high. There was a vague glimmer of a chandelier in the shadows. He turned to the front of the room and jerked back. Between the two windows lay a body.
    Rafferty moved toward it, squinting against the light. It was a woman. She was dead. And then he realized it was her. Josephine, lying on her back on the floor, her hands folded on her chest, her mouth slightly open, her eyes closed forever. He threw himself forward onto his knees, leaning to her, flares of panic streaking through his head, his arms, and he reached out, his hand trembling, and he pulled it back. He couldn't touch her. He had to touch her. This was his fault. And so he bent down, very near, bent to her and he kissed her on her barely parted lips. She was still warm. And she stirred.
    He jerked back again. "Thank God," he cried.
    Josephine opened her eyes and she looked into the face hovering over her and she thought for a moment that she was in her coffin, that she'd awakened to find the man who would drive a stake through her heart. But no. It was Rafferty. She was merely sleeping. "You should have awakened me," she said.
    "I did," he said. "I thought you were dead."
    "You think you woke me from the dead?"
    "No. I . . . it's OK now. I was wrong."
    "Did you kiss me?"
    Rafferty was ashamed. He'd taken advantage of her. "I . . . well . . . I thought I was kissing your dead body."
    "That's an excuse?" she said, though she knew she wasn't angry. "It's a good thing I woke up. Who knows what else you might've done."
    "But if you were dead, you never would have known."
    "It's hard for me to say, Oh, well, that's OK then. Don't you know how to make up better reasons?"
    "Not on Ash Wednesday."
    Josephine sat up and leaned back against the wall. "I fell asleep," she said. "I broke into your restaurant and fell asleep. I was up all night."
    "Writing."
    "Not writing, thanks to you."
    "Look," Rafferty said, "I know I'm Catholic, but I can't take all this guilt. I'm still dealing with your ad."
    "Ad?"
    Rafferty realized at once that Josephine knew nothing about it. He eased himself onto the floor beside her and also leaned against the wall. "It's just something between our kids," he said.
    "Our kids." Josephine suddenly felt weary again.
    They sat in silence for a long moment. Then Josephine said, "It's a lovely space, isn't it."
    "It will be."
    "It is now. Has always been." She tapped her forehead with her fingertip. "In here."
    Rafferty looked at her and he understood and he smiled. She did not see the smile. She was seeing the floor lit with gas lamps and aswirl with dancers and Desiree and Marcellus spun by, staring deep into each other's eyes. And she heard the music. But it was out of period. Desiree and Marcellus danced to the Masquerade Waltz.
    And now Rafferty was standing before Josephine and he was offering his hand and the same music was in his head and he felt the sudden brilliant flare of the chandelier and the music was all around and Josephine took Rafferty's hand and she rose with quite wonderful grace and she slid into his arms and they swirled around the floor onetwothree as if this were the dance they'd danced at the beginning of their story onetwothree and they spun but now the masks were gone their faces were naked and they looked into each other's eyes and they each were ready to say to their children give it up onetwothree and they were ready to touch onetwothree and just as each step they took was as one so too did they stop at the same moment on the same beat and the music played on in their heads onetwothree and Josephine whispered "Bring your face close" and Rafferty did and Josephine rose to him and she bared her teeth and she bit him on the neck, very gently, drawing no blood at all.

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