Bayou Sunset – Bette
As part of my unspoken, but instantaneous demotion from captain to lowly deckhand, I’ve been left with closing up for the night, and the promise of a cold drink when I’m finished. Trust me, I’d like to be finished.
“Where are the rest of the fucking people who work around here?” I ask aloud to no one in earshot, and certainly not my mother or Nellie. They wandered off with the tourists ten minutes ago.
I stick my neck under the cold stream of water spurting out of cooler number three, that had I dragged off the boat a minute ago. “Oh my God, finally.” My temperature begins to drop, and lying prone on the pier, with rivulets of cold water running over me, I feel the X in relax.
Peeling back my bandage, my slightly crusty stab wound is throbbing at the moment from all my lifting and twisting, and the thought of a pain pill I don’t have slides across my mind. Even with the concern on Tina’s face, while Miss Laredo poured a single malt Scotch over my bleeding gash to sterilize it, there was a silent agreement between us – opting for under the radar barroom surgery meant no police report, and that was the only way to go.
My ears suddenly tune to the sound — somewhere inside this creaking boathouse — of an old refrigerator coming alive.
“If there’s a God, there’s cold beer in it.” And with that hope, wincing as I rise up from the dock, I begin to hunt it down.
“I have the same bad habit,” says the crisp British accent of a blonde headed woman, who appears around the corner of the boathouse.
She nods at my stab wound. “Of making enemies.”
Startled, I drop my shirt and frown at her suspiciously. “Any beer in the fridge?”
She unlatches the ancient door. “Two vastly different choices, PBR or Banks’s ale from England.”
“Banks. Never had one.”
We lean against the boathouse and watch the sun going down. Finally, she breaks the silence and leans over to shake my hand, “Call me, Savoy.”
“Bette Porter.” I notice her warm strong grip. “Nellie walked off, calling something back about battening down for the night. I improvised.”
She drops her captain’s cap back on the steering wheel where I’d left it. “And Mary’s your mum? A lovely lady.”
“I didn’t catch your name, it was unusual.”
“Savoy. Every hundred years someone in my family takes a turn at getting tagged with it. I was held upside down, spanked at 2 am one morning, and it was mine.”
Nellie calls to us from the porch. “Savoy? Bette? Sazeracs?”
An hour later –
After a hot shower, a much needed Percoset from Nellie, followed by a cryptic chat with my mother, I’ve entered Nellie’s impromptu dinner party on a mission: Listen carefully and trust no one.
It’s so like my mother, I’ve begun to realize.
Back in our guestroom, she had whispered, “There’s a lot of money here and there in this family, Bette.”
“But surely, Mother, no one’s coming over here to steal it — tonight.” I had emphasized.
“Very astute of you to be thinking that way. I’m sure you’re right, Nellie would have a safe.”
“Hold on, Mother. Are you really serious?” Then, I had pawed some more in my suitcase — specifically packed for Dallas — so not here.
“Bonds, titles to property…oil leases. Surely, she’d have stowed those papers safely at the bank.”
My blood stained blouse, with the sliced through knife hole, had ended up in my hand. “Exactly, what’d you think’s going on here?”
“If she didn’t have on nail polish, my guess is we’d see discoloration, and the traces of arsenic poisoning under her nails.”
“You can’t be serious!” I had shouted too loud.
Mother had glared at me. “Lower your voice, and listen to me, if I’d thought you were an idiot, I wouldn’t’ve brought you.”
I had replied in a hoarse whisper, “I’m not a fucking idiot, and change your tone with me.”
We had locked eyes for a moment, until hers had softened, and she had kissed me on the cheek before walking away. “Of course, I don’t think that.”
Holding court from her couch, Nellie entertains her parlor full of guests. The Mayor, I’ve gathered is her late husband, the Congressman’s political protégé, and his wife, a rotund and mischievously smiling woman, whose eyes dart frequently in my direction, and the quieter, less well-groomed couple, Gator and his wife, Louanne.
In an elegantly upholstered wing chair, Savoy flips through British motorcar magazines, and appears to ignore everyone, including me.
Nellie’s cousin, Evangeline, the mayor’s wife, leans against the bar.
“What can I get you?” I ask.
Evangeline laughs conspiratorially. “So, you’d fly to New Orleans without your husband?”
Savoy gives her lips a slight pursing twitch, that quickly disappears.
I hold up a stainless steel cocktail shaker. “How about a Rob Roy, a Sazerac, a martini, perhaps?”
Across the room, Mother is deep in conversation with Nellie and The Mayor. Louanne and Gator hang back near the French doors that open onto the porch, as if readying for an escape.
Evangeline calls back to her husband, “Martinis Bud, watch me now!”
His attention peels away for a moment to her, then quickly back to Nellie. “Some days, like the one I had today, I wish you’d run again.” He ends with a sad, then growing sadder laugh.
“What’s the problem, Bud?” Nellie takes his arm, as he joins her on the couch.
“A dirty martini, the dirtier the better,” Evangeline finally decides. “So, what’d you think of our little town?”
“Town?” I shake her martini, then drop in an olive.
“Honey, there’s civilization a few miles from here! Over where I live.”
Bud’s voice booms from the couch. ”Believe it or not, we need a public decency ordinance to stop, if you can believe it, people from showing off their backsides in public.”
“As if that weren’t apparent.” Nellie sadly shakes her head.
“As if you’d draw the line at that.” My mother adds.
“As if anybody listens.” finishes The Mayor.
“There went your tiny civilization.” Savoy cracks in her British accent to Evangeline.
“You are such a snob,” Evangeline sneers before she stomps off.
Savoy slides a look over at me. “Conceit is the foundation of culture, don’t you think, Bette?”
From across the room, Nellie sends Savoy a silent signal — Gator and Louanne need attending.
Then, Mother appears at my elbow.
“What’ve you gotten, so far?”
“Me? Drink orders. Mother get me a crossword puzzle, or a racing form, or something.”
“How about a bar stool?” She looks around hopefully, but finding none. “The Mayor and Nellie go way back.”
“To where the skeletons are buried?” I play along.
“Most definitely,” she whispers, “I have a plan for him. So, you turn those special charms of yours on Savoy.”
I rinse out the mixer and fiddle with the liquor bottles, a deepening frown clouds my face. Mother taps me firmly on the arm. “Did you not think I meant, now?”
Dallas Bistro – Tina
Alice slides into the booth across from me, continuing to talk, as if she’d never left. “This just in. A very interesting piece of news.” Alice looks at me expectantly, and wags her iPhone.
“And…?” I answer her with a slight singing tone — to get on with it.
“Word is: Your guy, Aaron at Shaolin, has a gambling problem.”
“Medium or big?” I think back to his overly long lunches of late.
“Big, or people wouldn’t be talking about it.”
“You, an infamous gossip monger, know better than that.”
“I’ve never liked that word.”
“Two words, Alice.” I point at her. “Gossip monger.”
“No thanks you’s necessary. Did you hear me? Your picture could be in trouble.”
My stomach descends a few feet to the floor. As much as I cannot say it — ever, ever, ever out loud — career wise, I need this movie. “I heard you,” I finally admit.
The waitress delivers our wine.
After a sip, Alice continues. “On the hospital front, sounds like the tests didn’t kill either of them. Shane’s taking a cab to meet us – so ready to get away from her mother.”
“So needed a break from Sue Ellen.”
“By the way, I’m seeing Miss Laredo later. I’d ask you to come, but…Trouble seems to follow you.”
“No, that’s okay, Alice, but let’s set the record straight. Since I’ve known you – let’s see – you’ve been flat broke, then had a show on TV — outing people. You’ve been hired, fired, and nearly jailed after your pill head self-destruction. Most ridiculous though, was when you became a Yoga freak.” I shake my head at her in disbelief.
“Seriously? That Yoga business was all Helena.” Then, her eyes narrow. “But hey, Tina, anytime you’re ready to talk about it — I’ve got a few dozen questions after meeting your sister.”
Outside Nellie’s House – Bette
I slip out onto the balcony and down fourteen steps, and I’m in the shadows of Nellie’s house. Mother can’t seriously think I’m going to hit on Savoy for intel? My mother, the artist, is imagining things. I’m sure of it.
At the bottom of the steps I find a large flashlight, and flipping on its beam, I explore the property.
Then, I hear Gator and Savoy’s voices. “How’d it go in New Orleans?” Gator’s cajun accent asks first.
“The lawyer says the BP twats aren’t leaving me alone. No joy there.”
“You know she needs you.”
“I’m not leaving. They’ve blackballed me in London, anyway.”
“Out there the fishing’s still off. Half my catch’s got oil in their bladders. Nobody should be selling that.”
“We’re okay, tonight. I shopped in New Orleans on my way here.”
“It’s bad it’s this way.” Gator’s voice fades.
I creep farther back into the shadows, tiptoe up the steps and back into the party.
The Dinner Party
As the Mayor scoots Mother’s chair out, she shoots me a look to slip in next to Savoy.
“Nellie’s and Augustine’s dinners,” Savoy says smiling up at the light cocoa colored woman who’s carrying a soup terinne of steaming seafood gumbo, “are always delicious. No restaurant in New Orleans can match them.”
Augustine taps Evangeline’s arm as she reaches for the loaf of hot French bread. “Don’t eat too much, you hear me?”
Evangeline shrinks away, and looks guilty.
Augustine announces the rest of her menu, “After this, there’ll be trout almondine with crabmeat, puffed potatoes and steamed asparagus with hollandaise sauce.”
Nellie ceremoniously taking her first bite, and in seconds, we all dig in.
“Mary,” begins The Mayor after several moments, “you never met The Congressman, did you? He was quite a man.”
“Bud’s entrée into politics.” Nellie explains.
“Me and Charlie, we both came in on his coattails.” The Mayor says.
Savoy whispers to me, “Charles is her son. He served in the State Senate.”
“You must be proud of him.” I inadvertently put my foot right in it.
“Oh! Not hardly?” Evangeline sings out.
Nellie braces her emotions. “There was a bridge and some missing money and Charles is doing five to ten.”
My mother stares down the table at me, as if I, too, were a convict. “So sad, to have a felon in the family.”
Evangeline continues my faux pas. “When is Charles getting out?”
“Bud, you’re taking me. When’s his next parole hearing?”
“Coming up real soon, I think.” The mayor says.
“Don’t forget now, Bud, you’re center stage during The Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.”
I whisper to Savoy, “Not possible. It can’t be named that.”
“Things are very counterintuitive down here.”
Louellen hands her empty bowl to Augustine, who replaces it with trout loaded with crabmeat. “Will you be singing the National Anthem again, Evangeline?”
“Ninth year in a row, I’m proud to say, yes I am!”
Savoy’s eyes sail up to the ceiling. “Only when I imagine myself with a severe head injury does it begin to make any sense.”
On Nellie’s front porch –
At nearly midnight, with the old ladies all safely down in bed, Savoy and I share a bottle of cognac.
She lets out a long stream of blue smoke. “Bette, I looked you up, both you and your mother.”
“I’m happy to say, we’re not after you.”
She blows out a smoke ring. “Lucky for you.”
“In more ways than you can imagine, but seriously, are you in some kind of trouble?”
“A fucking mess, alright.”
“My mother won’t leave, if she thinks her friend’s not okay with you.”
“She’s not harboring a fugitive, at least not anymore.”
“Go on.” I wait patiently and sip my cognac. The night outside is surprisingly cool with the breezes off the water, and the sky, a deep space jet black and sprayed with a thousand stars.
I stifle a yawn. In an hour, I’ll go to sleep, but not until I hear Savoy’s story.
“For a long time my company lied every chance it could get about the real number of barrels per minute that were gushing out down there.”
“By how much?”
“Tens of thousands and then millions!” She shouts. “There was fucking oil everywhere. Absolutely, everywhere! I went off my head and called The Guardian, and it wasn’t too much later they started printing BP’s real oil flow, in bpm’s. That’s barrels per million.”
Then, a long silence.
“That caused a massive shit storm, and I had to run.” Her leg nervously jiggles. “I guess blowing up my life was worth it? Right?”
“Only you know the answer.”
Painfully, she sighs. “Whales and thousands of oiled dolphins and birds still died.”
“Maybe not as many, if you’d kept silent?”
“Fuck, I hope so!”
“I think what you did was brave.” I lift up out of my chair about to announce that I’m off to sleep, when she stops me cold.
“I Googled you. I think I said that.” Savoy begins to laugh, and finally catching her breath, she says, “You are so gay. The stuff I read about you on the Internet! You’re hilarious.” She wipes her eyes of tears. “I hope you’ll stay longer.”
“I get that a lot, especially from my lawyer. You want my headlines, instead Savoy? You can have them!”
“She’s pretty though, your fiancée.”
“Very.” I smile, satisfied at the thought. “You seeing anyone?”
“Me? No, I’m keeping my head down driving swamp boat tours hoping things will blow over soon.”
“Will Charles get out of prison early?”
“Good Lord! You can’t think I’m interested in him!”
“No, no, forget that! But is he a good son?”
“Hang on, I’m not too drunk. What was Shakespeare’s line for Othello?”
“I’d embarrass myself, if I even tried.”
“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains. That’s how I feel about Charles coming home, but I’ll be long gone by then.”
For more of Bette’s continuing adventures in the bayou, stayed tuned for the next post #17 coming soon.