29.95 and some change
Rather than be an irritating writer who won't reveal any of her secrets, I'll just tell you straight out: the title refers to the geographical latitude of New Orleans, the story's setting. It was one of those happy accidents, coming full circle after I made the husband a geography teacher. Also, this is a true story, and it is entirely made up. And that's all you're gonna get...
We are walking. When my husband could walk. Before Katrina. Before the CAR ACCIDENT that has nothing to do with this story.
We cross Esplanade, the top boundary of the French Quarter. Northeast, my husband corrects. A geography teacher, a precise sort. This was before GPS, when he still had a purpose. I’m obsolete, he’s said more than once lately, from his wheelchair. I smile, gummy and pink. We are over twenty years in. A smile is my only defense.
We are on the other side of the street, officially out of the Quarter. A cheap camera bounces between my breasts. Always big, bigger now from pregnancy, from breastfeeding. No one told me, I think quite often, no one told me. The baby is sixteen months. A boy. No one told me.
The graveyard is visible up the street. Men the color of Illinois soil mill about. I am not afraid. I notice, but I am not afraid. We were told by the man on the phone that it was safe. Ya, he said, for sure, just don’t bring no valuables, you gonna have no problem. The men outside the cemetery gate do not talk to each other. They do not look our way.
Scuse me, the woman says. She carries shopping bags, a purse slung across her torso, a bandolier. She is shorter than me, shorter than my husband. He is not a tall man. She stares at my breasts. I do not cross my arms.
You don’t wanna go there. You not from here. She points at my breasts. The camera.
You don’t wanna go there. She points at the cemetery.
This only cost thirty dollars, I say.
It doesn’t matter. They killed a baby last week for his shoes.
My husband laughs. Who are they? he asks.
Her eyes squint at him. The men. Those men. She points. You are not from here, you don’t know. She turns the pointer finger on my husband, wags it.
What should we do? He turns to me, a question. What would you do? A demand. Before, I would go ahead. Before, I would take pictures. Before, I would. Before.
I see you people all the time, she says to me. Her brown face is not unkind. I try to warn as many of you as I can. It is not safe for you here, even if you think it is. You cannot go everywhere.
No one told me, I say.
S’okay. S’okay, baby. She pats my saggy camera, accidentally touches my left breast. I think it was an accident.
You should know better, she turns to my husband. You should know.
I’m not from here either, he says. His sweat is heavy, his skin like glazed chocolate.
She shakes her head. Merciless, unforgiving. You from somewhere, you should know.
We just wanted to see the graveyard, he begins, stops. The gatekeepers hoot at a squad car that creeps by.
Ain’t you seen one before? Her free hand holds her hip. Don’cha bury your dead where you from?
Yes, yes, of course, It’s just different, I say. We’re not savages, no matter what people say about Chicago.
It be different all right. Floods push bodies out into the streets. Some disappear. Nasty business. Why you wanna see that? Why you wanna take pictures?
For my son, I say quickly. So he knows.
I unnerstand that. Children need to know. Otherwise you end up like them. She shakes her shopping bag towards the cemetery.
But you can’t. You just can’t. He’ll have to find out some other way. Back with ya both, now, ya hear. Her voice pushes us back across Esplanade, where it is safe for people like us.
Now you know, she says. Now you know. She walks down the block, turns the corner at Barracks Street. She is gone. We are saved.
We walk back to our hotel on Chartres. Passing the corner where, last night, we witnessed a prostitute being arrested while we were on a mule-pulled carriage ride. It is a story, something to tell our son. When he is older, we agreed. Last night, the mule pulled us along the riverfront, the same river we were both raised on many miles North. Last night, my husband in the afterglow: We’ll come back down here for our twentieth anniversary, 2019. Our son will be eighteen. It is not a request.
Today, despite liberal sunscreen, my skin begins to burn. They were right, the sun is hotter here.
Degrees of latitude, my husband, still upright for now, says. I told you. He is right, I can’t say I did not know.