|The Ghost Seeker
2001 by Alex Shapiro
It was past six in the evening when Ann parked her car by the Aquarium and decided to walk to the hotel. She forgot to ask Julian about the dress code, but assumed she'd better find something nice in order to enter the Hyatt Hotel. The indigo dress contoured her body to perfection, swinging around her thighs, a palm above her knees, a wavy décolleté revealed the shadowy curve between her small breasts. Thanks to her driving with the window down, her left arm was darker than the right one. There was no jewelry, except for the silver cross, lost in the silky folds of the dress and the round silver bracelet fitting loosely on her tanned wrist.
As Ann entered the hotel, she took off her sunglasses and admired the delicate richness around her. There were women with aristocratic faces, shining in gold, surrounded by high-class men in summer slacks. The place was humming with valets pushing the wheeled baggage carts, opening doors, or guiding the travelers. Everything sparkled, from smiles, jewelry and uniform buttons, to windows, candelabras, and elevator doors. Ann was approaching the reception desk when she felt a warm breath on the back of her neck and recognized the sweet smell of his skin.
"Hi," Julian said. "I see you made it," he continued in a soft voice.
"Did you have any doubts?" Ann smiled and turned toward him. When she faced Julian, their eyes met at the same level and she was thankful for the five-inch string sandals she was wearing, not that she needed the extra height, but because they matched her dress.
"My, my, you look beautiful tonight." Julian turned Ann around, holding her hand up right, as if she was a ballerina performing a pirouette. "What's the occasion?" he laughed warmly at her.
"You want to tell me you don't deserve me in an evening dress?" she beamed at him, surprising herself.
"Now, now, child," Julian continued. "Aren't you glad you got out of the house, for some real food? You look you'd been living on grass, but, hey, it suits me just fine," he smiled shyly.
Ann wasn't sure if he was joking, or just being a jerk. "You mean veggies! and, for your information, I live in an apartment," Ann's eyes spat fire across the room. "Look!" She wasn't going to take his teasing.
"I do apologize." Julian lowered his head, like a scalded dog. "I heard there is a great panorama on the top level. Would you like to check it out?" he changed the subject.
"Sure, we can do that, I suppose," she agreed. "That's New Orleans' precious and only revolving rooftop restaurant. Hope you don't get dizzy," Ann continued, wondering if it had been a good idea to get to know him better, after all. But there is really nothing to lose...only a few more days away from the finish line, Ann thought to herself, lips barely apart. She could almost taste her own dark freedom in the air, certain that the coming weekend was her last.
Ann smiled quietly at Julian and, together, they moved toward the elevators, only to discover they've just missed their ride. Fortunately, the next one followed breaths later. As doors clinked close, Ann checked his hazed reflections in the shiny frame. His white shirt was buttoned up to his shoulders' level and his crème slacks molded his narrow waist, covering his legs in subtle folds. He wore light summer shoes with soft soles, which, Ann noticed, allowed him to move around with muted steps, like a black panther in the wild jungle.
A few moments later they were at the top floor, and after a few more steps, seated at a small table, facing the Mississippi River. There was still enough light outside to admire the view and the Riverboat Cruises. They ordered a veggie plate and two Pina Coladas, then rolled their squared armchairs side by side and watched the river and the French Quarters below. After a few minutes, a teen waitress brought their drinks together with two short, skinny straws, and placed a giant, round platter on the small table. There was ranch dressing in a bowl, in the center, surrounded by a garden worth of fresh veggies. Before leaving them alone again, the mini skirt waitress lit up a square shaped candle for them, then she vanished.
"Cheers!" Julian said, raising his drink.
"Cheers!!" Ann's hand followed his moves.
As their glasses touched in a squeaky cling, their eyes drilled into each other's souls.
Julian tasted the Pina Colada and made a grimace.
"You don't like it?" Ann smiled at him, her tongue patting dry the sweet drops of coconut drink on her upper lip.
"I'm not used to this kind of stuff," Julian said. "I don't really drink anything but Sprite and maybe, Mountain Dew. You know, the real one, not that diet stuff you drink." Julian glanced at the platter.
"Hey, should we start eatin' before I get all tipsy here?" His question invited her to dig in.
"Hmmm," Ann smiled, eyeing the food. "Raw veggies! My favorite!" She picked half a carrot with two fingertips and dunked it into the ranch dressing.
Julian followed her example and crunched into the celery sticks and cucumbers. She pointed different parts of the surroundings to him, as the restaurant was turning around, providing exquisite scenery of the Crescent City. Ann couldn't help but notice the grand piano on the center stage. She used to play as a kid, but then she stopped, as she did with almost everything else in her life. Lack of energy...too busy, Ann would explain. After a while, she became a one-task woman, in a society where multitasking was mandatory. She was certain she couldn't deliver what was expected from her. But it won't matter a thing by the coming weekend, her mind raged as she watched her new friend's face through the candle flame. What happened, after all? The question pinched her brains. When did it all start, this affair with death? She lifted an arched eyebrow. Over expectations from the world and under delivery from me, I guess, her thoughts echoed inside her mind. I am not perfect, after all, but at least I figured out the remedy, Ann sighed at the thought imagining herself signing the will, with long but steady strokes.
The second time around the piano, Ann and Julian spotted a group of four musicians preparing their instruments. The smiling waitress in short skirt brought the quartet drinks and changed a few words with the men. When almost passing the baby grand again, Ann stretched her swan-long neck to check out the unfamiliar group of musicians. They were all wearing shiny black shoes and outfits. The long tails of their jackets reminded Ann of a snake tongue, ready for attack. The musicians were joking and laughing with one another. They all seemed in their late fifties, Ann estimated, although, she'd never been able to guess anybody's age. The bald one was skinny and tall, his long fingers putting together a shiny saxophone. The shorter one played a few tunes on the piano; afterwards he pressed the center A hard and long, so that the group could tune in. The other two men were younger and with the same chocolate color skin as their colleagues, a tad darker than Julian's. Twenty minutes later, the music filled the air, blended with customers' voices and cigarettes' smoke, as the evening turned into night and the City of the Dead lit up.
"It looks like a New York of the South," Julian said, pensive.
"Does it, really?" Ann turned her eyes from the panorama windows to face her new friend.
"You have to visit the Big Apple! You can't appreciate this land of freedom if you don't see New York. You either like it or you don't. I adore it," he smiled, finished his drink. "Shall we go for another one?" he asked, raising the glass toward Ann.
"Nah, I don't think it would be a good idea. Then I'll get all tipsy and I still need to drive home." She smacked her lips quietly, enjoying the last drops of Pina Colada.
"Are you afraid I'd take advantage of you?" His long pinkie pushed his glasses against the root of his nose.
"You wouldn't do such thing now, would you?" That instant moment, she wasn't sure she'd mind if he tried it. "Beside, I'll meet your uncle tomorrow," Ann threatened, her face all smiley.
Is he willing to share it with me too--his peacefulness? What am I to do if he is for real? Ann couldn't help but wonder, as her eyes noticed his wide nail pad, almost a quarter of his finger. She sighed, tired and helpless.
"Shall we go now?" Julian glanced at her.
"Yeah, sure," Ann said, shaking her head as if to get rid of the reverie. "I'd like to show you a little of New Orleans on foot," she offered with a smile. "Would you like to see my favorite spot?" Ann inquired without concentrating on her heavy Southern drawl.
"I'd luv that," he tried to imitate her long drawl.
Julian paid and helped Ann out of her seat. A few moments later, the two were leaving the round restaurant with a last look outside, his hands holding Ann's arms in a friendly embrace.
Once in front of the hotel, a cool breeze washed their faces, snatching them inside the dark secrets of the City of the Dead. They walked on Canal Street and checked out the stores overflowed with Mardi Gras masks and costumes, and then, some more, with Louisiana native hot spices and Justin Wilson's famous cookbooks. There were T-shirts, and colorful beads, and New Orleans magnets. Julian insisted on buying her a Bourbon Street baseball cap. He slightly pressed the teal hat on her rusty hair and turned her face toward a skinny mirror. Ann had to admit that it made her look like a kid and giggled while he bought it for her. As the two new friends continued their walk and turned right, on Bourbon Street, they noticed police patrolling on horses. There were curvy women's bodies dancing in the shadows and groups of people waiting on each side of the street. Julian followed their eyes and watched them trying to catch a rainbow of beads thrown from the crowded balconies above.
When he finally turned his face toward Ann, his eyes were twin question marks.
"What's happening?" he gazed.
"That's Bourbon Street for you," Ann replied. "You have to flash it in order to get your beads." She pointed at the people in the balconies, jumping and screaming, and at the party jewels flying in the air.
Julian stared at her.
"I bought mine. I can still afford them, at only ninety-nine cents a piece," Ann answered his amazed look.
As they continued their wavy stroll on Bourbon, his fingers brushed over hers and she responded to his gentle squeeze with her own easy touch. Walking side by side, he put his left arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer, making her feel like a feather zigzagging into a warm shelter.
Before they knew it, the screaming crowds dimmed far behind them. Suddenly, the street was deserted and dark. Ann sensed that he wanted to stop, but she pulled him further. Julian looked at her, his mouth slightly open. Her finger pressed his sensual lips sealed then, continued her walk. After a few more blocks, the street noises vanished and so did the city lights. In the dark haze, the ghostly shapes of another kind of buildings awaited the two wanderers. It was not the largest in the area, but, possible, the closest to the main attractions. This mini-City of the Dead gave New Orleans its name.
The graves stood tall, quiet and lonely. Ann had to drag Julian on the last few feet of the street. She was shaking by the time they reached the iron spikes of the fence. The gate squeaked long and rusty, as it opened under Ann's push. She stepped on the dark alley and smelled the wet air, waiting for Julian to catch up with her. The wind wooed around the monuments of the dead as the graves stood high above the ground. Some were a shiny marble, others rough cement. There were fresh flowers on the knee-high metal surrounding the fancier looking graves, but they all looked as if would float away in the Mississippi swamps. That was one of the many stories behind the tombs built above the water. In the haunted places of Crescent City, the six-feet-under didn't make any sense.
"Legend says the bodies were pushed upward by the water," Ann whispered, as she stopped in front of a giant gray marble grave, three times her height. "People believed the dead became undead, leaving their places of rest, haunting the living for warm blood," she sighed. "All the voodoo dolls, all the vampire stories, this is where they all come from," she continued. "Later on, these myths became celebrated in books and movies," Ann explained, her eyes were glued to the inch thick writing in the black marble.
She never glanced, not even once, toward Julian, since they've entered the graveyard. Then and there, she was in her own world, allowing the real ghosts, as she called them, to take over her mind. She wanted to get used to them while she was still alive, so that her spirit would feel at home, afterwards, as Ann used to explain herself.
The cemetery ghosts were not the same ones as those chewing on her sick thoughts, but in a way, alike, though none of them could frighten her. For a moment, she thought about what would become of her own soul after the coming weekend. Better not become undead...just because I take my death into my own hands...the sudden thought slashed through her mind. It would mean an eternity of searching for my peace. Ann shook her head, trying to forget the sudden image shaping inside her head. Her own lifetime was more than she could handle. And I want my remains burnt to ashes, so that my soul won't have to burn forever afterwards, Ann said to herself as the weekend plans were taking over her brains, plus, of course, that would be cheaper...And it fits me; after all, I am a cheapo, the idea opened her face in a faint smile.
"Are you in a joyous mood? That's why you came here?" Julian asked, staring at her.
"Just thinking, that's all," she sighed, "meditating about the future does a body and mind a lot of good," Ann said, not mentioning her plans.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?" Julian asked, as he turned her slightly so that she could face him instead of the gray grave.
"Bourbon Street is my favorite." Her eyes sparkled in the dark. "This is, after all...it's the end of it, of the street, I mean," she continued. Ann swallowed her tears that quietly had her by the throat.
"Thanks for the tour," Julian said. Slowly, as if not to shake up the ghosts around them, he pulled Ann away from the tomb. "Let's go home. I know just the place".
She allowed him
to guide her all the way to the gate and, once there, turned and took a
last look at its dark peacefulness. The nosy lights called their names,
as the iron-gate squeaked long and rusty behind.
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