Excerpt of Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans by Dan Baum
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It was the ruined two story house across from Ronald's that opened the biggest hollow in Ronald's chest. The Alexanders hadn't yet shown up since leaving the storm, and Ronald didn't know when, if ever, he'd see his buddy Pete.
The Alexanders had moved in to that upstairs apartment when Ronald and Pete were in first grade, and the two boys had always had their best adventures togetherstringing tin can telephones between their houses, tying towels around their necks to become superheroes, digging machine gun nests up under Mrs. Butler's star jasmine, and, lately, trying to get up next to that girl Janice who whooped and hollered in the Morning Star Baptist choir like Aretha Franklin herself.
The Alexanders were differentcity people, Sixth Ward Creole Catholics a little lost among the vegetable gardens and chicken coops of the Lower Ninth Ward. Pete's mother, Miss Jerry Dean, didn't linger on the sidewalk talking to Mrs. Payton or Mrs. Williams the way Ronald's mom did. She kept to herself, upstairs. At first, she didn't much like dark skinned Ronald bulldogging up her front stairs to bang on the door, and she'd unhitch the screen with a reluctant sigh to let him in. As for Pete's dad, he worked at Godchaux's Department Store on Canal Street and came home every night with two quarts of beernot Dixie or Falstaff, but Miller in those dazzling clear bottles, like a white man in a commercial. Every now and then a two-door Ford would pull up to the Alexanders', and a white man wearing a porkpie hat and sunglasses would climb out and walk right up the front steps and insideMiss Jerry Dean's uncle. To Pete it was the most normal thing in the world to call a white man kin.
Pete himself had copper-colored skin, wavy hair lying in oiled squiggles along his scalp, and the long straight nose of his Cherokee grandmother. There was none of the sugar plantation in Pete Alexander, none of the earnest country ways of the Lower Nine. He was sly and crafty, with a jazzy way of moving and veiled street smarts. He liked to play with hair, of all things. One day Ronald had let Pete straighten his, and when it was done, it lay across his skull like a Rampart Street gigolo; Mama had about died from laughing. Hair was a way to a girl's heart, Pete always said. Let me do Janice's, and I'll be halfway there.
Ronald couldn't remember a day without Pete Alexander in it. By third grade, Miss Jerry-Dean was as good as Ronald's second mother, and if Ronald went home crying from one of Miss Jerry Dean's whippings, Mama sent him out back for a switch to give him another. The hole they left in his life was bigger than the gap in the levee. Every day since the storm, Ronald checked the Alexanders' house for signs of life a dozen times. But since the morning of the flood, the two-story house loomed over Deslonde Street as silent as a tombstone. The Alexanders were gone, maybe back forever to the Sixth Ward.
No cars moved along Deslonde Street. Easy chairs and sofas that Ronald recognized from paying calls with Mama lay sodden on the curbs. Flower gardens had been flattened, and the air was a heavy green musk, not healthy and alive like pond slime but dank and mildewed, foul with gasoline. Deslonde Street smelled like death.
Before Betsy, life had rolled by on a great, slow-moving wheelevery pebble, every live oak, every fiddling cricket as familiar to Ronald as his own hands and feet. Now that world was gone. He'd been sleepwalking before. He was awake now, but it was too late.
cor jesu high school
John Guidos Jr. wanted nothing more at fifteen than to be invisible. Unfortunately, he was bigwith a heavy square head and blocky across the chest. So he compensated by staying quiet, speaking only when spoken to. And he prayed a lot.
His was an all-Catholic world, and Hurricane Betsy had given his parents, his priest, and the brothers at Cor Jesu High School a lot to talk about. Was the storm divine retribution against the sin and squalor of New Orleans? And if so, why had God chosen to wipe out the homes of those poor colored people in the Lower Ninth Ward and leave standing those dens of iniquity in the French Quarter? The consensus was to accept the storm as evidence of God's infinite grace and mercy, which was fine by John. He didn't like thinking too much about sin. He wondered constantly about his own.
Excerpted from Nine Lives by Dan Baum Copyright © 2009 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.