In an old cafe on Frenchmen Street in The Faubourg Marigny, a ceiling fan churns, throwing dust into the eyes of an old painting of Madame Rose Nicaud. A man dressed in a black Armani suit with a diamond-tipped cane pulls up a chair at the table where I’m writing. He excuses himself for interrupting and offers me a glass of sparkling water.
“You want a twist-a-lemon with that?” he says.
On his index finger he wears a voodoo legba ring indicating he’s an intermediary—a guardian at the gate of the spiritual crossroads. A leather pouch hangs from his shoulder. I recall seeing him once presiding over a ceremony at the Louisiana Voodoo Spiritual Temple. He spoke about gris-gris amulets, charms and dolls used by enslaved Africans to cast spells on their wicked owners. Stories emerged about drownings under mysterious circumstances. As disease and the child mortality rate increased, slaves found comfort and solidarity in their rituals. He spoke about the powers of Voodoo Queens and their influence on the city of New Orleans. He rambled on in English so onlookers and tourists could understand before switching to Creole. I remember hearing something about a Lil’ Queenie rising. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but I stayed and listened ‘till it was over.
“Ayva’s hurtin’” he says, folding his arms and leaning across the table. “It’s unclear to her why you don’t tell your wife. She says you’d be lying to yourself if you don’t.”
He opens his pouch. Amulets and little charms spill out over the marble surface. His eyes burning like paprika on roasted almonds.
“It would be unfair after all she’s done for you.”
Directly behind his head, up against the large window, an overgrown banana tree bends from the weight of its fruit. Its leaves yellow from stress. He moves his chair closer. I smell the fragrance of her lemon-magnolia perfume in the fibers of his coat.
“Y’know her visa’s running out,” he says, as he signals to the waitress for another glass. “She can’t wait around here forever.”
I turn my head and look back at the painting of ol’ Madame Rose. Patron saint of this establishment. A former slave who saw opportunity despite all odds stacked against her. I take a moment to absorb this scene and all that’s happened to me over the past year, and wonder to myself if this is about us, and a lifetime collaboration together, or about her visa.
“Her homeland’s turning into a dictatorship,” he says, tapping second line syncopated rhythms with his shoes. “She goes back, she’ll get squeezed. There’s no need for a woman with her talents in a country like that. Here, she’s the most sought after tattoo artist in the crescent city. Y’know my daughter uses her, exclusively. She pays top dollar for her illustrations. If she goes back, her wild spirit and creative juices will be rung out. Artists ‘r always the first to get crushed when ‘da walls cave in.”
The waitress drops another glass on the table. He picks up a slice of lemon and closes his large fist around it.
“You want some of this?” he says, watching the juice drip slowly into his glass.
I refuse his offer.
“She makes you happy, right? She inspires your photography, right? Yesterday, I had some business in the quarter. Afterwards, I was walking up Decatur St. to get a Po’ boy and saw her unmistakable face hanging on the walls of your gallery. You were busy bullshittin’ with someone who just made a purchase so you didn’t see me. But those black and white portraits of her are so beautiful. I almost cried. The world’s at your feet. This is your moment, and all because of Lil’ Gem Magnolia.”
His round eyes seem to dance when he mentions her other name.
“Y’know she was left for dead by this guy who was doin’ bad stuff to her. She got a big scar to prove it. You must’ve touched it, I’m sure?”
He rolls up his jacket sleeve exposing the underside of his wrist.
“Even convinced me to get a little one.”
The floorboards creak as he pushes his chair closer.
“Y’see we learned from each other—this world ain’t so bad if you just make some time.”
He looks up at the old photo, removes the ring from his finger and lays it on the table.
“She’s comin’ to us for dinner tonight. What’ll I tell her?”
It was midnight,
the first time
An inbound streetcar near Canal Street
before heading uptown
At Common Street
she hopped on,
white blouse covered in red ink stains
and her eyes
like carnival beads.
We ride along St. Charles under a canopy of live oak,
past Louisiana, Napoleon and Jefferson.
To the bend at the levee.
Her arm brushed my shoulder,
as she rose to pull the cord for her desired stop
The buzzer still rang through my ears at South Carrolton
Near the river,
dark and still
A warm breeze
‘round a magnolia tree
like lemon perfume
I rethink the tense of my story,
A bayou sunrise painted on her olive skin,
Tendrils of Spanish moss clinging to a bald cypress tree
The floodgates open
Bougainvillea creeping through wrought iron,
interlaced with pink azaleas
exploding with the promise of spring
And like a blind man gifted sight,
I see her journey,
from the inside, out
‘look at the river,’ she says, lips barely parting
a new story,
high tide near the levee
a little gem magnolia offering rare midnight bloom
A creeping fog curls out of the river,
sliding through alleyways,
settling under street lamps.
A river barge turns,
a massive wake pools
water near Decatur Street.
I walk over worn cobblestones,
gilded silver by moonlight,
rubbed smooth by my desperate search for Ayva.
Her favorite band is playing at Tipitina’s,
I hop the streetcar uptown.
There’s a good chance she’ll be there
Tonight I’ll tell her —I’m ready to settle,
to leave my other world behind
I recognize the bartender and yell to him over the music,
“Hey, where y’at—you see Ayva?”
“She was here earlier. Had a lot to drink. She started dancin’ with this stiff looking guy in a black suit. Had this man bag hangin’ off his shoulder. She said she got some gig on a river boat, or a barg, celebrating her last night on land. Honestly, her story didn’t make much sense, but man, you should’ve seen her dance. Cleared the floor for a while. She wanted another drink, but I gave her water, instead. Looked like she was wilting from da’ heat. Dehydrated and totally wasted. You lookin’ for her?”
Like white petals against bright green foliage
It’s there, if you look
In winter the bud rots, leaving only memory of nocturnal fragrance
Dust settles thick on my camera’s lens
A year will goes by
‘Always looking for her,’ I tell him. Wouldn’t you?
I walk along Tchoupitoulas Street
To the bend at the river
I listen to the rhythmic pulse of waves against levee walls,
and feel a magnetic pull
Mystery surrounds me,
like creeping silt in the basin
The smell of jasmine is sweet
In the distance a massive ship turns,
unable to navigate through sediment.
And I see Ayva stumbling towards me,
her eyes peer through the dense fog
In one hand she holds a white dress, stained with red ink
In the other,
a bucket and shovel
Paul Rabinowitz is an author, photographer and founder of ARTS By The People, a nonprofit arts organization based in New Jersey. Paul’s photography, short fiction and poetry have appeared in many magazines and journals including Nailed, Long Exposure Magazine, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Pif Magazine, The Metaworker, Burningword and others. Paul is the author of Limited Light, and a novella, The Clay Urn, (Main Street Rag, 2020). Paul is currently at work on a novel Confluence and a collection of prose poems, Grand Street, Revisited.
Image Credit: Paul Rabinowitz. Model: Tamara Zbrizher