Almost There (A Twisted Tale)
New Orleans, 1912
The little girl ran as fast as her wobbly five-year-old legs could carry her, irrepressible joy shining in her dark brown eyes. Her pigtails bounced gaily, the ribbons tied around them precariously close to flying away with the brisk breeze blowing in from the pond.
James stooped down to one knee, his arms open wide, waiting for his little ray of sunshine to rush into his embrace.
“Come on, baby girl. I got you.” He scooped her up and spun her around. The hem of the green-and-yellow dress his wife, Eudora, had made for their daughter, Tiana, fluttered as they twirled around.
“You wanna dance with your daddy?” James asked as he set her on his hip and playfully pinched her chubby cheek.
“Yeah, Daddy. Let’s dance!”
He and his sweet girl rocked back and forth to the drumbeat of the band playing in the center of Congo Square.
Their family had gathered for the annual neighborhood picnic to celebrate the arrival of Mardi Gras, the biggest party on the face of the earth—and the most jubilant time of the year here in their hometown of New Orleans.
Blankets of every color and fabric adorned the square, each representing a family that had come to contribute to this beloved ritual. The air was fragrant with the aroma of home-cooked creole food, and the chatter of neighbors catching up with old friends competed with the music from the brass band.
“No, Daddy. I wanna dance like you do with Mama,” Tiana said.
James threw his head back and laughed. “And just how do I dance with your mama?”
“Like this.” She slid down his legs and placed her tiny feet on the tops of his much bigger ones. Then she reached for his hands. “Here, hold mine,” she said.
James’s hands swallowed hers as he wrapped them around her fingers.
“Is this right?” he asked.
“Yep.” Her pigtails bobbed with her emphatic nod. “Now we move like this!”
She swayed her hips from side to side, her dress rocking like a bell. She stared up at him with a cheerful, gappy smile. Her two front teeth had fallen out just a few days ago.
James looked over at Eudora, trying to catch her attention so that she could see her daughter in action. But his wife was busy laying out the feast he’d cooked that morning and entertaining the friends and family who were steadily dropping by to offer their congratulations on the new house he and Eudora had just purchased in the Ninth Ward.
It wasn’t the fanciest place, but it was a lot better than the one-room apartment they’d lived in for the past five years. There was a yard with enough room for a garden in the back, and a porch that James couldn’t wait to spend time on. A good, sturdy house that a man could be proud to raise a family in.
He looked down at his baby girl, imagining the years of happy memories to come in their new home, and his heart swelled with joy.
“What’s going on here?” Eudora asked as she sidled up to them.
“I’m dancing with Daddy the way he dances with you!” Tiana beamed.
“Is that so?” his wife asked.
“Yeah! Does this make me a grown-up?” Tiana asked.
“Don’t you worry about growing up anytime soon.” James chuckled. “I like my baby girl just as she is right now.”
Tiana pulled her hands away from his and jumped off his feet. She rushed over to her mother and shoved her toward James.
“Now you do it!” Tiana ordered. “Come on, Mama and Daddy. Dance.”
James held a hand out to his wife. “You heard the child,” he said.
Shaking her head at their daughter’s antics, Eudora placed her hand in his. She tugged Tiana close to her side, and together, the three of them rocked to the music.
Gratitude filled his chest, wedging into every corner and crevice. He had never asked for a perfect life, but somehow he’d been blessed with one anyway.
New Orleans, 1917
Tiana struck a match on the edge of the table and used it to light the wicks of the half-melted tapered candles she’d found in the drawer of the kitchen bureau. She’d wrapped tinfoil around the bases to catch the dripping wax, but now she wasn’t so sure about that. It took away from the romantic ambience she was trying to create.
“Can we come in now?” her mother called from behind their bedroom door.
“Not yet,” Tiana said. “Give me just a minute.”
She ran over to the stove and flipped over the beignets she’d set to frying a few minutes earlier, then used the stepping stool to retrieve a plate from the cupboard. Give her a few more years and she wouldn’t need this stool to reach the upper cabinets. Like her daddy always joked, she was sprouting up like a weed in his vegetable garden.
Tiana scooped up the hot beignets, added a little sugar on top, and took them over to the kitchen table. She filled a mason jar with water, then added the flowers that she’d picked on her walk home from school. She set it on the table in between the two candles.
“Perfect,” Tiana whispered. “Okay, y’all come out now!” she called. Her entire body vibrated with excitement as she waited to see their faces.
“Happy anniversary!” Tiana screamed when her mama and daddy entered the kitchen.
“Well, looka here! Did you make beignets, baby girl?”
“I sure did,” Tiana said, proudly lifting her chin in the air.
“These look better than any I’ve had down in the French Quarter,” her daddy said. “Between my gumbo and this girl’s beignets, I say we can open ourselves up a restaurant one of these days. What you think, Eudora?”
“I think I want to eat my beignets before they get cold,” her mother replied.
They all sat at the table and gorged on the fried doughnut squares until there were none left. Once they were done, her daddy sat back in his chair and rubbed his flat stomach.
“That was some fine beignets, Tiana. You really do have talent in that kitchen.”
“Thank you, Daddy!” Tiana’s smile grew so wide that her cheeks started to hurt.
James reached across the table and took Eudora by the hand. “How about an anniversary dance?”
They pushed their chairs back from the table and strolled to the center of the kitchen, between the stove and her mother’s sewing machine. Her daddy gathered her mama in his arms, and Mama laid her head against his broad chest as they began to sway.
“How are y’all gonna dance with no music?’ Tiana asked. She set her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her upturned palm. “Of course, if we had a gramophone, I could play music for y’all to dance to.”
“We don’t need no expensive gramophone to hear music,” her daddy said. “In this family, we make our own music.”
He started to hum a tune that made her mother blush like a schoolgirl.
Tiana put both elbows up on the table and smiled as she watched her parents rock slowly from side to side, their eyes closed and both singing softly, in their own world.
New Orleans, 1921
“Tiana, are you still in that kitchen?”
“Umm…maybe,” Tiana called over her shoulder. She blew at the steam rising up from the spoonful of gumbo she’d just taken from the pot and quickly slurped it up.
Her mouth twisted in a bemused frown as she tried to dissect the flavors hitting her tongue.
“I taste the cayenne and the roux. And the smoke flavor from the neck bones is there. What am I missing?” Tiana murmured.
Tiana jumped and turned at her mother’s call.
Eudora carried a bolt of fabric from her storage room in the rear of the house and dropped it next to her sewing machine. She plopped a hand on her hip and regarded her daughter with a stern, pointed look.
“There is nothing more to do with that gumbo other than to let it cook,” she said. “Now go finish up your schoolwork so you can be done by dinner.”
“I will, Mama,” Tiana said. “I just need to figure this out. I don’t know why I didn’t have Daddy write down his recipes before he left. I’m gonna have him do just that the minute he gets back home.”
“I think your daddy will have other things on his mind when he finally comes back home,” her mother said. “Besides, he never writes down a recipe. It’s always just a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”
Eudora walked over to the stove and gestured to the spoon Tiana held. “Let me have a taste.”
Tiana scooped up a helping of the brown liquid and held it up to her mother’s lips. After taking a sip, Eudora pointed to the cabinet that held the spices.
“Sprinkle in a bit of that ground sassafras,” she instructed.
Tiana did as she was told, then stirred up the gumbo. She took a taste, then smiled at her mama.
“Your daddy’s not the only one who knows how to cook, you know? He just likes doing it more than I do.” Eudora took the spoon from Tiana’s hand and bumped her with her hip. “Now go on and finish that homework.”
A half hour later, Tiana and her mother sat at their small kitchen table, enjoying her daddy’s signature dish. Even though gumbo was more of a Sunday meal, Tiana had decided to make it on this random Tuesday. She just wanted to feel closer to her daddy.
He’d been away for over five months now, fighting a war in a far-off place that Tiana had only read about in her schoolbooks.
“It’s a good thing I made a big pot of gumbo,” Tiana said. “Because I’m going for seconds.”
“Well, if you’re getting seconds, so am I,” her mother said with a laugh.
Just as Tiana pushed away from the table, there was a knock at the door.
“You get the gumbo, I’ll get the door,” Eudora said.
Tiana carried their empty bowls into the kitchen and heaped another helping of gumbo into each of them. With one bowl in each hand, she turned back toward the table.
She stopped short at the sight of her mother standing in the doorway.
Two uniformed men stood on their front porch, their caps in their hands and solemn frowns on their faces. She heard her mother gasp, then let out a God-awful scream Tiana knew she would hear in her nightmares for years to come. Her mother crumpled to the ground.
And the bowls of gumbo shattered at Tiana’s feet.
|September 10, 2022
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