“So what kind of material are you, Amelie?”
“More steel than satin.”
Caroline Malveaux to Amelie Savard
Friday afternoon, 28 August 2015
GM: Amelie’s deliberately slower than normal route under the district’s majestic live oaks is interrupted by a phone call. The caller ID reads ‘unknown.’
Amelie: Amelie pauses and steps under the shade of a tree to answer. “Hello?”
Caroline: “Ms. Savard?” answers an unfamiliar female voice. There’s a clipped tone to it that reminds her slightly of her more entitled classmates. But with a finer edge. If they’re in process, this sounds closer to the finished product of what they’ll become.
Amelie: “Speaking. Can I help you?”
Caroline: “I rather suspect it’s the opposite,” the voice replies in an amused tone. “I heard you were asking about me.”
Amelie: “I’ve asked about a few people in the last few days. Can you please specify?”
Caroline: “I’m sorry, Caroline Malveaux speaking. Something about fencing and sword-making?”
Amelie: “OH! Yes, that’s—wow, news travels fast. I didn’t ask about you specifically, ma’am, just chasing a rumor about a Malveaux being a state fencing champion. Apologies if it was concerning to you.”
Caroline: Caroline’s stomach falls out at the mention of her old fencing record. She forgot how uncomfortable this topic makes her. ‘State champion’ indeed.
Caroline: There’s silence on the other end for a moment, but only just, before a light laugh sounds.
“You must be new to New Orleans, Ms. Savard. The only thing around here that travels faster than gossip and news has a pair of jet engines on it.”
Amelie: “I grew up idolizing New Orleans. It’s easy to forget how small it is. Which is a reason for my asking about you. I heard you won a state championship in Louisiana despite me not able to find a state fencing league?”
Caroline: “There’s a high school league and championship,” Caroline answers. “It’s USFA sanctioned but not rated, might be the cause of the confusion. It’s also not as large as you might like—mostly a few private schools and academies. Winning here is mostly an invitation to attend a regional event.”
There’s a pause.
“That was a few years ago, of course.”
Caroline: Talking about her old fencing career makes her remember how excited she was when she closed out that championship match. How confident she’d been to go to regionals. And why not? Nerea certainly expected her to clean house.
It leaves a bitter taste in her mouth to say that was ‘a few years ago.’
Amelie: “Did you attend McGehee, ma’am?”
Caroline: “You’re making me feel older than my mother. Caroline, please,” the voice replies with a mild laugh. “But no, I went to St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge. Closer to the legislature for my father.”
Amelie: “Sorry! Caroline. You can call me Amelie. Sorry I assumed, I’m not sure of the relation, but Vera Malveaux spoke at our school as a former student. As for the ‘making swords’ part, I was going to approach your family about your art and history charities. I’m a historical craftsman, you see, I have a lot of restoration experience. I wanted to offer my services as a volunteer.”
Caroline: Caroline avoids scoffing at the high school girl’s claim.
Caroline: “You’re attending McGehee but have ‘a lot’ of experience?” Caroline asks, amused.
Amelie: “This is the only year I’ve attended. I worked in a family artisan-ship since I was around five years old, metallurgy, leather tailoring, and wood-working. Savard Swordsmith, in the village of Biccoline, if you’d like to Google it. It’s since shut down unfortunately.”
Caroline: Then what the hell are you doing at McGehee? Caroline can’t help but wonder.
She idly plugs ‘Biccoline’ into a search engine and scans results as she talks.
Caroline: “It sound as though you’ve lived quite an interesting life,” Caroline replies. “What brings you to New Orleans?”
Amelie: There’s a pause. “Interesting lives have road-bumps. Like I said though, I’ve idolized New Orleans since I was young. I’ve lived here with my aunt the past month.”
Caroline: Caroline is only half listening as she reads the results on her Sunpad. Her brow furrows the further she does.
‘Idolized’ jumps out at her. Caroline resists a laugh at it.
We’ll see how long that lasts.
Caroline: “That’s some aunt to secure you a place at McGehee,” Caroline replies pleasantly.
Amelie: There’s no pause this time. “She’s been incredible, yes. Especially in putting up with me. I’m planning on paying back her costs as well, which means college and a revival of my work. Do you mind if I ask you about your mother? I’m afraid I don’t have a full family picture beyond your… aunt? Vera Malveaux?”
Caroline: “She is. My favorite aunt,” Caroline quips.
Caroline: Whatever her personal feelings about Vera, family problems and conflicts stay inside the family.
Still, it gives her an opportunity. Bicolline. The more she reads, the more confused she gets.
Who the hell pulled strings to get this girl into McGehee?
Caroline: “And what about yours?” she asks. “Do you love her or hate her for getting you into McGehee? Aunt Vera talks about it all the time. She said it was quite challenging.”
Amelie: Amelie is a bit off-put by the question’s rather personal phrasing but she brushes it off. “Academically, I’m handling AP classes just fine. It’s not difficult for me at all. High society, no offense, is the only real obstacle I’m facing. I’m not exactly Southern belle material.”
Caroline: Caroline rolls her eyes at the tail end of that statement.
Caroline: “So what kind of material are you, Amelie?”
Amelie: “More steel than satin.”
Caroline: “And yet it doesn’t sound like you’ve found them particularly soft or flexible,” Caroline muses.
Amelie: “Satin is usually used to hide things,” she muses.
Caroline: “In any case, you wanted to volunteer with various charities my aunt runs in some capability. Why don’t we schedule a sit-down over lunch to talk over some options. How does later this afternoon work for you?”
Amelie: The thought of an actual sit-down with a Malveaux is a surprise—but a very, very welcome one. Meeting for a talk in public doesn’t sound too dangerous, either.
“Yes! Definitely yes. That works perfectly for me.”
Caroline: “Excellent. Do you know where Avo is?”
Amelie: “The name rings bells, I can find where it is. Would you like to meet there?”
Caroline: “I’ll make a reservation for today in an hour. Late lunch.”
Amelie: “I’ll make sure I look satin. Thank you again, Caroline, this is amazing of you.”
Caroline: “It’s only lunch, and the least I can do for someone that wants to get involved and give back. Too many young people today are happy to sit on the sidelines.” Amelie can almost picture her reading the response off of a note card.
Amelie: Amelie listens and nods. The response might sound robotic, but if she can impress Caroline, it’ll be a huge boon.
“Thank you for this chance, Caroline. Give my regards to your aunt as well, I’m sure I caused you both trouble in my asking around.”
Caroline: “Hopefully not,” Caroline replies cheerfully. “I haven’t heard of any yet. But I’ll see you there. The reservation will be under Malveaux.”
Amelie: “Perfect. I’ll see you then! Have a great weekend.”
Caroline: “Until then,” Caroline replies, ending the call.
Caroline: There’s something there under the surface, Caroline muses as she tucks her phone away. Family feud?
She can hardly resist digging.
Friday afternoon, 28 August 2015
Amelie: Amelie takes a deep breath in and out. She feels like she should be doing a back flip as she starts walking again and categorizes the work she has pictures online for her restoration jobs as she heads towards home. She peeks over the fence to see if her aunt’s car is parked in the driveway.
She hopes it’s not.
GM: Amelie does not see her aunt’s BMW parked behind the cast-iron fence that surrounds the pillared, neoclassical house. The garden’s palm trees, so still in the morning’s heat, rustle against a faint breeze that feels like paradise in the so-humid weather. Sweat is already trickling down Amelie’s back from the short walk. Despite her teachers’ talk about the ‘glorious’ day, though, clouds seem to be moving in overhead.
Amelie: The house is probably empty, then. Amelie slips inside and up to her room to get battle ready. She showers and pulls on some loose-fitting cashmere sweatpants, a low-cut black top, sneakers, and the surprisingly functional leather jacket she got during her outing with Kristina. Just a quick zip and she can imagine herself skidding across any surface without an issue.
The equipment she’s bringing along is fairly simple. She slides one folding knife in her pocket, conceals another one in an offhand pocket on her bag, and hides the last one under her bra strap. She pockets the mace and miniature prybar, then looks through the rest of her backpack’s contents to make sure she’s got everything ready and waiting. The last items she adds are another set of clothes to change into for her meeting with Caroline. She doesn’t want to come back to her aunt’s house again if she can help it.
She slings the backpack over her shoulder and makes sure her phone is fully charged before sliding it into her pocket. She looks herself over in the mirror and takes a deep bracing breath before heading back out the door. A simple note remains behind on the kitchen counter for her aunt.
See you tomorrow. Wish me luck in the haunted house.
GM: The house is silent and still as Amelie ventures inside. No one disturbs her when she gathers her weapons for the far from mundane-feeling slumber party. The shards of broken plate from her morning fight with her aunt are gone when she ventures into the kitchen to write her note. The well-furnished house looks as ready to entertain guests as it ever does. No evidence remains of the hurtful words spoken not so many hours ago.
But the memory lingers.
Amelie: Amelie is glad she doesn’t have to pick up the plate’s pieces. She’s also glad she had trouble eating more than half a piece of toast, so that was the only thing her aunt had to clean up.
But the memory covers the kitchen like a queasy film. She only stays as long as she has to. The last item she takes is a box of salt from the pantry, which she places in her bag before she gets going out the door.
GM: Amelie walks past old Colonial, Greek Revival, Italian, and Victorian houses with their white Corinthian pillars and wrought- or cast-iron fences. Classical sculptures depict capering nymphs, satyrs, and dolphins at play. Cicadas buzz as wind rustles through the palm trees and soaring live oaks that give the Garden District part of its name. The occasional lawnmower buzzes along, leaving the unmistakable scent of freshly-cut grass in its wake. Sprinklers steadily whir as they water the bright green lawns and beds of lilies, roses, and creamy white magnolias. There are are only a few slow-passing cars, picture-snapping tourists, and odd pedestrians out today. No one interrupts Amelie’s solitude along her walk.
She remembers first seeing the picturesque neighborhood past the back window of Oscar’s limo, and commenting how she’d never been to a neighborhood this nice where people were allowed to live in the buildings. She remembers, too, the police and their dogs patrolling the edge of the district. She remembers showing up late, sweaty, and smelly to class. She remembers all those girls in the halls and cafeteria, so much prettier than she is, following her with their silently laughing eyes. She remembers them finally saying what they really thought when there was a bathroom stall’s wall between them. She remembers Ms. Perry saying she’d broken off her engagement, Ms. Ward telling her off in front of the whole class, and Mrs. Flores canceling class on a ‘casual Friday’ because of the leg her husband maimed.
She remembers looking at the student government election posters between Susannah Kelly, who has managed to avoid dancing with her even after two weeks of classes, and the girl who gave her false directions to Sarah Whitney’s class, who the posters said was named Cecil Lancaster. She remembers Rachel’s stories about Rebecca Whitney, killed in the prime of her life by a drunk driver, and Lottie B., raped and murdered in the backseat of her sweet sixteen birthday car.
The Garden District looks as gorgeous as it did when she first arrived in the city. But more and more, that charming exterior seems merely a facsimile. Amelie cannot help but wonder how much darkness is festering behind the doors of each of those old homes, which has had so long to rot and putrefy in the balmy summer heat.
The Dixie sun shines overhead, bright, fat, and yellow against the blue sky and gathering white clouds. Its heat is already making Amelie start to perspire under her leather jacket.
But the brighter the light, the starker the shadow.
Amelie: The architecture once made her knees weak. The phone call with Caroline made her elated. But the district and its historic houses feel more like a well-made Disneyworld exhibit than the revered old buildings they are—or should be. Just peel back the paint. It’s likely caked in mold and holes, but if you keep painting, it looks just fine.
Her ride to the city is still very clear in her mind, but now it feels like it was foreshadowing. The freeway: dark on one side, bright on the other, separating the city’s haves from the have-nots. Their positions feel reversed now. Police and their vicious dogs keep out blacks and derelicts, but how many people are happy and good on the dark side, and how many are miserable and rotten in the bright side?
Her memories of school are much more clear-cut, too. It’s not really that different from a public school. Girls are too cowardly to say anything to her face and laugh behind her back. The only thing that makes it worse than her old school is the damned skirt and how exposed it makes her feel. It’s a relief when the fabric stroking against her legs re-affirms she’s wearing the pants in her relationship with the world again. Her tank top shows off the strong definition of her collarbone.
Rachel’s stories are harder to shake off, though. Every time she thinks about Lottie, raped to death in the backseat of her sweet sixteen birthday car, maybe in this very neighborhood, it makes her blood boil. She wishes the people who harmed her suffered more. But that sorrowful train of thought only brings her back to her two favorite teachers.
She tries to push it out of her mind as she rests in the streetcar and lays her jacket on her lap. It’s the first time she can remember letting her scar breathe in New Orleans. The straps of her low top don’t hide the splotch of boiled-looking skin that’s several shades darker than the rest of her body. The scar tissue starts at her broad and strong left shoulder before vanishing down her back. There’s another deeply curved gouge on her forearm, and a third, smaller scar on her equally broad and strong right shoulder. She doesn’t even remember where she got that one.
Amelie isn’t beautiful. She knows she’ll only ever be able to halfway pass for it in clothes that more fully cover her body. But she’s never lacked for self-confidence. She’s proud of her body—marks, muscle, and all.
More steel than satin.
Friday afternoon, 28 August 2015
GM: Amelie follows Magazine Street’s rows of shops, restaurants, and art galleries down to their near-terminus in Riverbend’s West Riverside neighborhood. Compared to the Garden District’s ages-old grandeur and verdant greenery, West Riverside merely feels well-to-do, though still far removed from Oscar’s ghosts.
When Amelie looks up her destination on her phone, she finds that Avo is a chef-owned Italian restaurant from New Orleans-born chef Nick Lama, a third-generation Sicilian. “Avo” is an Italian word that translates as ‘grandfather’ or ‘ancestor.’ The menu description says that it’s inspired by family recipes but served with a fresh perspective. The food is Italian-focused, but many ingredients are Southern-grown and locally harvested.
The restaurant’s interior isn’t too full during the post-lunch and pre-dinner hour when Amelie arrives. Attire is business casual. A smiling hostess greets and promptly escorts to her to Caroline’s table.
Caroline: She finds ‘Caroline’ seated at a small corner table in the open-air courtyard, which guests have largely vacated by this time. The post-lunch, pre-dinner shift that waiters call ‘the run’ from 2 to 5 tends to be any restaurant’s least busy time.
The woman Amelie is led to is framed by an ivy-colored brick wall and doesn’t look that much older than she is. She’s pale, thin, and even seated, Amelie can tell that the green-eyed blonde is tall.
She looks up from her phone as she sees the hostess arrive with Amelie and her face lights up with a smile that showcases perfect teeth, but more than anything else, sets her apart from Amelie’s classmates. Their manufactured smiles were never so clean and seemingly genuine. She wears an expensive-looking white blouse and a long flowing cobalt skirt leading to open-toed heels. Long hair runs (seemingly) free without seeming to fall over her face.
The Malveaux woman sets her phone down on the wooden tabletop as she takes in Amelie’s approach. She already has a condensation-beaded glass of water and half-empty glass of tea with several lemon wedges crammed into it. A small salad is set in front of her. A fork rests on the plate, but the meal is seemingly little-touched. Goat cheese, asparagus, and strawberries are immediately in evidence.
Amelie: Amelie uses the 30-minute trip by public transit to go over her old social media accounts and save some pictures of her best works for Caroline to swipe through. She feels as judged and out of place as always when she asks to be taken to the Malveaux table, but expects more of the same from Caroline.
The Canadian transplant is shorter than the Malveaux heiress by a few inches but quite a bit thicker. Her shoulders are strong and wide, and there’s a very noticeable tension in the way she moves that betrays her fitness and thick muscle mass. She’s refreshed herself in a public bathroom and changed into the business casual clothes she researched for the occasion: a simple flowy button-down, brown slacks, and fashionable belt too long to sit simply tied on her hip, which is obviously its purpose. Her hair is very short, very thick, and very black. It’s obviously brushed but is perhaps hard to manage.
She stays standing when she approaches Caroline’s table and offers a hand. Her arm is covered in small, old-looking scars, but her palm looks free of callouses.
“Caroline, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m amazed you wanted to meet me so quickly.”
Caroline: The Malveaux woman looks Amelie up and down as she approaches, but the smile doesn’t slip until Amelie offers a hand for a handshake. Her smile turns towards wry amusement as she regards it, but she rises and sets aside the napkin in her lap without haste. There’s a flowing grace to her movements as she rises combined with an ease and comfort not only in the location, but in her own skin.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
Her grip is firm, and as she looks down on Amelie from a standing position, their difference in height is made all the plainer by the three and a half inches Amelie spots to her heels. Caroline quickly disengages from the handshake as she retakes her seat with that same elegant and flowing grace.
“Please join me, Amelie. I hope you haven’t already eaten,” she offers with a hand, amusement still present in the half-smile on her face.
Amelie: Amelie keeps her mouth shut as she observes Caroline’s change in expression. She watches the older woman rise over her in her heels, but matches the handshake’s firmness all the same. Caroline’s graces aren’t lost on her, either. They also don’t surprise her given the sport they share a history with. The Malveaux woman’s confidence in her movements has a visible edge over the post-adolescent’s, though, especially where that sense of comfort in one’s skin is concerned.
Amelie takes a seat once she has Caroline’s blessing and shakes her head. “No, I haven’t. You caught me right out of school, actually. I hope this isn’t imposing too much on your schedule. I imagine you’ve more important things you’d like to keep your attention on. I promise I won’t keep you.”
Caroline: “You hardly imposed at all, I had an opening this afternoon.” She regards the dykish youth. “You have my attention at least as long as it takes me to enjoy lunch. So tell me, Amelie,” (is there just the slightest of hitches on the use of her first name now or is Amelie’s mind racing after those taunting girls in the bathroom?), “about yourself, that is. You mentioned recently moving here from Biccoline, enrolling in McGehee at your aunt’s insistence, and some experience as an ‘historical craftsman’?”
She idly spears a strawberry and piece of cheese together on a fork as she talks.
Amelie: Amelie listens intently, her eyes and brain laser-focused on Caroline’s words. This is a rare chance to impress people from the Malveaux family. However middling their money actually is, they are still the big players in New Orleans.
Caroline’s rather terse mention of ‘at least as much time as it takes me to enjoy lunch’ makes Amelie change gears. She takes her napkin and uses it to wipe clean her phone’s screen before she hands it over, allowing their heiress to swipe any which way.
It’s a collection of antiques. Most of the ‘befores’ look decrepit and damaged, while the ‘afters’ look ancient and full-functioning. The pictures include brilliant chandeliers, historically accurate furniture, and even a younger Amelie with her father, standing proudly on a fully restored carriage. The dykish-looking girl’s hair is in a ponytail, but one can tell it nearly reaches the middle of her back. Her hands and arms are still covered in band-aids.
“I’ll be quick, then. As old as New Orleans is, Quebec City is almost 200 years older. My shop got a lot of contracts thanks to this. What I compiled there was all my personal projects, or things entrusted to me by my family business. Restoration, replication, custom work. Stonework is limited as the area was slow to build or gain any culture, thanks to brutal winters, but I can do that as well. I’m looking to pad my resume to attend Tulane University through volunteering these skills. My pedigree is nonexistent, and grades alone can’t get you into Tulane. Your aunt spoke at my school, and I think I can be a great asset to her charities. New Orleans history is a massive passion of mine, as well, so I can assure authenticity in my work.”
Caroline: Caroline wryly accepts the phone as she chews, idly swiping through the pictures in silence. After several swipes she sets the phone down on the table closer to Amelie.
“You said you only arrived in New Orleans a month ago, right? And your long-term goal is to start a business?”
She continues after a momentary pause, “If you’ll allow me to offer some advice, this,” she gestures to the phone, “isn’t really how business is done in the Big Easy.” She elaborates, “Your work looks impressive, at least based on the pictures of work done in your parents’ shop, but there’s both a dozen hustlers on every corner flashing their goods at people, and a certain lack of… je ne sais quoi.” The French rolls off her tongue effortlessly.
“Relationship, I suppose. Someone else might call it intimacy.” She spears greens and asparagus on her fork without looking while she speaks, her attention on Amelie. The smile hasn’t left her face, but there’s a slightly exasperated quality to it.
“People in New Orleans, they deal with people. With people they know, or that others they know, know. It’s all, in fact, in who you know. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best in the world, you won’t ever get a shot in this city without a personal relationship.”
She seems to consider saying more, but bites it back.
Amelie: “Pour danser dans un hall, vous devez d’abord avoir un pied dans la porte.” Despite Caroline’s fluency, French is indeed Amelie’s first language. (“To dance in the hall, you must first get your foot in the door.”)
“I am staying in a bank-owned haunted house tonight, only because the person I’m doing the project it involves is family friends with the Whitney family. The only reason I’m sitting here with you is because Mr. Thurston put in a call for me. It’s a lesson I’ve not known long, I’m still learning. If I can be candid with you, Caroline, I’d just keep making my weapons and armor if I could. My pieces are works of art, they sell for thousands. My magnum opus could cut through a fence and the person behind it. But carrying swords is illegal, so I couldn’t bring it. I’d open my own fencing class to bring state fencing to Louisiana, too. But it’s like you said, people in New Orleans deal with people. I need people behind me here.”
The young woman slowly leans forward and looks seriously at the sweet tea their waitress brought her. “I know how I look, and how people see me. I plan to grow my hair back out even because of it. And I’m sorry if you felt like I’m trying to pitch at you, but this lunch is the equivalent of a duchess talking to a peasant. There is no reason for you to start a relationship with me, even if I offer my work for free. But I have to try. New Orleans is a lot to love and she’s slow to trust. But I’m here to try to put that foot in the door.”
Caroline: Caroline continues to pick at her salad, eyes on Amelie but fork continuing to collect greens, as she lets the other ‘girl’ say her peace.
“I did a little bit of research on where you came from,” she begins mildly. “I’m sure there’s quite an adjustment moving from a place where you grew up in which any kind of eccentricity is welcomed and even celebrated, to McGehee.”
She reaches out with her free hand to take up the phone again and resumes paging through the pictures. “And it must be equally difficult to have a passion most people don’t care about, or don’t understand. Or both.” She sighs several more images in and places the phone down again. “Did you really do all of this work?”
Amelie: Amelie keeps quiet after her peace, letting Caroline thumb through things. “I can handle all that. McGehee or not, teen girls are the same everywhere. The passion is the hardest when I can’t pursue it,” she starts, taking her phone and putting it face down to the side.
“This is just the things I did without help. And only the restoration of antiques and a few examples of custom work. The only surviving piece of my weapons work is that magnum opus I told you about, and it’s at home. But yes. All of it is mine. I bleed for my work.”
The young woman reaches up and rubs her shoulder. Caroline might notice the fabric rests differently when she removes her hand. It’s like the skin is raised, and not unlike the skin on parts of her aunt’s face.
Caroline: Caroline chews on the comments and seems about to continue again when she instead simply gives a slight shake of her head. The smile doesn’t vanish, but perhaps recedes a bit.
Amelie: Amelie finds it hard to pin down the older woman’s motivations, but simply clears her throat and rights herself. “Do you like antiques yourself, Caroline?”
Caroline: The change of subject seems to set Caroline at ease. “My aunt will be dreadfully embarrassed, but I confess, I favor a more modern aesthetic. There can be beauty in older works, but I’m not one for nostalgia. More important than what something was is what it is, or what it does now. It’s not a particularly popular opinion in New Orleans though.”
Amelie: “I understand completely. Practicality. Vintage couches for instance are thin and uncomfortable, they don’t fit properly in a lot of instances, and can be rather delicate. Is that how your home is? I have yet to see any modern houses in the more wealthy parts of New Orleans.”
Caroline: “No, you wouldn’t really see most of them at all. After Katrina many got wise to the value of gated—and patrolled—communities. The decor at my house is more… mixed, though.”
Amelie: “Yes, it was rather shocking to see that. We’ve the same thing up north, but most are cheap and fake, and private security is usually hired. I live in the Garden District myself. You said you attended school in Baton Rouge, did you live here during Katrina?”
Caroline: “I was in Baton Rouge,” Caroline concedes, “but the family has always maintained homes in New Orleans to one extent or another. And it’s really a small circle in Louisiana. Everyone knows everyone. I actually had my débutante ball in New Orleans, just because it’s such a better venue.”
Amelie: “That’s true. I grew up idolizing this place, and it feels a lot bigger than it is. You’re a débutante though, that’s interesting! It’s so easy to think that making your debut is solely from movies and romantic classics. I imagine it comes with some great pressures, I hope you were able to enjoy the ball itself.”
Caroline: “When you’re in my position you either learn to enjoy the pressures or you learn to live in misery,” Caroline answers with some evident amusement.
Amelie: Amelie smiles a bit wider and nods. “That’s a good lesson to learn so early. Speaking of enjoyment, is that why you fenced?”
Caroline: “Youthful impetuousness,” Caroline laughs. “My gym teachers demanded I pick a sport. It was something that my father indulged perhaps a bit too long.”
Amelie: Amelie nods to herself and leans forward slightly. “I never had dreams of being a fencing champion, despite my mother being one. I never cared for the rules. I asked about it because a career councilor encouraged me to seek accomplishments. I’ve only got a year in McGehee. I have a lot of catching up to do. The moment you told me the league was just a high school low-ball league, I dropped that aspiration. It’s all to keep up the numbers of college applications at McGehee and to help my passion survive. And not to… embarrass the school with my impertinence. I understand my position.”
Amelie motions to Caroline. “Duchess.” She motions back to herself. “Smith.”
Caroline: Caroline taps her lips, a shadow of a smile remaining. “Well, that really cuts to the heart of it, doesn’t it?”
“Not embarrassing the school,” she clarifies after a moment. “I’m certain you have ample reason to think that many at McGehee are simply being bigots, but there’s something deeper at play, as deeply embedded in the culture here as beignets and Mardi Gras.”
“It’s the best school in the city. Maybe the best in the state. I once read an article that described it as ’ the débutante West Point.’ Everyone at McGehee succeeds. It’s a matter of pride. I know it is, certainly, to my aunt.”
There’s a gravity now to Caroline’s tone and expression that was absent before as they slip past small talk. “For you, that’s both a blessing and a curse.”
She pauses. “Do you understand what I’m getting at? Because it sounds to me as though you have two goals: getting into Tulane and setting your future on the path you want in the long term, and pursuing your passion. Those two things are not, unfortunately, both possible right now.”
Amelie: Amelie doesn’t flinch when the conversation finally comes to a head. She listens to Caroline lay things out and silently nods to a few of them. She doesn’t bother to mention how the United States’ capital of débutante life is in fact New York, where the Waldorf Astoria is. But she keeps her mouth shut until she’s addressed again.
“The first thing is my path to the second. Like you said, it’s not what you know, but who you know. Tulane is my best path forward to keep pursuing relationships with families in New Orleans, to establish myself with the old blood in Louisiana, and to build up my skills and knowledge over time. I’m looking to create a pedigree for myself that will keep that McGehee adage true, in the surest capacity I can without any of that old blood. Me asking Mr. Thurston to send a word along the Malveaux family was me trying to forge a relationship, in order to succeed. I’m sorry if there was a wire crossed about my fencing that was not conducive to that success. Vera Malveaux can rest assured that idea died in its crib.”
Caroline: “I’m certain she’ll be happy to hear that,” Caroline replies. “Because if you’re willing to play the game, as much as it may burn you, McGehee is of far greater advantage to you than your not at all inconsiderable talents.” She gestures to the phone.
GM: The pair’s waitress stops by. After asking, “How you ladies doing here?” and refilling their drinks, she asks if Amelie is “sure if all you want” is that glass of sweet tea.
Caroline: “The Tuna and Orzo is to die for,” Caroline offers.
Amelie: Amelie beams widely and thanks the waitress for the refill. “I’m just fine, thank you. I’ll take you up on that next time,” she assures, nodding and letting the waitress step away.
GM: The waitress, a black-haired woman with slight bags to her eyes who gave her name as Amanda, repeats she’ll be back later “just in case you change your mind” with another smile before heading off to another table.
Amelie: “As for the game, I don’t have the potential to reach very high very easily. I’m just looking for my niche, where those higher than me might find me useful. Like you said, modern household finery and antiques are a great taste in New Orleans.”
Caroline: Caroline firmly interjects before the waitress can leave that Amelie will have the Tuna and Orzo, and adds a glass of Far Niente chardonnay for herself.
GM: Amanda jots the order down and replies it’ll be “coming right up.”
Caroline: The débutante’s eyes linger as she departs before cutting back to Amelie.
“It’s considered rude not to at least put on the appearance of sharing a meal with someone. And she,” Caroline says, tilting her head towards the departing waitress, “is going to remember it because you’re snubbing her as well by taking up a seat she would otherwise be making money off of. You’ve been nothing but polite on the surface, Amelie, but it’s the little things you don’t even seem to realize you’re doing that are undermining you at every turn.”
Amelie: Amelie is surprised when Caroline calls out to the woman and orders her something, but she understands the heiress’ rather terse logic. Tipping, however, is never a ‘no’ option for Amelie. Even if she only gets a diner coffee in the middle of the night, she always tips the waitress more than she’d get with 15% on a meal.
GM: Not that her present waitress (or Caroline) has any reason to expect such generosity.
Amelie: Still, the rest of Caroline’s argument is sound. “I’m sorry if I offended you, I’d thought it might seem rude to keep you anchored here while I eat. I agree with you, however. The little differences and niceties I miss have been making even McGehee difficult for me.”
Caroline: “Can I let you in on a secret?” Caroline asks, setting her fork down at last. “Most of us may be stuck up, arrogant, and proud, but we’re not going to do anything that blatantly showcases that.”
Amelie: Amelie’s smile wanes just a bit, but stays pleasant as she hears the admission. “I imagine you have enough trouble without people pointing at that kind of behavior. Besides, devastating hurricanes, howling tourists, clashing cultures, a harsh history, I think Louisianans deserve a bit of pride.”
Caroline: A quick and forced smile. “Even so, the message, so it is not lost, is twofold: we’ll rarely reject you to your face, and we’re adept at honing our knives in the dark. That is where you’re bleeding, whether you realize it or not: in the places you can’t see.” She picks up her fork again, then sets it down. “And you must realize it on some level. So you want help.”
Amelie: Amelie’s smile on the other hand hasn’t changed, she keeps her pleasant expression on. These are all things she’s heard already, lessons she’s viscerally learned, some of them as early as last night in fact. “I do. And I do.”
Caroline: A moment of silence hangs in the air as the two women sit.
At last Caroline breaks it. “Tulane’s tuition and board runs over $60,000 a year. Do you have a plan for that, if you get in?”
Amelie: Amelie sips her tea and rests the glass back down on the table. “Grants, scholarships, my aunt is of no lean means. McGehee I think does work with me in this regard, most girls there may not have to go after those kinds of things.”
Caroline: “You might be surprised,” Caroline answers. “A fair number of more moderately wealthy families will pay out the nose to get their daughters to McGehee in the hope that the school and its connections will later defray the costs of college by helping them get a scholarship.”
“But that’s a secondary hurdle. Right now you’re trying to pad your package for admissions.” Caroline thinks for a moment, then offers a somewhat blunter answer than she normally might. “I don’t think my aunt would be interested in bringing you in to do antiques work. Beyond the headaches of bringing in a minor to work at all, there’s also the question of appearances and the skepticism that will come with the idea of putting a teenager on it—and yes, before you start, your work does look impressive. The age however is a massive impediment.”
“If your goal though is entirely focused on simply padding your package however, there are a few doors I can open for you. Tulane has large medical and legal ties—if you were willing to do an internship or volunteer program in either field, I might be able to find a spot for you. It probably wouldn’t be glamorous work, and obviously not what you want in the long term, but focusing on the major programs of the college would increase your chances. Alternatively, a STEM focus in general is always a positive—women in STEM fields is all the rage these days for admissions numbers.”
“There are also, likely, some volunteer opportunities I could point you at or open doors on that are tangentially, though not directly, related to your interests. For instance, working with one of the krewes. It’s not the greatest extracurricular itself, but might allow you to do some of the work you enjoy in a less… scrutinized environment while also potentially impressing others, and it shows specific ties to the city that are worth more than you might think for a school in the city. It’s more socially acceptable for a teenager to work on a krewe float and consumes, than it is to, say, be an antiques restorer, even if you might be doing similar things, depending on the krewe.”
“Of course, in all of these, in making any introduction or pulling any string, the concern remains the same. Whoever does so, no matter who the do so for, is putting their own credibility and reputation on the line for someone else. You’ve heard the expression ‘throwing good money after bad’, haven’t you?”
A moment passes.
“Thirty days,” she finally seemingly decides. “If you’re serious about not rocking the boat, trying to fit in more neatly, and about going to Tulane, take a month to sort yourself out. Style your hair. Play the game. And call me in thirty days. Do that and I’ll reach out to my aunt, or my own contacts, and we’ll see about what can be done to ‘pad’ your application before the January deadline.”
The heiress shrugs. “Or don’t. I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.”
Amelie: Amelie doesn’t mention that she’s actually twenty, but she supposes that’s a reasonable enough mis-assumption for someone who hears she’s in high school to make. Besides, she was waiting for something along those lines: for Caroline to give a definitive answer to her request for help. But what she wasn’t expecting was… this extent of it. The young woman’s eyes gradually get wider as she listens to the heiress’ words. She doesn’t answer the presumably rhetorical question on throwing money after rotten projects, but keeps quiet long enough to hear Caroline’s ultimatum. The hour she had to get ready for this meeting and travel here without a car hasn’t done her any favors, but she cedes the point and nods instead.
“I will! Working with the krewes, I can do a lot, and Tulane’s Engineering Physics is a perfect major for the STEM fields that I’d be thrilled to undergo! I’ll take the 30 days, you won’t be able to recognize me, I promise!”
Caroline: The heiress smiles. “I hope so, but if not, ultimately it’s your decision. I’m offering only a path.”
Amelie: “You’re the first one to offer me a tangible path forward. It’s more than I could have hoped for.”
GM: The waitress returns with Amelie’s food. The light and refreshing-looking tuna and orzo salad is topped with with diced avocado, olives, and halved cherry tomatoes, as well as a layer of melted Parmesan cheese dolloped with honey and olive oil. A sharper smell of lemon juice, basil, and red wine vinegar also wafts from the food.
The young woman also refills Amelie’s sweet tea and Caroline’s wine. She seems to particularly dote on the Malveaux heiress’ service and laughingly remarks to Amelie that she’s “glad to see you eating something” before heading off to another table.
Amelie: Amelie beams down at the food and thanks the waitress. She lets her dote on Caroline while brushing her palm up from the dish, smelling it without putting her dumb face in there. The first small spoonful is magic and she hums in approval to herself.
Caroline: Caroline smiles again as she takes a sip of her recently arrived wine. “It’s good to have a way forward,” she agrees. She purses her lips in amusement. “Just out of curiosity, did you have much experience with fencing?”
Amelie: The question about fencing makes Amelie nod and swallow quickly to answer. “Lots. It was a big outlet for me. My mother competed, even placed nicely in the world fencing championships in her youth. We’re both saber fencers, Spanish and Swiss hybrid stylings. She also had me learn a lot of other types of non-competitive fencing. I never ended up competing, however.”
Caroline: “Really? Saber? The world’s a small place. What’s her name?”
Amelie: “Saber yourself, as well? It is the sword of the South, after all. Her name was Abigail Savard.”
Caroline: “The name is vaguely familiar, but I’ll have to look her up. And yes, saber. The rest seemed derivative to me. And slow.” The last is offered with a grin. The window to land a touch in response is .12 seconds for the point to be counted.
Amelie: Amelie can’t help but grin right back. “I miss that. My mother always described it as two tigers sizing each other up. The first one to pounce exposes his neck, but the one not to act is dead without perfect timing to grasp it. I always loved the chase. Tell me, have you ever tried traditional saber fencing? With blunted sabers instead of sport sabers?”
Caroline: “Only playfully with Nerea a few times. Daniel—our coach—thought it was a waste of time. He was much more focused on chasing medals than historical roots.”
Amelie: “I think it’s a lot more fun than the medal chasing. Sampling how other people millennia ago fought their peers, won renown, won kingdoms. El Cid, Pepe, the Landskrecht, the Hussars. I love to romanticize them.”
Caroline: “Dirty men in dirtier times killing each other in bloody and brutal ways,” Caroline offers, less enthusiastically. “What’s not to romanticize? For me it was about that moment when you lined up across from the other person, when you knew that the only thing that mattered was which of you was better, and the only thing that mattered was that.”
Amelie: “That’s the tigers,” Amelie reminds, her smile spreading wider. “No whispers behind backs, no brand names, no clout, no nepotism. It feels like everything else falls away. Without helmets especially, just keeping that eye contact.”
“I don’t mean to infer anything, but it’d be fun to pick up a saber and have a few rounds with you one day. I expect to lose! But it’d be fun,” she laughs.
Caroline: “There is a certain simplicity to it,” Caroline agrees, laughing lightly. Her tone grows less cheerful as she continues, “But I hung that up a while back.”
Amelie: “Because it isn’t very ladylike?”
Caroline: “We all have to play by the rules, Amelie.”
Amelie: “Rules are indeed a prerequisite for success. Even New Orleans’ famous grave-digging duelist Jose Llulla never shot a man in cold blood.”
Caroline: “You’re just a font of New Orleans history,” Caroline replies, perking up a bit at the change of subjects. “Did you visit often as a child with your aunt or something?”
Amelie: “No, I wish I did. When I was little, my aunt visited us for Christmas. She bought me a book of New Orleans history. I fell in love. I still have that book.”
Caroline: “With a book,” Caroline replies somewhat skeptically, but she brushes it off. “What brings you to New Orleans then? The fantastic school system?”
Amelie: The smile on Amelie’s face for the entirety of the lunch hitches, her brow creasing despite her mouth still being curved upwards. “You’ll notice there’s a lot of ‘was’ since we’ve been talking, instead of is. What ‘is’, however, has been amazing. New Orleans has been dizzying and I’ve still got so much to see.”
Caroline: “I’m sorry, that was insensitive. I’m sorry for your loss,” Caroline replies after a moment.
Amelie: “It’s nothing you should trouble yourself over. My aunt has been amazing, school’s been wonderful, the city is a dream. I’m having lunch with a Malveaux, for goodness’ sake.”
Caroline: “Community outreach, my father would say. Remember to vote Malveaux… or at least have your aunt vote Malveaux. What does she do, by the way? She must be pretty successful to send you to McGehee.”
Amelie: “I don’t know if I qualify for voting, with my dual citizenship. But remember when you said that more moderately wealthy families pay out the nose? It’s one of the reasons I’m gunning so hard for success. As for what she does, she’s friends with political consultants, so maybe I should ‘play the game’ and keep quiet,” she laughs. “I may just vote Malveaux though. I met your cousin, I think, and you just convince me further the family has good values.”
Caroline: “Oh, which one?”
Amelie: “I don’t remember his first name, forgive me. He’s a father at St. Louis Cathedral, if I don’t have my faces mixed up?”
Caroline: “Adam,” Caroline says with a smile. “Carrying on the family tradition. They say there’s always been a Father Malveaux.”
Amelie: “That’s a very noble tradition. He took my first confession in a year, he’s a fine clergyman.”
Caroline: “He takes after our uncle, the archbishop, like that.”
Amelie: Amelie raises her brows. “Archbishop, wow. Is he still here in New Orleans, as well?”
Caroline: “The Archbishop of New Orleans would be of little use elsewhere.”
Amelie: “I guess not. Though you went to school in Baton Rouge, and I’m not familiar with the American archdiocese, just thought I’d make sure. Are you a churchgoer yourself?”
Caroline: “Every Sunday,” Caroline replies between another drink. “And yourself, Amelie? You mentioned taking confession.”
Amelie: “I often went to confession, but I spent most weekends outside of town. There are unexpected loopholes to building a real church in a fake town. Now that I’m in New Orleans, I expect I’ll be attending masses regularly.”
Caroline: “That’s all too common,” Caroline replies. “Even here, most people want to fit their faith into a neat little convenient box. They forget their first duty is to God.”
Amelie: “God is treated a bit more casually in the north. My parents were rather secular, even. Seeing how fast everyone holds onto all their faiths here has been rather inspiring.”
Caroline: Caroline laughs lightly. “Most people claim a visit to New Orleans shakes their faith, rather than reinforces it. I’m certain both my uncle and my cousin would be thrilled to hear it has instead been a source of inspiration to some. Too often I fear they feel they are throwing sandbags against a sagging levee—though I suppose that’s been a problem for priests across the country for decades now as people convince themselves they’re better off without God.”
Amelie: “I think it’s a difficult situation. There’s an old saying; ’ Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions’. I think a lot of young people can see that, and mistake authority, that they think has failed them, as the fault of faith. And lean away from it instead of realizing their own personal faith. Even me, so romanticizing as I am of history, become disillusioned. But that’s not god, that’s the nature of men. I had a co-worker obsessed with Pascal.”
Caroline: “You can say that, but I think it’s an excuse. It’s easier to turn from God when you can villainize Him,” Caroline replies.
Amelie: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. Isaiah,” Amelie recites, nodding. “I like to think faith means more when you can temper it. But you’re right that people do love their excuses.”
Caroline: Caroline smiles. “That’s actually an interesting translation. In the original Hebrew there are two words that are translated into evil in English. One is evil in the traditional sense of a bad thing, the other, which is used in that sentence is perhaps more neatly translated as calamity.”
Amelie: “That makes more sense. Light and dark are opposites, but evil isn’t the opposite of peace. Sometimes it’s uncomfortably close. Though I doubt that makes a difference to most people. Calamity is often a faith-shaker. Katrina was rough on New Orleans, for instance.”
Caroline: The heiress smiles. “Or a faith-maker. Really there are only two responses to hardship: to turn one’s face towards Him and seek an answer from God, or demand an answer of Him and turn away in anger when it is not what you wish. I don’t think any of us, whatever we might think, truly know how we’ll respond to true adversity until we face it.”
Amelie: Amelie can only match the smile, and nod. “There was once a bandit clan in Scotland from the 13th to the 17th centuries, one of their main families have a crest motto I enjoy for my own tacklings. Invictus maneo, ‘I remain unvanquished.’”
“Thanks to your generosity with your time. I think I avoided it here today, too.”
Friday afternoon, 28 August 2015
Amelie: Amelie changes back into her clothes for the slumber party and takes the streetcar to the Quarter. When the car comes to a stop at Canal at Carondelet, she steps off and starts walking. She carries her jacket to keep cool as she stares down the street. She still has time to kill before she heads to the LaLaurie house, starting with the 15-minute walk to the French Market.
Amelie feels like most people would expect her to feel some kind of connection with Joan of Arc, but the Maid of Orleans isn’t the kind of woman she aspires to be. Joan’s poor choice to stay with the rear guard during the retreat to Compiégne got her captured and ultimately burned alive.
But Joan remains a brilliant picture, and Amelie feels no small measure of wonder over how the girl was only a year younger than she is and still managed to do so much. She probably had accusations similar to ‘dyke’ thrown at her given the ages of marriage and childbearing at the time.
Amelie doesn’t run too far with that idea, however. She doesn’t want to project herself onto the figure as she stands and admires the French bronze workmanship.
GM: The inscription on the pedestal is a simple one:
JOAN OF ARC
MAID OF ORLEANS
Gift of the People of France
Amelie remembers reading a news story sometime over the past few weeks about the sword being stolen, and that not being the first time. There was another one about the statue being vandalized in response to political developments in France.
Despite not wishing to identify too personally with the historic figure, it is not lost on Amelie that the statues of Lee and Davis have not suffered the same indignities as the other ‘dykish’ young woman. And that she, like Amelie, may remain an outsider to certain circle of the city.
The walk to the French Market is a single block.
Amelie has long since looked up the article that describes the French Market as, ‘a market and series of commercial buildings spanning six blocks in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Founded as a Native American trading post predating European colonization, the market is the oldest of its kind in the United States. It began where Café du Monde currently stands and has been rebuilt and renovated a number of times.’
In person, the Market is all those things and a more. It runs along the Mississippi River at the edge of the French Quarter and is part flea market, part souvenir shop, and part art show. Tourists and residents alike browse the market’s stalls of T-shirts, spices, jewelry, seafood, candy, books, hats, home decor, keychains, and most anything else Amelie can probably think of, tucked away in some obscure kitschy stall. The smell of a hundred foods from spicy jambalaya to buttery fried shrimp to sugary pralines is thick in the air. Busking trombonists, accordianists, mimes, and other street performers move among the throngs of tourists to make a quick buck.
Amelie: Amelie tackles the French Market like a local, at least as much as she can while she marvels at all the stalls and everyone’s art and music. It’s good to spend the time before her big night just enjoying this. She walks along the grounds, sampling oysters, sweet tea, snack sized crawfish etouffee, and just basking in it all. She keeps an eye out for stranger vendors, looking for occult baubles, butterfly knives, and anything else that catches her eye as odd while sipping ice-cold sweet tea through a straw.
GM: Amelie finds no shortage of occult-themed knickknacks being hawked by the vendors. Among the items for sale are voodoo dolls, mojo wish beans, blessed chicken feet, dragons’ blood incense, obsidian scrying orbs, mojo bags, Turkish evil eye amulets, Buddha charms, alligator skulls, Florida water, roots and herbs, love potion #9 oil, and many others. A hundred chants, claims, and boasts from “curse your enemies!” to “protect your loved ones!” and “find true love!” fill Amelie’s ears.
Amelie: Amelie goes from stall to stall looking for anything that catches her eye. She pauses after a while by a random one.
“Excuse me? Do you know Mrs. Tantsy, at all?”
GM: “Not personally,” answers the vendor, a middle-aged and dark-skinned man in a sleeveless red shirt who’s selling hand-made wire fish statues. “She runs a voodoo store off Royal Street.”
Amelie: Amelie smiles at the man as she looks over his statues. “I’ve been there, yeah. Does she have a reputation around here? She was really mysterious when I was there.”
GM: The man shrugs. “Mysterious as any store owner in the Quarter, I guess. The voodoo thing’s just a racket.”
Amelie: “She’s pretty theatrical. Mysterious might cover it too,” Amelie muses, looking over one of his smaller fish baubles. “These are really nice. Have you bee making them long?”
GM: “Thank you ma’am, and no I haven’t,” the vendor smiles. “Two or so months. I’ve worked on Indian suits for a while longer. Thought I’d give my hand a try with wire ’stead of feathers for a bit.”
Amelie: Amelie catches the man’s smile, enjoying the talk. “You’re good! You know, if you collect can tabs, you can clip off the bit that sticks out at the bottom, snip the top of the big hole, and make chain fabric from them. Cheap, pretty, easy. If you ever get tired of being so good at making these fish, that is.”
GM: “Can tabs. Now I will have to remember that one,” the vendor remarks. “I know a girl who likes to work with bottle caps, make little model chairs with bent wire for the legs. Lot you can make with somebody’s garbage.”
Amelie: “One man’s trash. Little tables and chairs sounds fun though,” Amelie muses. “I should get going though, sir. Can I buy one of these smaller fish?”
GM: “S’what they’re here for,” the man laughs, gesturing across the table for Amelie to take her pick.
Amelie: She picks out one that’s caught her fancy and pays the man, thanks him for the talk, and offers a handshake before she heads off. It’s a cute and simple little thing. Better good luck charm than anything in the occult-themed stalls. She slips it into her pocket and heads off.
It’s time to scout that house.
Time to spend a night in hell.
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