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Once Upon a Time in New Orleans

The sense that someone had been in her room since she fell asleep the night before was in the air when she woke, a feeling that brought her bolt upright in bed. As Pearl Caldwell scanned the room, it took a while for everything to register. Something was missing, but she could not place the item. Her jacket was on the chair with her clothes and the purse was on the table. She got up and looked in the bathroom. The makeup case was sitting open on the counter; nothing had been touched, and yet there was something out of place.

After dressing quickly and brushing her teeth and hair, Pearl checked her purse. The traveler’s checks were gone, as were both credit cards and all her cash, except for the one dollar bill she kept in a side pocket for luck and a handful of change. A cold hand gripped her stomach and squeezed so hard she nearly retched.

Clutching the wallet in nerveless fingers, she knocked and J.D. Bath’s door swung open. It was empty. She ran down the hall, rang for the elevator and waited while looking for the stairs. What is taking so long? Calm. She must remain calm.
Downstairs, she rang for the desk clerk and asked for Mr. Bath.  

“Mr. Bath checked out.”

Blood roared in Pearl’s ears. Black specks danced in her eyes. All she had left to hold onto was herself. “When?” She could not breathe.

“At four this morning,” the clerk said. She placed an envelope on the desk. “He left this for you.”As the clerk turned away, Pearl moved aside, peeled up the flap inch by inch, extracted the folded page and opened it.

It has been fun, but it’s time I moved on.
Fifty dollars will get you back to Ft. Lauderdale
on the bus. Thanks for everything.
                                        J. D.

Hands shaking, she placed the fifty in her wallet, folded the note, placed it back in the envelope and secured the flap, resisting the urge to rip it to shreds.

Gone. Everything was gone, even her car. Her knees felt like rubber. It took every ounce of control not to give in to the bile-tinged hysteria bubbling up in her throat. She swallowed past the lump and blinked at the expanding black specks. “Thank you,” she checked the girl’s name badge, “Alice.”

“Is there anything else I can get for you?”

A brain. A heart. A clue. Would you send them up to my room, please? “No, thank you.”

“Would you like the room for another night?”

Pearl didn’t trust herself to speak, not without losing last night’s meal. She shook her head, swallowed and blinked away the swarming black meteors that clogged her sight. Deep breath. Don’t lose it now. “No,” she managed. Get a grip.  “Thank you, no.”

“Check out time is eleven.”

Pearl swayed and gripped her arms tighter, feeling the color draining from her face.

“Ma’am, are you all right?” The clerk reached out a hand.

Pearl forced a smile. She nodded and turned away, hand on the counter to steady herself. Stranded in New Orleans with fifty dollars. How generous to leave her anything. Fifty dollars, her makeup case and the clothes she wore. What can I do? I can’t go back and I can’t go forward. She turned back to the desk on a surge of adrenaline. “Excuse me.” She struggled to remember the clerk’s name. “Alice.” The girl cocked her head to one side, waiting expectantly. “Is there a Traveler’s Aid nearby?”

“Yes, ma’am. At the YMCA at Lee Circle.”

It was a place to start. “How do I get there?”  

*       *    *

Six weeks of trudging the streets, spending the days at the Traveler’s Aid offices looking through the ads for a job, typing up resumes and going on interviews in borrowed clothes and the afternoons pushing a hot dog-shaped cart to sell Lucky Dogs to tourists had finally paid off. JD might have left her high and dry, but she had not crashed and burned or called her family for help, not that they would give it. Had it not been for her friends--Laura, Cap, Chip and Leo--she would not have made it. They kept her company, shared their lunch tickets and their earnings, and kept each other company when they had little more than a few bucks between them. Had it not been for them, the past six weeks would have sent her running back to home, tail between her legs, and yet another sad story to prove she would, as her mother always put it, never amount to a hill of beans. How close she had been to running.

Pearl now knew how the other half lived, the poorer half, because she had to walk everywhere (bus and trolley tickets cost money), sold blood plasma three times a week and taken whatever odd job she could find that didn’t require references until the temporary agency had called and set her feet on the return path to a normal life.  And they had called with a great prospect. She interviewed and was hired -- temporarily.

Happiness bubbled up inside Pearl until she could hardly contain herself. The week had been a study in contrasts. Snow at the beginning of the week in dirt-spangled piles like snow cone dumps outside the Transit Authority building when she began work and now moist balmy breezes redolent of Cajun spices and daiquiris at the end of the week. Instead of the usual tramp through the French Quarter hawking condos or serving up eight-inch Lucky Dogs, she and her friends were playing tourist beneath the carnival lights and ragtime jazz spilling from the doorways on Bourbon Street. It did not feel like a few days past Christmas; however, there was a distinctly frenzied feel in the air as the last days of the year rushed past in a blur hurtling toward a brighter future.

She had a job and, if the past few days was any indication, it would be permanent. Her boss at the Transit Authority was pleased with her speed and efficiency, so Alice at the temp agency told her when Pearl picked up her check a couple hours before, and wanted to make her a permanent employee. Ninety days and she would be back into the mainstream.
Happy thoughts of looking for apartments and buying cars shattered as Laura’s angry protests stained the air blue.

“You can’t just demand to see our IDs.” Laura crossed her arms and faced down the officers. “I know my rights. My mother is—”

“You have the right to remain silent. Use it,” the red-headed female officer said. “Or you’ll go downtown, too.”

“Are we under arrest?”

“Just show them your license, Laura.” Chip held his out. “Are you looking for someone in particular, officer.”

The beefy officer’s muscles and ligaments tensed as he covered the holster with his hand. “Got something to hide, boy?”

Chip backed away, hooking Laura’s arm and pulling her against the building.

“You,” Red-headed Officer said and pointed at Pearl. “Where’s your ID?”

“I beg your pardon,” Pearl said, palming the bottle of amyl nitrate behind her back. Leo eased it from her hand and moved closer. She looked at the officer’s name tag. “Officer Charbonneau . . . .”

“You can read, but you obviously don’t hear so good. ID.”

Pearl dug the plastic card out of her clutch and held it out. The officer pocketed it.

“Come with us.” Beefy officer flipped the snap on his holster, left hand gripping the worn ebony handle of a night stick.

“What have I done, officer?” Pearl asked.

“We’d like to ask you some questions.” Her friends closed ranks and stepped back and away from Pearl.

“About what?”

“Just come with us.”

“You’d better go with them,” Cap said. “Remember what I told you.”

Pearl glanced over at the officer and handed her purse to Cap. “Keep this for me.” She followed the cops to a squad car parked on Conti. Cold steel handcuffs were snapped around her limp wrists and she was helped into the back seat. “Where are we going?” she asked when the officers got into the squad car.

The cops ignored her. Bleeps from the siren cleared the way and the car rolled slowly down the street, pausing at a dimly lit corner and headed toward Canal. Solitary silhouettes in ones and twos drifted in and out of the pools of light beneath street lamps, the sounds of the Quarter where she had spent most of the past six weeks faded. Good thing her meager belongings were in the flop du jour. 

They drove deeper into the city far from her friends and the only places she knew to a massive brick building. The dark pile of concrete, steel and brick loomed above the crumbling, weathered faces of once graceful shops and office buildings. They hauled her out of the car and marched her into a teeming circus of sideshow freaks, cops, and men and women in rumpled suits casually dangling battered briefcases. She prayed she would see her friends again as the deputies proceeded to process and usher her away from the light.