August 2009 / The Wars of August
Photo Credit: Frank Parsley
Reprinted from Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans
The Wars of August
Leonard Earl Johnson
* * *
"Or trade it for something by James Lee Burke," L. A. Norma said to a young woman named K. O. We were standing on the marble-like floor of New Orleans' Union Station, on Loyola Avenue, awaiting the call of our train, The City of New Orleans. Norma exhaled a plume of Camel cigarette smoke at the woman. A large elderly security guard got up from an olive green metal desk and started towards her with a yellow plastic bucket held firmly in front of him.
Norma went on, "The Best thing about Bloomsday parties is that none dare climb out too far on any limb of understanding it."
The security guard asked Norma to put her cigarette in the yellow bucket. It contained sand, and around its outside said, "Humeland Secority," in Magic Marker printing. The "O" was open at the top and the "U" was closed, but the message was clear enough.
Norma looked at him sternly and forced the offending cigarette from her teeth with the tip of her tongue, while hardly missing a syllable of her lecture to K. O.
We were on our way to the exhibition, The Glory of Baroque Dresden, in Jackson, Mississippi. K. O. and her boyfriend, O. K., were on their way home to Memphis. We had met the night before, at O'Flaherty's annual celebration of James Joyce's obtuse novel, ULYSSES. The bar had been very crowded -- it being the centennial Bloomsday -- and on the waiter's invitation the two smiled warmly and took chairs at our table.
K. O. sported purple hair, one gold nose ring, and two glass chandelier earrings made of tiny red and green crystal crosses. Her fellow traveler was similarly colored and pierced, with six gold earrings in his right ear and one in the left. They shared a secreted bottle of Courvoisier and told us they had come to Town a few days before to read, "two short poems," they had written for the occasion.
"Mercifully they got drunk on the train down and lost all eighteen pages," Norma said under her breath.
"The City of New Orleans, an adventure in slow motion," O. K. said, as we boarded the train. Behind us the security guard paraded across the marble-like floor on his way back to his green metal desk. A trail of cigarette smoke spread out behind him like contrails over prairie.
Our train slipped passed the Superdome, gathered steam and rocked over marsh and swamp. Then it climbed up the ancient continental shelf and pulled into Jackson, on time. There a quick transaction with the Conductor secured a bedroom and extended our tickets to Memphis.
We stayed on the train so as to laugh more with our new friends and their bottles of old French brandy. We ordered iced-water, and tipped the Train Assistant to not tell anyone we were smoking Norma's cigarettes in our cozy little cabin. At ten o'clock, we reached Memphis. O. K. and K. O. dropped us at the Sheraton-Peabody, on Union Avenue, in quiet well-behaved downtown Memphis.
"The Bluff City," Norma said, "corporate headquarters of Elvis Presley, Sun Records, Harrahs Casino, Cornerstone Cellars, and the world famous Peabody Hotel's Marching Ducks."
Norma recited her list while walking in deep carpeting towards elevators that took us up to our rooms. There we slept a few hours before catching a cab, and the six-fifty southbound "City of New Orleans" back to Jackson.
Amtrak #59, The City of New Orleans, southbound, arrived on time. We climbed aboard and right back into bed, leaving a wake-up call for "just-before Jackson."
* * *
For a second time in as many days, we arrived in Jackson on time and once again extended our stay on the train.
"We are far too tired for the glory of either Jackson or Dresden," Norma told the conductor. We did get up, and ordered lunch in the diner. Over coffee laced with brandy, we watched Jackson slip away behind us.
After that we slept the rest of the way back to New Orleans tended over by, "The sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers . . . aboard their father's magic carpet made of steel . . ." (From the song, RIDING ON THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS, by Steve Goodman.)
* * *
At home the next morning, Norma called very early to say, "The New Orleans Museum of Art is running a Hotard bus up to Jackson," for the sole purpose of the Dresden exhibition. "For the price of eighty-nine dollars we can get two meals, the bus ride and the exhibition."
"That's less than our bar bill alone on The City of New Orleans!" she exclaimed.
I agreed, leaning my forehead on the desk next to the telephone. I thought I could smell her cigarette smoke. I did hear her phone click off as I fell asleep.
"It'll keep bugs out'a your ice-box, next time, sugar!"
~ L. A. Norma