GW leaned back in his seat near the stage and took a small swig of his beer. For a change he wasn’t the one up on stage performing, and the Cajun had come to this hole in the wall Blues joint in Westwego to kick back and relax and let other people entertain him instead. The place was close enough to Honfluer that he could literally walk back to his houseboat if he got too buzzed to drive. Granted, it would be a long walk, but he’d had his share of those before. It was a warm night and he was dressed for the weather in faded khaki shorts and blue polo shirt, sandals on his otherwise bare feet.
It was amateur night at the bar, but the group of musicians playing were talented and seemed to know what they were doing. He tapped his foot along to the beat and soaked up the atmosphere of the bar, which was just crowded enough to keep the waitstaff busy without packing customers in like sardines.
The bar was called Shades of Blue. It brought in professional musicians from the region and on its amateur night, locals could submit selections of music for the band to play and perform live, a step above karaoke machines and awkward last-minute picks. Hazel Moreau liked to go there for the rich menu of bottled beers. Sometimes she listened, a cigarette between her fingers and cheek in her palm. Sometimes she sang. Tonight she had chosen a classic by Mamie Jones called Crazy Blues.
When it was her turn, Hazel set her beer on a round table and made her way through the crowd, who offered light applause. Dressed in a beaded, navy skirt that brushed her shoes and an off-the-shoulder blouse of similar color, she instructed the band to slow the pace and stood behind the microphone stand. Her voice was deep and soothing as she told the story of lost love. It wasn’t spectacular but it was sure and she was unselfconscious, her eyes searching the audience, hands loose on the stand.
GW nodded as her eyes met his, and raised his beer bottle in silent salute. For an amateur to get up on stage and sing in front of an audience took guts and he wasn’t about to knock her down for the attempt. Besides, Hazel had a nice voice and did a good job for someone without training, she was pleasant to listen to. If she had any fear or nervousness about being on stage she didn’t show it in her body language.
As she wound down her song he applauded along with the rest of the crowd, genuinely pleased for her and showing his appreciation. She didn’t seem to be there with anyone so he gave a wave to hopefully catch her attention and direct her to his table. Might as well be friendly with a neighbor, after all.
Hazel handed the microphone off to a tall, bearded man who proceeded to raise the stand a foot. She nodded to the crowd and slipped silently from the stage, humble and solemn-faced. As she descended the steps, she noticed the man who had raised his beer. Dark-haired and amiable-looking, he sat just left of center, across the room from her table. She gave no initial impression of having noticed him, simply returning to her beer and taking long swigs from the bottle until it was empty. A drop of condensation traveled the length of her palm and into her sleeve.
Perhaps she would speak to him. He was familiar, a face she might’ve seen in passing in the grocery or general store. Hazel couldn’t pinpoint the specifics. Where there was no reason to distrust a neighbor, she would be polite. It wasn’t likely he knew much about her and besides, why wave only to confront her about town rumors?
She ordered another beer and waited for it. Once it came, she raised it above the heads of the audience and made her way to his table. She sat in the opposite chair. “I think I’ve seen you, haven’t I? In Honfleur?”
“That’s right.” GW nodded with an easy smile and reaching over to offer a hand in greeting. “I’m GW Robichaux, I live over at Jackson Marina, on one of the houseboats there. Been in town closin’ in on a year now. Seen you out and about, the old timer that runs the general store tol’ me your name once.” The old man hadn’t really wanted to talk about her either, which GW found a bit odd but hadn’t pressed him as it wasn’t important.
She took his hand in a strong grip. “Did he?”
She knew how that had gone, without even asking. ‘That lil girl? Yeah… well that’s Hazel Moreau. Her kin folks live all ‘round here…’ There would’ve been a hesitant stare at her back before he decided to drop the subject, figuring it best to leave well enough alone. She’d known the proprietor of the Corner General all her life. When she was a kid, he gave her one cent tootsie rolls and pretended to steal her nose, trying to coax a smile from the shy, dark-haired girl. By the time she was twelve, he’d gone the route of one-word greetings and subtle tips of his big straw hat.
“My name is Hazel,” she said, filling in the blank. Her brown eyes met GW’s. “We’re neighbors. I live in the cabin off Waterman’s Way. There’s a metal mailbox at the end of the lane. You’ll see it when you go home. Which boat is yours?” The brunette pulled a tiny case of cigarettes from her sleeve, but she didn’t light one, simply turned it between her fingers.
“A pleasure t’ meet you Hazel.” GW noted the strength of her grip and filed it away. No limp-wristed shrinking violet was Hazel, he could tell that straight off. “And now that you mention it, I do remember the mailbox. I’ve got the white catamaran with th’ blue stripe and the railing on the topdeck. It ain’t much but it’s a roof over my head and pretty spacious for a bachelor that ain’t there that often except to sleep.” Not to mention a hell of a lot more space than he’d ever had when deployed at sea or to the sandbox.
“Mmm.” Hazel nodded recognition. “It’s a nice boat.” She scooted forward to place her elbows on the table. Her hands joined and came to rest alongside her jaw. Folded thus, she was a petite woman. “What do you do to stay so busy?” The bayou accent was present, but it was apparent that Hazel strove for clean speech. She inspected his shirt, his hands, looking for signs of the life GW led. Not a fisherman and not a businessman, she decided, and his eye contact was too genuine to lend him to politics.
The effort for clean speech didn’t go unnoticed, but GW felt no urge to clean up his own diction. He was feeling relaxed at the moment and his accent had always been a point of pride for him once he’d left home, much to the frustration of one of his Drill Instructors back in the day. In business situations or other times when he felt it necessary he could lessen it, but chatting up a neighbor who was a fellow native wasn’t one of them.
He leaned back in his chair with an easy smile and a shrug. “At the moment? Tryin’ to make a living with music. I sing and play the fiddle in a band called the Cajun Devildogs, mostly Cajun music, some zydeco, and country. There’s a few kids I’m teaching to play the fiddle as well, but most of my focus is live performance.” He was curious if this would send her running away, some women wanted nothing to do with professional musicians.
“Zydeco?” Her eyebrows raised. “I’m impressed.” Hazel took an imported cigarette from the case and struck it with a match. She preferred this to the taste of butane left by lighters. “I am from a family of musicians,” she said, waving the match. “Not me. My uncle tried to teach me violin when I was this young.” Hazel held a palm at waist height. “I had no patience.” She hummed a self-effacing laugh as she remembered uncomfortable afternoons in Uncle Arthur’s living room, forced to share lessons and an instrument with her cousin Nicolette. “I was excused after I hit my cousin with the bow. Just... thwap,” she gestured, “Right across the forehead.”
“Hah!” A genuine laugh escaped his throat as GW imagined the scene as well. “That must have been a sight! My family has lots o’ musicians, and I had a violin put in my hands about as soon as I was able to walk, let alone play one.” He took a swig of his beer and tried not to look at the cigarette in her hands, since he was trying to quit.
“You do have a nice singing voice though, I don’t think the musical ability skipped you completely.”
Hazel shrugged and smoked.
“I should’ve asked before lighting this,” she said, tapping the paper with her thumb. “But in here, I doubt you could escape it if you wanted to. After all, what’s jazz or blues without pain, and what is pain without an addiction?” Her fingers caught the ashtray and dragged it closer. “A couple of years ago, I went to a club in New York. Squeaky clean. It all felt so false, so neutered. Politicians and health gurus have stolen the soul of that city.” She tightened her lips and shook her head.
“Politicians, they’ll always screw things up you give ‘em a chance.” GW opined with a chuckle, taking another swig of his beer and leaning forward. “I heard a quote once that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
“Mmm.” She tapped her cigarette. “It does seem to involve choosing the lesser of two evils.” The brunette’s eyes cut away. Evil, such a relative term. Some would describe her spells as evil, including the local Christian congregations. Hazel didn’t apply the label to herself, opting to see herself as an intermediary between the spirit and human worlds, a channel to be used to work their will. With this habit of self-reassurance, she had excused herself from guilt or ownership of wrongdoing. She could claim her hands were clean.
She sipped her beer.
“Are you playing tonight?” she asked, hand fluttering toward the stage.
“Me?” GW blinked in surprise at the question, though he supposed he should have expected it since he’d gone ahead and told her he was a musician. “I hadn’t really planned on it, it bein’ amateur night and all. My fiddle is back at the boat.” He eyed the band with an experienced eye, and decided once again that they seemed to know what they were doing.
“I suppose I could go up and sing a tune.”
Hazel snickered mildly. “‘It being amateur night’,” she repeated, dropping her voice and hooking her fingers into quotation marks. “You’re a little arrogant.” The cigarette drifted back to her mouth. Vanity in a woman was unattractive, but GW didn’t bother her. When normally humble men spread their feathers like peacocks, they were entertaining instead... probably because it came at no one else’s expense. And why was it attractive on men? That, she had never understood. “Go on. Cavort with us mortals. I won’t tell anyone you did.”
GW almost choked on his beer in mid-sip as he hadn’t meant it to sound quite like that but done was done. He glanced back at the band, debating what song to pick and what the band might know. Finally a smirk crossed his face as he turned back to face Hazel. “All right, if you promise not t’ rat me out.” What the hell, he was there to have fun and enjoy himself, right?
The Cajun stood up and made his way over to the band as the current singer finished up. A quick conference to make certain they knew the song and GW got on stage and stood in front of the microphone, looking out at the assembled patrons. No matter how screwed up he might feel his life had been from time to time since he left the Corps, he could always feel at home on stage.
He nodded his head as the drummer started up, tapping his foot to the beat as he mentally counted down to the point where he’d need to start singing. ‘All Right Now’ wasn’t part of his normal set and was possibly a bit more rock than classic blues, but he’d played the song countless times along with other classics with his buddies back in Iraq when they’d had downtime. Guitar Hero had been the video game of choice in his company, rather than something like Call of Duty. Why anyone involved in combat would want to relax by playing first person shooter video games was still something that baffled him.
Finally the time came for him to sing and GW launched into the song, putting all his confidence and showmanship into the performance.
Hazel paused, bottle to mouth, as the song became familiar. She was surprised. But what had she expected from this man-next-door? A genuine rendering of Camey Doucet’s ‘Mom I’m Still Your Little Boy’, her mind answered. It suited his face. But this was a classic, an English hit that fit well with the lazy pace of southern rock, and he sang it well. She settled her chin in her hand and listened to the open vowels and rounded consonants of his bayou voice. He had traveled, she thought. He wasn’t like those men who never left the swamp. He had stage sophistication, so perhaps that was why.
The crowd was slow to get out of the blues mood, but by the time GW hit the second verse, they tapped their knees and nodded along. One man pumped a fist as he belted out the final chorus, which coaxed Hazel’s brows higher. She clapped when he finished and signaled a waiter for two more drinks.
GW smiled broadly at the crowd after finishing, and gave a small bow before turning and thanking the band for the fine performance. They deserved the applause every bit as much as he did, as a poor performance by the band would have overwhelmed even the best performance he could have put out on his own. Finally he wandered off the stage and back to his table just as the waiter arrived with fresh drinks.
He noted the expression on Hazel’s face and cocked an eyebrow. “Not what you were expecting?”
“No,” she said and left it there. “But it was good. It’s in your blood. It’s easy to tell when a man’s doing what he loves most... he moves differently.” She thought of her papa, a man who subtly fell in line behind her mama. He loved natural things, like hunting and fishing and bird calling. When he was outdoors, his shoulders didn’t sit as high. The way Hazel’s mother told it, he often stayed gone for days now. Hazel half-expected him to cast off his home life and take up residence in a tree stand. She thought of herself, how she might move when doing what she loved.
“Did you know you stick out your hips?” She smirked and if she was pulling his leg, it was hard to tell.
“Do I now?” Was all GW said in reply as he picked up the drink and took a healthy swig. “First I’ve heard it, but it worked for Elvis and Mick Jagger so who am I to complain if I do?”
“No one.” Hazel’s second beer went down her throat smoothly, the bitterness not so noticeable. She was silent as a man crooned about a ball and chain. Hazel hoped he wasn’t looking to take a woman home, as it was poor advertisement. “Do you have enough work in New Orleans or are you a nomad?” she asked. She reached back to touch the low bun of her dark hair. “I like to travel but I couldn’t go forever. There’s nowhere else like Louisiana.” She found that in keeping up a steady volley of questions, she could direct things as she chose and it was easier.
“A bit of a nomad.” GW confessed, “but not too bad. The farthest we normally go out is a stretch between Mobile, Baton Rouge, and Houston, but mostly here and around Acadiana. I spent enough time traveling to exotic locations to have any desire to go touring the country eight months out of the year. How about you? You mentioned travelin’ up to New York once.”
“I live and work in town,” she said. “My job is nothing special but I’m fourth generation to Honfleur. Some of my family have moved on, but I like it here. What I need is here,” she self-corrected. “To travel is one thing – a privilege – but I suspect I’ll carry the torch, if there is such a thing.” She stubbed the remaining embers of her old cigarette. “Assuming the cabin doesn’t collapse on my head.” She tipped her chin and sat forward.
“What’s wrong with your cabin?” GW frowned slightly and tried to remember what the exterior of the woman’s home looked like from his morning jogs. Was she being serious or trying to make a joke? So far it was hard to tell exactly when Hazel was being funny.
Hazel laughed. “It’s eighty-one years old, that’s what’s wrong with it,” she said, breathless and emphatic as she reached for her bottle. “Built by my great-grandfather, who was no great architect. It’s held together by determination and about a hundred-thousand rusty nails. I’m surprised I haven’t died of tetanus.”
“Well eighty one isn’t all that old for a house,” GW observed after taking another swig from his bottle. It was starting to get low and he debated on ordering a third before deciding to go ahead and do it. He was having a good time and could always walk home if he needed to, so why not? “When I was in Iraq I saw homes a good bit older than that out in the countryside. Heck, you head out in the countryside here you’ll find homes older than that. They do take a lot of work to keep up though, I’ll grant you that.”
Hazel’s mouth twisted at the corner. “I’m being generous when I call it a cabin,” she said. “The appropriate description is tin-roofed shack with multiple rooms, but I appreciate your effort. And please, don’t mistake my frankness about it for dislike. I volunteered to take care of it.” In her private thoughts, Hazel considered it a place of power. Often, houses used for magical purposes took on certain energies and she felt it in the walls, in the floorboards, as if the house itself had become a conduit.
To the mention of Iraq, she said, “You’ve shed the military look, if that’s what you were. Your hair,” she reached atop her own head and scrunched her fingers, mimicking GW’s mild curls. Her own hair was bone straight, even in the humidity. “And your posture, too.” She wondered if he was a conservative.
“Nine years in the Infantry with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children as we liked to call th’ Marine Corps.” GW stated with a bit of pride. He may have been glad to get out, but once a Marine always a Marine. Not everyone who had started boot camp in his platoon was able to say that. “You should have seen me right after I graduated high school before I got shipped off to boot camp, hair down to here.” A hand went to a point just below his shoulders. “Th’ Drill Instructors, oh they had fun wi’ me that first day.”
A long pull finished off the second beer and he signaled for the waiter. “I have t’ admit, short hair is easier to handle, but I didn’t want to keep that look now that I have a choice.”
A Marine... Hazel only knew one other, an aging disabled veteran who came into the bait and tackle shop and bitched about the downfall of America while she fetched his crickets or minnows. If she had fought for the country and seen it falter like a modern-day Rome, perhaps she’d have that kind of vitriol. But she wouldn’t flourish in such a structured environment; she didn’t like rules. “Are you as unscathed as you look?” she asked. If it was a personal question, he could deflect it.
GW ordered another beer and raised an eyebrow in inquiry at Hazel, who shook her head in the negative before letting the waiter go. This would have to be his last if he didn’t want to make an ass of himself. He used the time to compose a response to her question.
“Nobody is unscathed when they put you through a grinder like we went through, but the Corps was better at spacing things out than th’ Army.” He said finally. “Caught the edge of an IED blast toward the tail end of Fallujah that gave me a few permanent reminders of my time in the sandbox, but I made out ok I guess. Still have all the body parts I took in with me, so I don’t have any reason to complain.”
He had issues to work through still, but that was a conversation for another time.
“Mm. Well then you have a positive perspective.” She scratched her nape and watched him. Outside of forays into New Orleans proper, it was the longest conversation she’d held with a stranger in weeks. Most of her free time was spent alone with books or arranging for side money. Realizing the length of the conversation, she retreated, slowly straightening and taking enough swallows of beer to finish it. Hazel slid the cigarette case inside her sleeve.
“I need to get home,” she said. “I’m opening the store tomorrow. Five a.m. is a horrifying prospect.”
GW glanced at his watch, then grimaced in understanding. “I don’ care much for early morning either, especially since my work keeps me out late. That’s another thing I don’t miss about the Corps: early wake-ups.” He stood up as she did, having had that politeness almost literally beaten into him as a teenager and then having it strengthened through his years in the Corps.
“It was a pleasure talking with you Hazel, don’t be a stranger.”
She pushed in her chair. “Nearly impossible in Honfleur,” she said. “Now that we’ve met, we’ll notice one another everywhere.” She met his eyes a final time and then, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, she turned away and wove a path through the dark bar.