Funeral Cake


My grandmother was dead, had been for two weeks.  After the service, my father gave the flowers to her neighbor along with keys to the little brown house.  The neighbor said she'd tend to the begonias and asked where we were going.  "Someplace old," he told her, "but new to us.  Help yourself to the casseroles and figgy desserts."
      We took the new Pacer and drove to New Orleans.  This trip, we would not camp, our mother said.  She wouldn't have to cook on a burner and bathe in a stream.  We stayed in hotels.  There were lacy balconies, tall windows, tubs with claw feet.  We had our own beds.  The bathroom smelled like cake, like vanilla.  I went to bed wanting a slice with milk.
      "We're rich," our father told us in the morning.  We walked and talked and window shopped.  My brother wanted to bring a wooden soldier home.  I wore my First Communion dress.  We sucked sugar from cane sticks, and I was allowed café au lait.  "This is our moment," our father said.
      The next day was Christmas Eve.  What would we eat?  "Everything will be open," he said.  "This is New Orleans.  The people here won't shut down."
      I'd never been hungrier.  I told my brother we'd have sugared pecans, milk that was better than heavy cream, peppermint ice cream and bread with chocolate.  He wanted mashed potatoes and turkey.  "Too bad," I told him.  "They don't eat that stuff here.  They only eat old-fashioned festival stuff."  I took his hand in mine, and we skipped.  Our mother smiled.  She belonged.  They were figures, Dad's threadbare elbow patch jacket, Mom's gray braid coiled on top of her head.  She had long scraggly hair; instead of trimming, she singed the dead ends.
      We walked for hours through the closed city, until we found a place called Hamburger Heaven.  Our father pointed to the other customer, an old man in a lady's coat, buying pancakes with his pocket of change.  "He's a real Orleanian," our father said.  My brother was tired.  He didn't want fries, he said.  He wanted a toy soldier.  His nose ran into the greasy plate.  I pinched his arm under the table.  "I'm sorry," I whispered.  "You were annoying me.  I'm sorry."
      We filled our pockets with candy when we left.  I held my butterscotch up to the light.  "What are you doing?" my brother asked.  "All the better to see you with," I said.
      It was raining.  I watched us in puddles.  I tried to remember what I had read about New Orleans.  There was a book about a girl, Paulette, who ate pralines and lived in the French Quarter.  I thought there were stories about stolen organs, and rituals from days of yore.  Was it people with torches, or scattered rice?  And vampires.  I tried thinking about them for awhile, but, instead, I saw her.  Eugenia Parsley, my father's mother, in a wine dark dress buttoned all the way up.  All the better to hide my crepey neck with, darling.  I felt her tickle my ear, smelled the spearmint in her pocket.
      "Did Grandma ever come here?" I asked my father.  But he was too far ahead.
      I still wore the white dress.  It was the right dress, but, I thought, only here.  I was too big for eyelet and petticoats.
      "We might stay," my father said.  My mother leaned into him, pushing her hand into his pocket, knocking her body sideways, laughing like a kid, as if she were someone else, someone we didn't know.  
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