Bless me Father for I have sinned. Sixteen years ago this night, I committed murder.
God I wish I was Catholic. I wish I could unburden myself that easily, wipe it away, move on. Southern Baptists don’t have that luxury. We have to relive it, every year, every day, every hour, every minute.
Nine p.m. May 11, 1988. I am sitting home at the kitchen table. Frankie is asleep. Rock is gone, moved out day before yesterday. But I know he’ll be back, he always is. And I know where he is: sleeping on the couch at the onshore offices in Houma because the chopper is due to take off for the rig at 4 a.m.
I am exhausted, but I know I won’t be able to sleep. I smell like smoke but I don’t have the energy to take a bath. Most of all, I am so, so, angry. Upset with myself for screwing up at work. Pissed off at Peggy for her condescending attitude while she allowed me to screw up. But most of all, I am infuriated, incensed, enraged at Rock.
I could see disaster as soon as the word came in. Termite Theriot jumped out of his lair of police and fire department scanners on the side of the city desk. Since Termite must weigh close to 400 pounds, that sent shock waves down the rows of reporters’ desks, but we’re used to Termite’s excitable eccentricities. Still, my coffee sloshed and I looked up and Termite seemed more agitated than usual. He has a speech impediment, so it’s hard to understand him normally and Peggy wasn’t paying a lot of attention. Finally, he yelled: “The Cabildo is on fire!”
That got all of our attention. The Cabildo is one of the oldest buildings in New Orleans, a city of old buildings. It was built in the 1700s by the Spanish and burned down exactly 200 years ago but was then rebuilt and was the site of the Louisiana Purchase. Now it’s a state museum, next door to St. Louis Cathedral. And it’s in the middle of the French Quarter, where streets are narrow and most everything was built before anybody even thought of fire codes.
I was the first reporter on the scene. Robert, the photog who had been nearby, was already shooting. He showed me how to go the back way, by Pirates Alley, and we got in. That was stupid. It was full of smoke and the firemen hadn’t even got back there yet because they were still making sure all the people were out on the front side. Robert got a great shot of the head curator dragging two paintings and the Napoleon death mask down the stairs, with smoke billowing behind him. And I got a great lead and the top byline on the story. Then the firemen came and threatened to have us arrested if we didn’t leave. These are the days you live for as a reporter.
But then I had to leave anyway since I couldn’t reach anybody to pick up Frankie from the day care by 6. Rock was supposed to do it, but he was gone and I hadn’t had time to arrange anybody else. So I had to call Peggy at the city desk and tell her I was abandoning ship. If she hadn’t been my best friend I probably would have gotten into trouble, but she was. Is. And as she told me, they had lots of reporters there. Yeah, I really needed reminding of that.
Anyway, that’s not the point. Reporters don’t walk out on big news stories.
Of course, I’m a mother first. That’s more important. But he’s a father. How come it’s OK for him to just take off when he feels like it? I’m the one with the steady paycheck. He loses jobs semiannually.
I left the Cabildo. Picked up Frankie. Fixed him some macaroni and cheese and a glass of milk. Poured myself a glass of wine. Gave Frankie his bath. Had another glass of wine. Put Frankie to bed. Finished the bottle. Smelled like smoke. Started feeling hungry. Fixed a rum and orange juice. Picked up the telephone.
I called the bunkroom number. Bonk, bonk, bonk. I can still hear that busy signal. So I called the number of the girl in Cocodrie, Donna Jean. Bonk, bonk, bonk. Dialed the bunkroom. Bonk, bonk, bonk. Dialed Cocodrie. Bonk, bonk, bonk.
OK, OK. They’re both on the phone. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re talking to each other.
But if both phones get free at exactly the same moment, within the same oh, 15 seconds, and if you know that the two phones are acquainted—make that intimate—what are the odds?
Am I obsessed? Definitely. Unhinged? Possibly. I dialed Rock’s number, Donna Jean’s number, Rock’s number, Donna Jean’s number. How many times? Who knows? How many times can you dial nonstop for an hour and a half? Stopping for nothing. Except a drink.
Finally, a female hello. I slam down the phone. Fingers shaking, I dial the bunkroom. Maybe it won’t be Rock. Maybe somebody else was on the phone.
My face is on fire as I put the receiver down. Why does it hurt so much? Why do I care? How can he still make me cry? I spill a puddle of Bacardi on the counter as I pour another glass. Then I lay my head down on the counter.
When I look up, it is quarter to 4. I dial the bunkroom again. This time, when Rock answers, I speak in a whisper. “Who’s your girlfriend sleeping with when you’re on the rig?”
Then I hang up.