I am a rare hybrid. I am a New Orleans native, but half of my DNA comes from Mobile.
So what? You’re thinking.
Well, come January, while most people are sweating out their New Year’s resolutions trying to lose weight for spring break, the Mardi Gras ball season begins. Both New Orleanians and Mobilians get to start celebrating with their fellow members of their Krewes and Mystic Societies. It’s strictly white tie and tails for the men, long ballgowns and gloves for the ladies. High formal.
Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebrations actually predate New Orleans’. And I could go on and on about the history, the pageantry, the celebrations… but you’re on the internet. Google it. Then ask me and I’ll be happy to tell you the stuff behind the scenes.
So tomorrow, while my N’Awlins and Mobile family and friends are enjoying the biggest block party in the world, I’ll be in my quiet home, celebrating in spirit.
It’s a good time to offer up a Mardi Gras tale. I hope you enjoy it.
“Shh!” Lisette whispered to no one. She froze on the creaky stair tread. Leave it to her to get caught when Mama had specifically told her not to go upstairs to the guest bedroom.
Well, what Mama didn’t know wouldn’t hurt Lisette. Unless she got discovered creeping up the oak steps of the Barilloux’s Garden District home to take a peek at Pia’s ballgown. But it would be worth it, Lisette decided. Just one last peek.
She eased the crystal doorknob around, peered inside. The room had been emptied to make room for the magnificent ballgown and train and collar Pia would wear tomorrow night. Draped over a mannequin in the room’s center, grander than any pageant gown, more regal than any costume worn by a queen, fictional or real. It was extraordinary.
Lisette squinted against the glare from the window. Sunlight shot off the crystals and beading that trimmed the glowing satin. Iridescent embroidery highlighted the bodice with the krewe’s symbols. A stiff high collar for the detachable train was crowded with more impossible jewels and beading.
And on the dressing table, reflected in the triple mirror, sitting on a velvet form, sat the tiara and scepter. They glittered, sparkled. A captured rainbow for the Queen of Nike’s head. A sunbeam for her hand.
The ensemble shimmered in the afternoon sun, charged with a surreal beauty that only exists in the fairy tale dreams of little girls and a team of gifted seamstresses.
It was an exquisite royal gown, meant to be worn only once, and then housed in a museum.
And she wouldn’t dare touch it. No. She couldn’t.
Just a fingertip. There, on the skirt. Just a brush of the hand against the regal fabric. Just a —
“What do you think you’re doing?”
Lisette jumped, almost crashing into the dress form. “Wha–?”
“You have no business in here.” Carter Barilloux huffed. “Who let you in here? Surely not my mother. Or Pia.”
He drew himself to his full height. “Did your Mama say you could come in here?”
Lisette’s heart sank. Now not only would she catch it, but Mama would catch it too. And this was the best job she’d had in a long, long time.
“I was just–” she stammered.
“Just what?” CB drawled, cruelly mimicking Lisette’s desperate plea. His eyes gleamed with a wicked thought. “You aren’t supposed to be here. You know that, or else you wouldn’t be sneaking around, touching Pia’s gown.” He stepped forward, easily sliding over the tricky floorboard that had betrayed Lisette. “Probably stealing something else of my sister’s.” He looked her over, his beady eyes gobbling her up from head to toe.
“No!” Lisette shook her head frantically. She and her mama had gone hungry lots of times– they wouldn’t dream of stealing! The two of them even lived in one room of the Barilloux’s home so they didn’t take space in a shelter. “No, I would never steal!”
“Hmmph,” CB snorted. “Then explain why you are wearing my sister’s shoes.” He arched an eyebrow. “Think I didn’t notice?”
Lisette’s feet shriveled in the discarded track shoes. Pia had put them out with some other discards from her closet, and had offered to Lisette whatever she could use herself. There was still plenty of wear left to all the clothes she’d salvaged. Lisette wasn’t proud.
Even online community college courses cost a few hundred bucks.
With a wicked arch of his brow, CB stepped forward into her space. She could smell the onion and garlic on his breath from his lunch, as well as the whiskey sour. For CB and his partners, celebrating began at about 10 in the morning.
“I have a proposition for you,” he said, looking down at her, undressing her with his eyes, and liking what he saw. “You’re coming to the ball tomorrow night, with me. Everything here– the gown, the clothes, the shoes– it’ll all be forgotten. ‘Slong’s you do as I say. Everything I say. Wherever and whenever.”
Lisette’s throat clogged. Nothing came out. But really, she didn’t have much to say– if she refused, she and Mama would be out on the street. Again.
CB nodded, taking her silence as an assent. “I’ll have Camille send over something for you to wear.”
She could tell by the look on his face, the slight tilt of his smile, the heavy lids of his eyes, that it wasn’t going to be much.
He turned, walked to the door. “Just do what I say, and you and your mama will be taken care of.” He turned and put his hand on the crystal doorknob. “Just what I say.”
He walked out, floorboards groaning with his weight.
The lump in her throat slid down to Lisette’s stomach and laid there, hard and cold, like a solid ice cube.
She didn’t have to wonder the price she was about to pay. She knew.
To Be Continued….