Excerpts from QUARANTENA – a collaboration between sisters
Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Writer
Nina Z. Temple, Artist
New Orleans, USA, April 2020
I’ll Fly Away
We open the back door to let in the morning. The industrious blackbirds have set up shop in the live oak behind our house. What a racket. Years ago, a family of owls ran them off, squatting in their architecture, but the mother and father owl both dropped dead in my yard. We’d rescued the babies with a bucket truck, gave them to a raptor-lover to raise in the crates behind her house. Had the parents been poisoned? Did the nesting babies send out panicked cries to other owls to not trust this tree? Do blackbirds carry grudges? Or is their revenge to be back in their nest emptied by the owls?
New Orleans’ own, Ellis Marsalis, died last night of the corona virus. He was 85. He’d just stepped away from playing jazz piano on Saturdays at Snug Harbor with one of his sons on trombone, another son on the drums.
It’s Sunday, which means my husband, Malcolm, is soaking a pot of red beans to cook tomorrow. There will be no cheating by throwing in a can of Goya, which is what I do when I cook for myself. Prepared Malcolm’s way, the beans yield the most delicious broth! Who needs chicken stock? Who needs chicken? Other chickens! You soak the beans, boil the beans, smash the beans, add the onion-celery-garlic trinity, a bay leaf, smoked ham, andouille, pickled pork, and voila! A base that is silken but hearty. Also, you can turn your back on the pot while you wonder how else to fill this next empty day.
I miss driving through the ATM; buying a cheap red lipstick at Walgreen’s to put on in my rear-view mirror; sliding my car through the car wash, the smell of wax, beading up; darting into the grocery for half a lemon cake. Maybe we’ll jump in my car and ride around, see what’s blooming, open the sunroof, lower the windows, turn the radio to the news of 100,000 body bags ordered by FEMA.
Ellis Marsalis’s second line will be epic, a homegoing for the ages led by his six sons, four of them on horns, and dozens of protégés pointing their instruments at the sky, the city flocking and waving white handkerchiefs. But our dead are stacking up. When can we take to the streets, release his body to fly away to a home on God’s celestial shore?
Let’s Do Something Nuts
How are people carrying on affairs in this lock down with their spouses? Husbands and wives living all segments of the day within reach of each other, accountable. They can barely stray in their minds: unbuttoning silk, pulling off T-shirts, unzipping jeans, kicking off a stiletto. If we wear shoes at all, they are for comfort: Aerosoles, Adidas, Allbirds. And how are the side friends not losing hope? Their hiding, compounded by social distancing, compounded by doubt that their lovers won’t drift back, their marriages reawakened by the fear of losing each other to the virus.
“What are you thinking about?” the wife asks her husband when a few minutes of quiet go by. “Penny for your thoughts,” the husband says to the wife when he sees her mind drift. Me? I’m wondering what happened to Hush Puppies. A homely and blister-free container for our feet. I had a mustard yellow pair and some two-tone oxfords. I miss those shoes! Did I give them to a sister? A niece? In college, I sold shoes all four years, and with my tempting discount, I built a collection for the woman I expected to become: career girl in low Aigner pumps; party girl in strappy silver sandals; divorcee in a gamine kitten heel. When I worked with Malcolm, I wore high heels to showcase and lengthen my legs, sexy torture chambers. At the end of the day, he’d rub out the cramp in my arches. Now I go days without taming my eyebrows. My dark hair is filling in with grays and my cut is misbehaving. Stay put, I implore my bangs. It’s freeing and safer, isn’t it, every day, to know that you’re present, together in one place, the only place.
At night before a cocktail on our porch, I choose a red lipstick – Chanel’s “Coromandel,” Dior’s “Concorde, Mac’s “Dare You.”
“Does the name of a lipstick change the way you feel?” Malcolm asks.
“How’d you know?” I say before I stain his cheek with “Parisian Red” and travel.
A Committee of Two
On the front porch under the ceiling fan, my granddaughter, Lane, cut my hair, snipping away two months of overgrowth, lightening the shaggy layers. She’s twenty now with flamingo pink hair, a contrast that lightens her blue eyes and makes her skin even more luminous. Youth! They’re a rainbow of fun to look at but I wouldn’t want to be one of them if it meant I couldn’t fix a few cruel mistakes, form a committee of me then and me now, and give my decision-making an upgrade in the compassion department. Lane is engaged to a nice kid with a fresh buzz cut. I’ve already lived long enough to have had a five-year marriage and a thirty-year marriage. That’s a load of marriage! My first divorce took a year because neither of us wanted to pay for the attorney. The day the decree came through the mail with his familiar signature at the bottom felt like a stab in my eye because I’d pushed that mistake out of view, while I fell in love with Malcolm. I should’ve been the one to file.
The ceiling fan scattered my hair bits around the porch. Here today, gone today. I probably won’t live to see Lane married thirty years. I’ll be over ninety and Malcolm will be over a hundred. But her grandfather and I will enjoy all that’s ahead; Lane’s wedding this September, followed by chubby babies (she’s one of five so wants five) with heads of fine sweet-smelling hair. All the baby firsts I treasured with our son: smiling, teeth cutting through gums, a rush of steps before falling, the first chosen, spoken word. How Lane’s heart will ache the first time she cuts her baby’s hair, the locks falling to the ground, collectible.
How We Roll
This morning in the cool bright light on the front porch with birds tweeting and climbing jasmine wafting, I sip my first cup of coffee and sink just when I’m getting started. The hours ahead loom; the week ahead looms. “There will be many dead,” Trump says, in a dead voice. Does he realize he’s talking about loved ones who are still alive but unreachable in hospitals?
No more watching the news in the morning, unless it’s the assured New York Governor Cuomo. Or his valiantly sick kid brother in the basement. I need to make more meaningful use of all this time before it’s gone. Yesterday, I read a novella about a woman who shoots her husband between the eyes. She admits in the first paragraph to killing him, then over a short eighty pages, she describes her tormented marriage, her conflicted love for him, the death of their toddler, a pale girl who pulled behind her an ostrich on a string.
Is this also why I woke up heartbroken? All I can do is wait with the rest of the country, pass time, breathe deeply. And deepen? Will the day move more quickly if look up what I don’t understand?
Like why sherbet isn’t spelled sher-bert? I presume it’s French but, no. It’s a misspelling from the Persian word for a drink made of fruit juice, water, sweetener, and snow. Sharbah. Like Dreamsicles! An orange sherbet shell over vanilla ice cream on a stick. I’d gladly eat one or two for breakfast.
Like why wild salmon is red and not grayish white like other caught fish? I presume it’s blood but, no. Salmon eat carotenoids in shrimp and krill, the same plant pigments in carrots that make tomatoes red, and flamingos bright pink, and turned my vegetarian friend orange.
Like how three keys on a trumpet produce myriad tones? Piston valves, embouchure, the diaphragm. Those are the mechanics and then there’s technique and musicality. Wynton Marsalis lost his father last week, and I toggle between his baroque playing of Purcell and the swing record he recorded with his dad, the two of them playing a jazz number called “Dolores,” his mother’s name. I’ve showed up in a novel or two, but never in someone’s music. Is there still time? What would I have to do to be remembered that would be benevolent and not a scandal?
On the porch, a petite warbler perches on the rim of a pot by my foot while I drink my second cup of coffee. I hold still, calm down. I’m worried she’s stuck or hurt, but her head twitches, alert, and before she flies off, I feel better that she rested close to me because she knew she could.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt (New Orleans, USA) is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories and Now We Are Sixty. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Guernica, The Morning News and Virginia Quarterly Review, and she’s a frequent contributor to Narrative Magazine. She studied creative writing at the University of Southern Mississippi with Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison. Pia’s essays have been cited as Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space and Word Theater. She is a recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana and Queens, NY with her husband, Malcolm. Their son lives too far away in London. Pia can be found online here.
Nina Z. Temple’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout California as well as in museums and art fairs. In the 90s, her work showed extensively in West Berlin, Germany. She studied art at the University of Southern Mississippi, attending master classes with Elaine de Kooning, and was one of thirty-two undergraduates chosen nationwide to study abroad in Cortona, Italy, with the University of Georgia. Professionally, Nina ran two graphic design studios in Monterey, California and Annapolis, Maryland, where her work received many awards. She continues to work in group collaborations in support of the arts, conducting artist talks and workshops for young children, and teaching and lecturing at colleges and universities. She and her husband, Paul, have two children and three grandchildren who all reside in California. Nina can be found online here.