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There was nothing normal about the walk to Cameron’s house that night. I walked out my front door and expected to be greeted by the unrelenting New Orleans heat that had persisted all summer. I was used to the air, so thick and heavy with moisture, coating my skin the instant I stepped outside. On this particular hot August evening, though, there was a breeze. By no means was it cool; it was passed six and the temperature hovered around 90 degrees. It was, however, refreshing, and very unusual.
The grey road, the oak trees, and the houses, all seemed cast in an eerie orange glow. The street lamps were on, but the iridescent orange bulbs were not strong enough to produce the orange haze I witnessed. Except the oak trees that swayed in the strong breeze, everything felt still. Only a few cars drove on the busy street, and no streetcar could be heard rumbling on the tracks. It was like standing in the aisle of a movie theater after everyone left.
Not my family, though. We never left New Orleans because we thought hurricane warnings generally resulted in two things: tropical storms and time off school. Aside from those reasons, my grandfather, Pop-pops, made the decision.
“No one ever left before us, why should we leave now?” He said to Nonnie.
“If Pop-pops stays, then we have to stay,” my aunts said to their husbands.
“Well, if no one is leaving, I’m not leaving,” my mom said to me.
The “no one,” Pop-pops referred to dates back to 1887, when my great-great grandfather came to New Orleans. His son, Papa, married Mimi and had my grandfather, Pop-pops. He married Nonnie and had four daughters, all born and raised in New Orleans; the second of which is my mom. We all lived within five blocks of Nonnie and Pop-pop’s house.
My best friend’s family, the McHarg’s, also stayed. They even bought a new generator and had family from Shreveport, Louisiana drive down for the one night. That evening, to celebrate the family visiting, closed schools, and cancelled jobs, the McHarg’s hosted a Hurricane Party.
In the evenings of hurricane warnings before this, I waited around the house with my mom, biding time until the electricity returned. We would make crafts or draw in the dimly lit rooms, pretending we were in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. Tonight, though, at the tender age of 13, I was heading to my first hurricane party. My mom said she would meet me there later, so I left.
The breeze seemed to fill the air with a mysterious charge, invigorating my strides on the familiar sidewalks. I knew the walk to Cameron’s house so well I could have done it blindfolded. I turned left and walked the two blocks on Pearl Street, passed the shotgun style cottages in shades of coral, lilac, and sea green. I turned right at the dilapidated white plantation onto Burdette Street. Out of habit, I waited to cross St. Charles Avenue, lined in oak trees, and normally teeming with cars. This time, though, only the quiet emptiness of an abandoned city presented itself. I crossed the streetcar tracks onto the grassy neutral ground and walked to the corner of Hampton and Burdette Street, where the McHarg’s lived. Their house was an old, blue plantation, surrounded by a tall, black, rod iron fence.
“Izzzzabellle,” Mr. McHarg stood up from his rocking chair on the porch to greet me. His long thin frame shuffled towards the brick steps that led to the gate. In a sudden lapse of balance, he grabbed the railing. He giggled, “Ooops!”
His mishap was followed by a fit of laughter from the family that surrounded him on the porch. He lived in a state of perpetual drunkenness, and the only difference between this night and any other was his wife’s family of alcoholics there to share it with him. He regained his posture and slowly, with half closed eyes, headed back to his chair, where he sat and drank out of a tall blue glass. I hopped up the brick steps and continued to the front door.
“Hi Mr. and Mrs. McHarg, hi Uncle Bruno, Aunt Shelly,” I said. When I met them years ago, Cameron’s family insisted I call them Aunt and Uncle, despite the lack of familial relations.
“Hello, Isabelle,” said Aunt Shelly. She sat uncomfortably on a porch swing next to her strong, burley sister, Mrs. McHarg, who had wedged her large rear between Shelly and her husband, Bruno. At five foot seven, Shelly was smaller than all the other women in her family. Her hands, wrinkled and brown, were in tight fists in her lap, firmly clutched around a dog leash. She was a nurse in Shreveport, but her true passion was training poorly behaved shelter dogs to help in search and rescue missions. At her feet, an adolescent mutt wriggled and squirmed. Her grip tightened as it tried to jump towards me. She jerked the leash back and the dog yelped. Mrs. McHarg leaned over her pained sister to bring her big, red face down to the dog. Big-boned at five foot ten, Mrs. McHarg occupied most of the bench. She said,
“Ohohoh you wittle thang, you want to go say hi to Izzy, don’t you? Hi Izzy! How ya doin? Is your mom comin’ ova?”
“She said she would try to make it later, she has some stuff to do,” I said. My mom tended to avoid lengthy amounts of time alone with the McHarg’s, accepting the invitation to come have drinks only when she knew other people would be there.
“Tell her skinny a** to get ova here, I’m makin’ my shrimp! Everything in the freezer has got tah gooo!” Bruno said. He took a long, drawn-out swig from a crystal glass and the dog howled. “Daww, you want some, don’t you?” He started to move the glass toward the dog.
“DON’T!” Shelly yelled. At the same time, a strong gust of wind threatened to dismember a branch on the hundred-year-old palm tree that stood, taller than the house, in the middle of the yard. The wind continued to blow against the tree, causing the top to bend, bringing all the prickly fronds towards the ground. Over the street, tree branches pushed against black telephone cables. Streetlamps shut off. There was a brief silence, broken when Mr. McHarg giggled.
“Now it’s a hurricane party,” he said. Talking resumed amongst the family, and the sound of chatter carried over the strong gusts of wind into the dark sky. Later in the night, more people came, the kind that drive to a party in the middle of a hurricane. Cameron and I watched from a distance, assigned the task of re-lighting the candles around the hot, dark house. Bruno made his famous shrimp remoulade on the gas stove and taught us how to make hurricanes with dark rum and orange juice.
“Everything in the freezer has got tah gooo!” He kept saying, putting more ingredients into his dark liquid concoction. After, when the adults went back outside to enjoy their homemade hurricanes and watch the storm, we tried to eat all the ice cream in the house and took turns sipping out of a glass filled to the brim with the brown syrup.
“I feel like dancinnn,” Cameron said. I looked up from my personal pint of Butterscotch Vanilla ice cream. I had drunk the first half of the hurricane cocktail, and she had just finished her share. The room felt coated in the syrup. Cameron’s face seemed to shift side to side, even though I gazed directly at her.
“Well, go dance,” I said.
“C’mon!” She grabbed my hand and we ran down the dark wooden hallway. I noticed some of the candles had blown out. The glass front door was open, and she dashed through it. I stood with all the adults, crowded on the porch, who chatted loudly. Cameron ran down the brick stairs and turned to face her audience.
“Everybody listen!” She yelled, “I’m goin’ tah do a rain dance! Okay?”
“Okay!” Everybody answered and looked at one another eagerly.
Her dark auburn hair blew around her pale, freckled face; the white of her skin glowed in the night. She started to move her body, side to side at first, and then she brought her arms over her head and began to shake. It was a shimmy-like shiver that took over her whole body starting at her bare foot feet. She leaned over, and only her legs shook, her upper body folded towards the ground. Slowly, she rolled herself up, first shaking her hips, then waist, followed by her bust, and lastly, her head. Men cheered.
“Whoa!” Mr. McHarg giggled, “That’s mah girl!”
“UH, honey!” Mrs. McHarg shot him a glance, he grinned.
Leaves spiraled and danced around Cameron’s ankles. She began a chant in a made up language, and the volume of her voice raised as the wind intensified. People, at first mystified, started clapping and hollering, chanting along with her.
I heard my mom’s laugh and looked for the familiar brown curly hair and thin frame. In a corner, hand propped on hip, she smiled and listened to another adult talk. They occasionally glanced down at Cameron, chanting and dancing for rain.