The Woman Who Changed Her Men For Cats
I collect stories, and New Orleans obliges this habit; they drip down eaves into century-old puddles, rattle along streetcar lines, are jangled back in change across shop counters. Most stories evaporate faster than swamp fog. Some hang like smoke. A few land in my notebook. The following was told to me by a heavily whiskered neighbor on Chopitulip Street. As I passed his gate one afternoon, he stretched, yawned, and tossed it to me. And that is the way in New Orleans. I tell it to you now more or less in the words of the old gentleman.
"There wuhz an old mansion uptown a-ways, an' an old lady livin' in it. She go by Baba, but the young ones got it right callin' her witch. She wuhz scarin'ly ugly, uglier than a loup garou, an' it's a wondah she had even one husban', much less six. Or maybe it wuhz eight'? Don't nobody 'round here remember no more. That's for sure, chère. Was a long time back."
And here he crossed himself in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Other.
“It wuhz my 18th summah and I tell ya, it wuhz a hot one. So hot, all the wrought iron gates of the city wuhz meltin’ into puddles an’ folks moppin’ ‘em up. So hot the cemetery angels cryin’ real tears sizzlin’ down their marble cheeks. So hot ya shoes’d melt to the pavement if ya didn’t move fast enough. Those days, the rich folks wilted in their linens an’ their wickers, and us youngin’s would run ‘round doin odd jobs for ‘em, keepin’ ‘em propped up.
Between bouts of matrimony, ol’ Baba kept no company but cats, and her yard and parlors wuhz teemin’ wit ‘em. Cats built like railway planks and cats spokey as wagon wheels. Dapper cats and ratter cats. They stretched in windows, they dreamed in patches of moss-fuzzed sunlight, they tripped ya up as ya passed on the banquettes, their eyes following ya. And they sniffed the air, knowin’ ya secrets.
Soft 'n' fuzzy as a rotten ol' peach, Baba would tell the milkman lingerin’ on her stoop, Antoine has gone to St Louis to see ‘bout some property sale, and the milkman’s head would tilt back and his eyes would squint, countin’ the towers of her mansion appraisin’ly. A shoot of amber-colored tobaccy juice would begin at Baba and land in the overgrown yard as her eyes lingered over the milkman’s face, his shoulders and his arms. And then that man might find himself invited in for tea.
Ol' Baba made the whole neighborhood a little uneasy, on account of bein' a woman who minded her own. On account of bein' 'lone in that big ol' house. And on account of the missin' husbands. Stories spun 'round and 'round; Baba had planted them in the yard, or burned 'em up in her marble fireplaces, or plunked them on they heads to feed to her cats. A couple of the bolder young pups would call at Baba's lookin' for work and my pal Sam was one of ‘em got caught up with her in this way, goin’ ‘round her place for the 'casional chore. And then the 'casional became the frequent. And then, before you know'd it, he's puttin’ on airs ‘bout Baba this, Baba that, how he was Baba’s favorite, and sportin' a gold chain Baba given him on 'count o' cleanin’ out her eaves.
Sam’d laugh it up with the boys, sayin’ he’d do a good bit more than clean her eaves if it meant livin’ uptown with the rich folk, drinkin’ tea in the cool shade, ceilin’ fans whirrin’ and servants swattin’ flies.
‘Hadn’t Baba gone and gotten herself married again last year?’ I asked Sam.
‘Well, yah, but husban’s gone off. To settle a property up river, Baba say. Or count his gold,’ Sam laughed. “Or whatever rich folk do.’ With a face like Baba’s, couldn’t blame a man for takin’ wild when given leash.
‘She got a pile o'money in there,’ Sam grinned, with a wink and a flash of his gold tooth.
Soon after, Sam himself went up river for a job, and one day I was passin’ Baba’s big ole house when she hollered to me.
got a job for you, child
So she said.
'Sure, Baba.' I called back, a little nervous to say no, but sure could usin’ those extra pennies. And so I oiled the squeak out of Baba’s gate. And, next day, as I was passin’ Baba’s house, she hollered at me again:
got a job for you, child
And so I dug a hole for Baba. And the day after? As I was passin’ Baba’s house, she hollered again.
got a job for you, child
And so I set to fixin' some boards come loose on Baba’s porch. And each day, all the while, noticin' a little ginger cat that would follow me and peer up. And I thought: there's somethin’ mighty familiar 'bout that little ginger cat. But I couldn’t quite put a finger to it other than: mighty queer cat, mighty queer house, mighty queer lady.
By this time, I had been courtin’ my Sally for some months, and she warn me: “That ol' woman will fix the eye on ya.” Sally was always scoldin' me and shooin' me and chasin' after me to patch my trousers. But every day, Baba warmed me over, gettin’ friendl'er and friendl'er. And one day when I'd finished hammerin’ on her porch, she came up behind and put her hand gentlin' on my shoulder, sayin’
why don’t you come in for some cold tea
And was the chill breeze I felt then autumn comin' on? But Baba said
no, that’s just the molasses cookie waiting for you in the ice box
And so I followed Baba inside her house. And the little ginger cat followed us too. In the parlor, more cat eyes peered out from shadows as Baba handed me a sweatin’ glass of sweet tea. Then Baba settled herself into a great big ol' caboose of a chaise, and a black cat jumped up into Baba's lap askin' for pets and started purrin' as Baba stroked its fur and smiled at me. I drank that tea in one swallow, and the m'lasses cookie followed it down in the next.
another cookie, child?
I nodded and Baba winked as she left the parlor to go get it. When she had gone, the ginger cat jumped up on the settee I had sett'd myself upon, and turnin', faced me square on. And then that cat smiled, flashin' its good tooth.
“Well, I'll be! Is that you, Sam? What are you doin' in here? And how do you happen to be a cat!”
“Meow,” said my ol' friend Sam.
Just then Baba returned with the cookie, and as I looked from the cat to Baba to my empty glass, I noticed a clump of soggy fur floatin' in its bottom. Well I set the glass down real slow and when I looked back across at Baba settin' in her char, Baba and her cats wuhz all lookin' back at me. It wuhz then I suspected Baba wuhz fixin' to expand her cat collection. And it wuhz then that I could feel the tickle of whiskers comin' in, and the itchin' of a tail where a glass of tea and one m'lasses cookie ago, there'd been none.
Well, I wasn’t ready to be that woman’s housecat! I leaped, and Baba sprang. And I ran fast, in a blur of legs (Wuhz it two legs now or four?), but it wuhzn't near fast enough. And Slam! went the door behind that old lady. And Lock! went the key turnin'. So, Up! the stairs I bolted. And in a flash, up! Up! Baba chased behind in a commotion of boy and fur and ol' lady. And into the attic we burst, where the only place left to run wuhz right through the window.
Out that high window I lept. But Lord, Baba had me by the tail! As we tumbled through the open window, cat and boy and Baba, I shouted the prayer taught to me by the good nuns of Lord’s Bend, though its corners were rusty with disuse:
up in the clouds,
Your name be holy.
Bring Your kingdom here,
and make everythin' go down like it does up there.
Give us our grub for today,
and excuse our missteps,
like we excuse the missteps of others.
Don't let us get pulled into any bad stuff,
but get us out of the rough spots.
As that ol' rascal Baba came tumblin' out the window after me. I braced myself for impact that never came. Sally’s patch in my trousers had snagged the old oak tree beneath Baba's house! It’s hard to say if it wuhz a broken heart or the broken neck that killed Baba, but dead on the ground below me she were.
And when the undertakers came for her, and a 'ventory was made of her mansion, that house wuhz discovered to contain as many hats as missin' husbands, and then some. Bowlers, beaver felt toppers, canvas delivery boy caps. Covered in fur, every last one of 'em.”
My neighbor sighed. “Cats don’t often wear bowler caps, chère, but they most certainly never sport gold teeth."
Baba's house still stands, where the trees shake off their banquettes and the wrought iron gate bows. That's where the mischief was done. And Baba herself is planted in the old Lafayette cemetery. Her name on the stone’s all worn away, but you’ll know the place by its cats.
With his tail told, my neighbor yawned and resumed his well-accustomed patch of sunlight. You won't find this story written down anywhere; the best stories belong to ears and mouths.
And that’s the way it is in New Orleans.