LOOT by Julie Smith
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Mathilde’s in North Carolina with her husband when she hears about the hurricane—the one that’s finally going to fulfill the prophecy about filling the bowl New Orleans is built in. Uh-huh, sure. She’s been there a thousand times. She all but yawns.
Aren’t they all? goes through her mind.
“A storm like no one’s ever seen,” the weather guy says. “a storm that will leave the city devastated … a storm that…”
Blah blah and blah.
But finally, after ten more minutes of media hysteria, she catches on that this time it might be for real. Her first thought is for her home in the Garden District, the one that’s been in Tony’s family for three generations, but it’s a fleeting one. She knows there’s nothing she can do about that—if the storm takes it, so be it.
Her second thought is for her maid, Cherice Wardell, and Cherice’s husband, Charles.
Mathilde and Cherice have been together for twenty-two years. They’re like an old married couple. They’ve spent more time with each other than they have with their husbands. They’ve taken care of each other when one of them was ill. They’ve cooked for each other (though Cherice has cooked a good deal more for Mathilde). They’ve shopped together, they’ve argued, they’ve shared more secrets than either of them would be comfortable with if they thought about it. They simply chat, the way women do, and things come out, some things that probably shouldn’t. Cherice knows intimate facts about Mathilde’s sex life, for instance, things she likes to do with Tony, that Mathilde would never tell her white friends.
So Mathilde knows the Wardells plenty well enough to know they aren’t about to obey the evacuation order. They never leave when a storm’s on the way. They have two big dogs and nowhere to take them. Except for their two children, one of whom is in school in Alabama, and the other in California, the rest of their family lives in New Orleans. So there are no nearby relatives to shelter them. They either can’t afford hotels or think they can’t (though twice in the past Mathilde has offered to pay for their lodging if they’d only go). Only twice because only twice have Mathilde and Tony heeded the warnings themselves. In past years, before everyone worried so much about the disappearing wetlands and the weakened infrastructure, it was a point of honor for people in New Orleans to ride out hurricanes—to some people, with the storm of the century approaching, it still is.
But Mathilde is well aware that this is not the case with the Wardells. This is no challenge to them. They simply don’t see the point of leaving. They prefer to play what Mathilde thinks of as Louisiana roulette. Having played it a few times herself, she knows all about it. The Wardells think the traffic will be terrible, that they’ll be in the car for seventeen, eighteen hours and still not find a hotel because everything from here to kingdom come’s going to be taken even if they could afford it.
“That storm’s not gon’ come,” Cherice always says, “you know it never does. Why I’m gon’ pack up these dogs and Charles and go God knows where? You know Mississippi gives me a headache. And I ain’t even gon’ mention Texas.”
To which Mathilde replies gravely, “This is your life you’re gambling with, Cherice.”
And Cherice says, “I think I‘m just gon’ pray.”
But, as usual, Mathilde has to try, this time harder than usual because she’s not there.
Cherice is not surprised to see Mathilde’s North Carolina number on her caller ID. “Hey, Mathilde,” she says. “How’s the weather in Highlands?”
“Cherice, listen. This is the Big One. This time, I mean it, I swear to God, you could be…”
“Uh-huh. Gamblin’ with my life and Charles’s. Listen, if it’s the Big One, I want to be here to see it. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Cherice, listen to me. I know I’m not going to convince you—you’re the pig-headedest woman I’ve ever seen. Just promise me something. Go to my house. Take the dogs. Ride it out at my house.”
“Take the dogs?” Cherice can’t believe what she’s hearing. Mathilde never lets her bring the dogs over, won’t let them inside her house. Hates dogs, has allergies, thinks they’ll pee on her furniture. She loves Mathilde—you do after you’ve been with someone for twenty-two years—but Mathilde is a pain in the butt, and Cherice mentions this every chance she gets to everyone who’ll listen. Mathilde is picky and spoiled and needy. She's good-hearted, sure, but she hates her precious routine disturbed.
Yet this same Mathilde Berteau has just told her to promise to take the dogs to her immaculate house. This so sobering Cherice can hardly think what to say. “Well, I know you’re worried now.”
She hears panic in Mathilde’s voice. “Cherice. Promise me.”
What can it hurt, she thinks? The bed in Mathilde’s guest room is a lot more comfortable than hers and Charles’s. Also, if the power goes out—and Cherice has no doubt that it will--she’ll have to go to Mathilde’s the day after the storm anyhow, to clean out the refrigerator.
Mathilde is ahead of her. “Listen, Cherice, I need you to go. I need you to clean out the refrigerator when the power goes. Also, we have a gas stove and you don’t. You can cook at my house. We still have those fish Tony caught a couple of weeks ago—they’re going to go to waste if you’re not there.”
Cherice is humbled. Not about the fish offer—that’s just like Mathilde, to offer something little when she wants something bigger. That’s small potatoes. What gets to her is the refrigerator thing—if Mathilde tells her she needs her for something, she’s bringing out the big guns. Mathilde’s a master manipulator, and Cherice has seen her pull this one a million times—but not usually on her. Mathilde does it when all else fails, and her instincts are damn good—it’s a lot easier to turn down a favor than to refuse to grant one. Cherice knows her employer like she knows Charles—better, maybe—but she still feels the pull of Mathilde’s flimsy ruse.
“I’ll clean your refrigerator, baby,” Cherice says carefully. “Don’t you worry about a thing.”
“Cherice, goddam it, I’m worried about you!”
And Cherice gives in. “I know you are, baby. And Charles and I appreciate it, we really do. Tell you what—we gon’ do it. We gon’ go over there. I promise.” But she doesn’t know if she can talk Charles into it.
He surprises her by agreeing readily as soon as she mentions the part about the dogs. “Why not?” he says. “We can sleep in Mathilde and Tony’s big ol’ bed and watch television till the power goes out. Drink a beer and have the dogs with us. Ain’t like we have to drive to Mississippi or somethin’. And if the roof blows off, maybe we can save some of their stuff. That refrigerator ain’t all she’s got to worry about.”
“We’re not sleepin’ in their bed, Charles. The damn guest room’s like a palace, anyway—who you think you is?”
He laughs at her. “I know it, baby. Jus’ trying’ to see how far I can push ya.”
So that Sunday they pack two changes of clothes, plenty for two days, and put the mutts in their crates. The only other things they take are dog food and beer. They don’t take food for themselves because there’s plenty over at Mathilde’s, which they have to eat or it’ll go bad.
The first bands of the storm come late that night, and Charles does what he said he was going to—goes to bed with a beer and his dogs. But after he’s asleep, Cherice watches the storm from the window of the second floor living room. The power doesn’t go until early morning, and when the rain swirls, the lights glint on it. The wind howls like a hound. Big as it is, the house shakes. Looking out, Cherice sees a building collapse, a little coffee shop across the street, and realizes how well built the Berteaus’ house is. Her own is not. She prays that it will make it. But she knows she will be all right, and so will Charles and the dogs. She is not afraid because she is a Christian woman and she trusts that she will not be harmed.
But she does see the power of God in this. For the first time, she understands why people talk about being God-fearing instead of God-loving, something that’s always puzzled her. You better have God on your side, she thinks. You just better.
She watches the transformers blow one by one, up and down the street, and goes to bed when the power goes out, finding her way by flashlight, wondering what she’s going to wake up to.
The storm is still raging when she stirs, awakened by the smell of bacon. Charles has cooked breakfast, but he’s nowhere to be found. She prowls the house, looking for him, and the dogs bark to tell her: Third floor.
“Cherice,” he calls down. “Bring pots.”
She knows what’s happened: Leaks. The Berteaus must have lost some shingles.
So she and Charles work for the next few hours, putting pots out, pushing furniture from the path of the inrushing water, gathering up wet linens, trying to salvage and dry out papers and books, emptying the pots, replacing them. All morning the wind is dying, though. The thing is blowing through.
By two o’clock, it’s a beautiful day. “Still a lot of work to do,” Charles says, sighing. “But I better go home first, see how our house is. I’ll come back and help you. We better sleep here again tonight.”
Cherice knows that their house has probably lost its roof, that they might have much worse damage than the Berteaus’, maybe even flooding. He’s trying to spare her by offering to go alone.
“Let’s make some phone calls first,” she says.
They try to call neighbors who rode out the storm at home, but no one answers, probably having not remembered, like Cherice and Charles, to buy car chargers. Indeed they have only a little power left on their own cell phone, which Cherice uses to call Mathilde. The two women have the dodged-the-bullet talk that everyone in the dry neighborhoods has that day, the day before they find out the levees have breached.
Though they don't yet know about the levees, Cherice nonetheless feels a terrible foreboding about her house, acutely needs to see how badly it’s damaged. She doesn’t have much hope that the streets will be clear enough to drive, but she and Charles go out in the yard to clear broken limbs from the driveway, anyhow. “Let’s listen to the car radio, see if we can get a report,” Cherice says, realizing they’ve been so preoccupied with saving the Berteaus’ possessions, they’ve forgotten to do this.
She opens the car door, is about to enter, when she feels Charles tense beside her. “Cherice,” he says.
She turns and sees what he sees: A gang of young men in hooded sweatshirts walking down the street, hands in their pockets. Looking for trouble.
Charles says, “You go on back in the house.”
Cherice doesn’t need to be told twice. She knows where Tony keeps his gun. She means to get it, but she’s so worried about Charles she turns back to look, and sees that he’s just standing by the car, hands in pockets, looking menacing. The young men pass by, but she goes for the gun anyway.
By the time she gets back, Charles is back inside, locking the door. “Damn looters,” he says. “Goddam looters.” And his face is so sad Cherice wants to hug him, but it’s also so angry she knows better.
“Why they gotta go and be this way?” he says.
They listen to the Berteaus’ little battery-powered radio and learn that there’s looting all over the city, crime is out of control. “Ain’t safe to go out,” Charles says grimly. “Can’t even get home to see about our property.”
She knows he’s sorry they came, that they didn’t stay home where they belonged. “I’m gon’ fix some lunch.”
So they eat and they go out in the back yard, and clean it up the best they can, even try to get some of the debris out of the swimming pool, but this is a losing battle After awhile they abandon the project, realizing that it’s a beautiful day and they have their dogs and they’re together. Even if their house is destroyed.
So they live in the moment. They try to forget the looting, though the sound of sirens is commonplace now. Instead of Tony’s fish, they barbecue some steaks that are quickly defrosting, and Cherice fixes some potato salad while the mayonnaise is still good. Because they got so little sleep the night before, and because there’s no electricity, they go to bed early.
Sometime in the night, they awaken to a relentless thudding--no, a pounding on the Berteaus’ door. “I’m goin’,” Charles says grimly, and Cherice notices he tucks Tony’s gun into the jeans he pulls on. She can’t just stay here and wait to see what happens. She creeps down the stairs behind him.
“Yeah?” Charles says through the door.
“I’m the next door neighbor,” a man says. “I’ve got Tony on the phone.”
Charles opens the door and takes the man’s cell phone. He listens for a while, every now and then saying, “Oh, shit.” Or “Oh, God. No.” Cherice pulls on his elbow, mouthing “What?” to him, terrified. But he turns away, ignoring her, still listening, taking in whatever it is. Finally, he says, “Okay. We’ll leave first thing.”
Still ignoring Cherice, he gives the phone back to the neighbor. “You know about all this?” he says. The man only nods, and Cherice sees that he’s crying. Grown man, looks like an Uptown banker, white hair and everything, with tears running down his cheeks, biting his lip like a little kid.
She’s frantic. She’s grabbing at Charles, all but pinching him, desperately trying to get him to just finish up and tell her what’s going on. Finally, he turns around, and she’s never seen him look like this, like maybe one of their kids has died or something. He says only, “Oh, baby,” and puts his arms around her. She feels his body buck, and realizes that he’s crying too, that he can’t hold it in any more, whatever it is. Has one of their kids died? she thinks.
Finally, he pulls himself together enough to tell her what’s happened—that the city is flooded, their neighborhood is destroyed, some of their neighbors are probably dead, their own children thought they were dead until they finally got Tony and Mathilde.
Cherice cannot take this in. She tries, but she just can’t. “Eighty per cent of the city is underwater?” she repeats over and over. “How can that be?”
They live in a little brick house in New Orleans East, a house they worked hard to buy, that’s a stretch to maintain, but it’s worth it. They have a home of their own, a little piece of something to call their own.
But now we don’t, Cherice thinks. It’s probably gone. We don’t have nothin’.
But in the end, she can’t go that way. She reasons that an entire neighborhood can’t be destroyed, something’s got to be left, and maybe her house is. She wants to go see for herself.
“Cherice, you gotta pay attention,” Charles says. “Only way to go see it’s to swim. Or get a boat maybe. There’s people all over town on rooftops right now, waitin’ to be rescued. There’s still crazy lootin’ out there. The mayor wants everybody out of town.”
“That’s what he said before the storm.”
“He’s sayin’ it again. We goin’ to Highlands tomorrow.”
“Well, where else we gon’ go? Mathilde and Tony got room for us, they say come, get our bearings, then we’ll see. Besides, Mathilde wants us to bring her some things.”
There it is again—Mathilde asking a favor to get them to leave. So that’s how serious it is. Well, Cherice knew that, sort of. But it keeps surprising her, every time she thinks about it.
“How we gon’ get out with all that lootin’ goin’ on?” she says. “Might even be snipers.”
“Tony says the best way’s the bridge. We can just go on over to the West Bank—we leavin’ first thing in the morning. And I mean first thing—before anybody’s up and lootin’. Let’s try to get a few hours sleep.”
Cherice knows this is impossible, but she agrees because she wants to be close to Charles, to hold him, even if neither of them sleeps.
De La Russe is in the parking lot at the Tchoupitoulas Wal-Mart, thinking this whole thing is a clusterfuck of undreamt-of proportions, really wanting to break some heads (and not all of them belonging to looters) when Jack Stevens arrives in a district car. Sergeant Stevens is a big ol’ redhead, always spewing the smart remarks, never taking a damn thing seriously, and today is no different.
“Hey, Del--think it’s the end of the world or what?”
De La Russe is not in the mood for this kind of crap. “There’s no goddam chain of command here, Jack. Couple of officers came in, said they got orders just to let the looters have at it, but who am I s’posed to believe? Can’t get nobody on the radio, the phones, the goddam cell phones—“ He pauses, throws his cell phone across the concrete parking lot. It lands with something more like a mousy skitter than a good solid thud.
He has quite a bit more to say on the subject, but Stevens interrupts. “What the hell you do that for?”
“Why I need the goddam thing? Nobody’s gonna answer, nobody fuckin’ cares where I am, nobody’s where they’re supposed to be and I can’t get nothin’ but a fuckin’ busy anyhow. Nothing around here…fucking….works! Don’t you …fucking…get it?”
“Del, my man, you seem a little stressed.”
De la Russe actually raises his nightstick.
“Hey. Take it easy; put that down, okay. Ya friend Jack’s here. We gon’ get through this thing together. All right, man?”
For a moment, De la Russe actually feels better, as if he isn’t alone in a world gone savage—looters busting into all the stores proclaiming them “open for business”; whole families going in and coming out loaded down with televisions and blasters and power tools (as if there’s gonna be any power any time soon), right in front of half the police in the parish. Sure De la Russe could follow procedure, order them out of there, holler, “Freeze, asshole!” like a normal day, but which one of ‘em’s gonna listen? In the end, what’s he gonna do, shoot the place up? It’s not like he’s getting any back-up from his brother officers and, as he’s just told Stevens, it’s not like he can get anybody on the goddam phone anyway. Or the radio. Or anyhow at all.
“Now, first thing we’re gon’ do is go in there and get you another phone.” Stevens says.
De La Russe knows what he means, and he’s not even shocked. What’s going on here is nothing short of the breakdown of society, and he thinks he’s going to have to roll with it. Something about having Stevens with him is kind of reassuring, He is a sergeant—not Del’s sergeant, but still, if he heard right, a sergeant in the New Orleans police department has just told him to go in Wal-Mart and loot himself a phone.
Just to be sure, he tries something out. “Loot one, you mean.”
“Hell, no! We’re gonna commandeer you one.” And Stevens about kills himself laughing.
They hitch their trousers and push past several boiling little seas of people, seemingly working in groups, helping themselves to everything from baby food to fishing poles. Nobody even glances at their uniforms.
“Why are we bothering with the goddam phone?” De la Russe asks. “Damn things don’t work anyhow.”
“Yeah, you right,” Stevens says. “But just in case.” He turns to the busy knot of looters on the small appliances aisle and grabs himself one at random—a woman. Just shoves an arm around her, gets up under her chin, and bumps her up against his body. De La Russe sees her pupils dilate, her eyeballs about pop out of her head with fear. Stevens whispers something in her ear and she nods.
When he lets her go, she reaches in the pocket of her jeans and comes out with a cell phone, which she hands over meek as you please. Stevens hands it to De La Russe. “Now ya back in business.” He swings his arms wide. “Anything else ya need?”
De la Russe feels sweat break out on his forehead. His scalp starts to prickle, and so do his toes. His heart speeds up a little. Weirdest part of all, he’s actually having a sexual reaction; he’s getting hard. Not all the way hard, just a little excited, like when he sees a woman he likes, maybe lights a cigarette for her, brushes her thigh, but that’s all, no kiss or anything. A woman who isn’t his wife but someone who’s not supposed to get him excited. This is how he feels now, except with sweat and prickles. Because he’s pretty sure this is not an idle question Stevens is asking. Thing about Stevens, there’s rumors about him. About how he makes stuff disappear from the property room, shakes suspects down for drugs, little stuff that tells you a lot.
Thing about De la Russe, he’s not above the same kind of thing. And he doesn’t need rumors, he’s been disciplined and everybody knows it. Yeah, he’s been clean since then, but he’s starting to feel this is something else again, this thing he’s looking at. This thing that’s nothing less than the breakdown of the social contract. It’s just occurring to him that people are going to profit from this, and they’re not just gonna be the Pampers-and-toothpaste thieves. He decides to get right down to it. “What are you getting at, Sergeant?”
“Hell, Del, it’s the end of the world and you’re callin’ me sergeant –what’s up with that shit?” But he knows perfectly well.
De La Russe smiles. “I was just wondering if I heard you right.” He waits for an answer, not allowing the smile to fade. Keeping his teeth bared.
“Remember that little eBay bi’ness you told me you and ya wife was runnin’? How she goes to garage sales and finds things she can sell to collectors? And then you photograph ‘em and get ‘em on up online? Y’all still doin’ that?”
“Yeah. We still doin’ that. Why?”
Stevens looks at him like he’s nuts. “Why? Think about it, Del. You can sell just about anything on eBay.” He pauses, does the wide open this-could-all-be-yours thing again. “And we got access to just about anything.”
De La Russe is getting his drift. His mind’s racing, going instantly to the problems and working on solutions. He shrugs. “Yeah? Where would we store it?”
“Glad you axed, bro’. Just happens I already hooked up with a lieutenant who’s got a room at the Hyatt.” The Hyatt has become the department’s temporary headquarters. “He’s got access to a couple other rooms we could use. And I don’t mean hotel rooms. Storage rooms. Pretty big ones. We keep it there for now and when things get back to normal, somebody’s garage, maybe.”
De La Russe narrows his eyes. “What lieutenant?”
The patrolman almost does a double-take. “Joe Dougald? You’re dreaming. Guy’s a boy scout.”
Stevens hoots. “Yeah? Ya think so? I been doin’ deals with Joe for fifteen years. Trust me. We can trust him.”
De La Russe isn’t sure if he even trusts Stevens, much less Dougald, but what-the-hell, the regular rules just don’t seem to apply now that the apocalypse, or whatever this is, has come crashing in on them. And he’s got two kids in Catholic school, with college looming. That’s not going away.
He assesses the place. “Let’s start with little stuff that’s easy to carry. Ipods, video games, stuff like that. Electronics, small appliances. Hey, do they have jewelry here?” He gives a little snort. Wal-Mart jewelry isn’t going to make them rich, even if it exists. “Watches, maybe?”
Stevens smiles, like he likes the way De la Russe is getting into this. “This ain't the only store in town, ya know. And stores ain’t the only sources we got. You’re from the Second District, right? People there got real nice taste.”
De La Russe decides he’s just fallen into a real sweet deal. Here they are right this minute, he and Stevens, policing Wal-Mart, and helping themselves while they’re at it. He sees how he can patrol his own district, get credit for coming to work, arrest a few of the real looters--the street guys-- and help himself to whatever he wants while everybody’s still out of town. How come he hadn't thought of it first?
It’s early the next day when he sees the black couple—oh, excuse him, the two African-Americans—packing up their car in front of the biggest-ass goddam house in the Garden District, or so near it doesn’t matter. What the hell are they thinking, there aren’t any cops around here? He decides he’s really going to enjoy this.
He parks his car and strolls up all casual, like he’s just gonna talk to ‘em. “How y’all?” Dicking with them.
They go rigid, though. They know from the get-go he’s trouble, and it has to be because of their guilty little consciences. “What y’all doing?”
“Leavin’,” the man says. “Gettin’ out of town quick as we can. You want to see some ID? My wife works here and the owners are in North Carolina. So we rode out the storm here.” He starts to put his hand in his pocket, maybe to get the ID, and that gives De La Russe an excuse to slam up him up against the car, like he thinks the guy’s going to go for a weapon.
He pats the man down and sure enough, there is one. Doesn’t that just sweeten this whole deal. Worth a lot to a couple guys he knows. “You got a permit for this?”
The guy doesn’t answer, but his wife pipes up. “It’s not ours. It belongs to Tony. My employer. When the looters came…”
De La Russe smiles. “…Ya thought it might be okay to steal ya boss’s gun, huh? You know how pathetic that story sounds? Know who I think the looters are? Yeah. Yeah, I guess ya do. Let’s see what else ya got here.”
The woman says, “My boss, Mathilde…she asked me to bring…”
“Mrs. Berteau,” the guy says. “My wife works for Mathilde Berteau.”
“Right,” says De La Russe. “Y’all get in the back seat for awhile.”
“What about…?” the woman’s already crying, knowing exactly what’s in store for her. He grabs her by the elbow and rassles her into the car, shoving her good, just for the fun of it.
“What about what?”
“Nothin’, I just…”
The guy’s yelling now. “Listen, call the Berteaus. All you have to do is call them, godammit! Just call ‘em and let ‘em tell you.”
“Like there was the least chance of that,” Cherice says ten months later. The encounter had led to the misery and indignity of incarceration for three days and two nights, plus the humiliation of being accused of looting—almost the worst part, to her mind the hardest part to bear. But she has survived, she and Charles, to tell the story at a Fourth of July barbecue.
“Know why I was wastin’ my breath?” Charles chimes in. “’Cause that peckerwood was enjoyin’ himself. Wasn’t about to ruin his own good time.”
She and Charles are living in Harvey now, in a rental, not a FEMA trailer, thank God, until they decide what to do about their gutted house. Their families have all heard the story many times over, but they’ve made new friends here on the West Bank, people they haven’t yet swapped Katrina yarns with. Right now they have the rapt attention of
Wyvette Johnson and her boy friend Brandin. Cherice didn’t catch his last name.
Wyvette gets tears in her eyes. “Mmmm. Mmmm. What about those poor dogs?”
This annoys Cherice, because it’s getting ahead of the way she usually tells it. But she says, “ I nearly blurted out they were there at the last minute…before he took us away. But I thought they’d have a better chance if he didn’t know about ‘em. Last thing I wanted was to get my dogs stole by some redneck cop.” Here she lets a sly smile play across her face. "Anyhow, I knew once Mathilde knew they was still in the house, that was gon’ give her a extra reason to come get us out.”
“Not that she needed it,” Charles says. “She was happy as a pig in shit to hear we’d been dragged off to jail. I mean, not jail, more like a chain-link cage, and then the actual Big House. I ended up Angola, you believe that? The jail flooded, remember that? And then they turned the train station into a jail. Oh man, that was some Third World shit! Couldn’t get a phone call for nothin’, and like I say, they put you in a cage. But one thing-- it was the only damn thing in the city that whole week that worked halfway right. Kept you there a couple days, shipped you right out to Angola. But they got the women out of there just about right away. So Cherice was up at St. Gabriel—you know, where the women’s prison is—in just about twenty-four hours flat. And after that, it wasn’t no problem. ‘Cause they actually had working phones there.”
Wyvette was shaking her silky dreads. “I think I’m missin’ somethin’ here—did you say Mathilde was happy y’all were in jail?”
“Well not exactly,” Cherice says. “She was outraged—specially since I’d been there for two days when they finally let me make the call. It’s just that outrage is her favorite state of mind. See, who Mathilde is--I gotta give you her number; every black person in Louisiana oughta have it on speed dial--who Mathilde is, she’s the toughest civil rights lawyer in the state. That's why Charles made sure to say her name. But that white boy just said, ‘right’ like he didn’t believe us. ‘Course we knew for sure she was gon’ hunt him down and fry his ass. Or die tryin’. But that didn’t make it no better at the time. In the end, Mathilde made us famous, though. Knew she would.”
“Yeah, but we couldn’t of got on CNN if it hadn’t been for you.” Charles says, smiling at her. “Or in the New York Times neither.”
Wyvette and Brandin are about bug-eyed. “See what happened,” Charles says, “Cherice went on eBay and found Mathilde’s mama’s engagement ring, the main thing she wanted us to bring with us to Highlands. Those cops were so arrogant they just put it right up there. In front of God and everybody.”
“But how did you know to do that?” Wyvette asks, and Cherice thinks it’s a good question.
“I didn’t,” she says. “I just felt so bad for Mathilde I was tryin’ anything and everywhere. Anyhow, once we found the ring, the cops set up a sting, busted the whole crime ring—there was three of’ em. Found a whole garage full of stuff they hadn’t sold yet.”
Brandin shakes his head and waves his beer. “Lawless times. Lawless times we live in.”
And Cherice laughs. “Well, guess what? We got to do a little lootin’ of our own. You ever hear of Priscilla Smith-Fredericks? She’s some big Hollywood producer. Came out and asked if she could buy our story for fifteen thousand dollars, you believe that? Gonna do a TV movie about what happened to us. I should feel bad about it, but those people got way more money than sense.”
Right after the holiday, Marty Carrera of Mojo Mart Productions finds himself in a meeting with a young producer who has what sounds to him like a good idea. Priscilla Smith-Fredericks lays a hand on his wrist, which he doesn’t much care for, but he tries not to cringe. “Marty,” she says. “I believe in this story. This is an important story to tell—a story about corruption, about courage, about one woman’s struggle for justice in an unjust world. But most of all, it’s the story of two women, two women who’ve been together for twenty-two years, one the maid, the other the boss, about the love they have for each other, the way their lives are inextricably meshed. In a good way.
“I want to do this picture for them and…well.. for the whole state of Louisiana. You know what? That poor state’s been screwed enough different ways it could write a sequel to the Kama Sutra. It’s been screwed by FEMA, it’s been screwed by the Corps of Engineers, it’s been screwed by the administration, it’s been screwed by its own crooked officials… everybody’s picking carrion off its bones. And those poor Wardells! I want to do this for the Wardells. Those people have a house to rebuild. They need the money and they need the… well, the lift. The vindication.”
Marty Katz looks at the paperwork she’s given him. She proposes to pay the Wardells a $15, 000 flat fee, which seems low to him. Standard would be about $75,000, plus a percentage of the gross and maybe a $10, 000 “technical consultant” fee. He shuffles pages, wondering if she’s done what he suspects.
And yes, of course she has. She’s inflated her own fee at the expense of the Wardells. She thinks she should get $100,000 as an associate producer, about twice what the job is worth. And not only that, she wants to award the technical consultant’s fee to herself.
Marty is genuinely angry about this. She’s roused his sympathy for the wrongfully accused couple, and even for the beleaguered state, and he thinks the Wardells’ story—or more properly, Mathilde and Cherice’s story-- would make a great movie for television.
However, he thinks Ms. Smith-Fredericks is vermin. “After looking at the figures,” he says, “I think I can honestly say that you seem uniquely qualified to do a piece on looting.”
But she doesn’t catch his meaning.. She’s so full of herself, all she hears is what she wants to hear. She sticks out her hand to shake
Well, so be it, Marty thinks. I tried to warn her.
His production company doesn’t need her. So what if she found the story and bought it to him? He’s not obligated to…well, he is, but…
Marty,” she says, “we’re going to be great together.”
He shakes her hand absent-mindedly, already thinking of ways to cut her out of the deal.