The day my father-in-law died, I was back in New Orleans, pretending to be there on business. Really I was there to attend a funeral – not my father-in-law’s funeral, someone else’s. I couldn’t tell my wife about this funeral because she would have said things or – far worse – said nothing. Either way, when I got back to Houston the house would feel even colder and emptier than usual.
The house in Houston was too cold and air-tight anyway. Our old house in New Orleans was porous, cockroaches popping up between the floorboards, flying termites slipping in where the cracked wood of the window frame didn’t quite meet the peeling sill. Dirt from the schoolyard across the road washed up underneath the front door and gritted up the Turkish rug. Even with the side shutters permanently closed, lines of light, cloudy with dust, pointed spindly accusing fingers at the floor.
Once we found a tiny green lizard dozing on the Venetian blinds in the bedroom; another time my older daughter saw one scuttling down the hallway, and chased it with a sandwich box, planning on capturing it and releasing it to the wild. But the wild was inside our house, and under it, and all around us. We could never shut it out.
After Katrina my company moved to Houston, and decided not to come back. That happened to lots of people; that was why they left New Orleans. And Greta, my wife, liked Houston, because there the wilderness was contained: stop lights worked and potholes were filled in, and nobody drove the wrong way down one-way streets. We didn’t have to park the car on the neutral ground on Claiborne when there was an especially heavy rain and our street looked sure to flood. Also, Houston had a really big mall, and my wife and daughters liked that a lot. They were tired of living in a northern port in the Caribbean, Greta told people. They wanted to live in America.
At first we came back for parades, and sometimes for Jazz Fest, staying in the house on Napoleon that Bertie, my father-in-law, bought when he moved to the city from Hammond, and kept even after he retired to Florida. But after six years, seven years, the girls had other things to do during parade season, and in the summer they’d rather go to the beach.
When Greta rang with the news about Bertie dying, I said I was in the lobby of my hotel, but really I’d just walked into the reception area at Lake Lawn Cemetery. I was looking for signs for the Fortier funeral.
Bertie had been felled by a heart attack, she said, when he was out buying a morning paper. It wasn’t his first heart attack, so no one was surprised. Greta’s brother was already on his way out there, she told me, to take care of everything. There was just one problem. Bertie died in Florida, but his wine collection was in New Orleans.