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Authors: Julie Smith

House of Blues

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House of Blues
A
Skip Langdon Novel

Julie Smith
1995

For Linda Buczek
because
this is her favorite

l

In New Orleans, as in many American cities, crime is
Topic A. The annual murder rate is somewhere around 4oo and climbing.
In addition, 2,000 people who do not die are shot each year.

The detectives assigned to Homicide say there are no
fistfights anymore.

The police, as is traditional in America in the
nineties, where people talk of little but crime, are overworked,
understaffed, and paid more like schoolteachers than CEOs.

White people blame black people. Many carry guns.

Blacks, many of whom are among the 2,400 killed or
wounded annually, feel as if they are under fire in more ways than
one. They also incline toward firearms.

The economy, which was hit hard from the oil bust, is
still in disarray, but there is hope. The world's largest casino,
soon to be built, may create employment and draw the sort of tourist
the city so desperately needs—the sort that starts with F, soon
parted from his money. That is, the casino is soon to be built if the
wrangling over every tiny detail connected with its building and
operating is ever settled.

The petty scam is so much a way of life throughout
the state that the natives shake their heads and tell the tourists,
"Louisiana doesn't tolerate corrupt politicians; it demands
them."

In one gubernatorial election, a candidate perceived
as a dangerous racist ran against one of such unsavory reputation
that a bumper strip urged good liberals to "Vote for the crook;
it's important." Indeed, the winner himself remarked that
one-armed people had been unable to vote for him, since his
supporters needed one hand to hold their noses and another to pull
the lever.

Yet despite crime and corruption, New Orleans remains
arguably the most beautiful American city; the most gracious; the
most charming.

It is also the most eccentric. Walker Percy, one of
its most revered writers, noted that here "the tourist is apt to
see more nuns and naked women than he ever saw before," the
combination being the intriguing part. But eccentricity has its
perils: Louisiana has the usual drunk-driving laws, and New Orleans
more than its share of drunks—yet drive-in daiquiri stands abound
and flourish. On the other hand, the city's justly famous flamboyance
is also its best feature. As the neighborhoods change, as the Crips
and Bloods get bigger toeholds, as more and more middle-class mamas
start to pack pistols, this at least remains a constant. The drag
queen is welcome here, as is the voodoo queen, the queen of vampire
fiction, and the Queen of Carnival—as long as none of them bore
anybody.

Like Mexico or the Caribbean, the city is an odd
mixture of the up-to-the-minute and the archaic—with a good deal
more emphasis on the latter.

Yet perhaps even that is changing. A local
publication recently lamented that people hardly ever say they're
going out to "make groceries" anymore.

Only rarely now is a sidewalk referred to as a
"banquette."

Still, "neutral grounds" continue to divide
the streets, and a Mardi Gras trinket remains, not a string, but "a
pair" of beads. And some of the old customs survive. It used to
be that everyone cooked red beans and rice on Monday because this was
wash day—you could put your beans on and go about your business.

Though the washing machine made the custom obsolete,
some of the restaurants still observe it. In at least one august and
unlikely household, that of Sugar and Arthur Hebert, it was revived
some years ago.

Owner-operators of Hebert's ("A-Bear's,"
the menu tells tourists), a restaurant where the dish has never been
served, they convinced themselves at some point that they enjoyed
nothing so much as the simplest of fare after a week of serving up
Creole delicacies, and fell into the habit of consuming the dish
during their weekly family dinners—on Monday, because the
restaurant was closed then.

Hebert's was one of the city's finest restaurants—of
the sort called "Creole," meaning the kind of
sophisticated, French-style cooking native to the city rather than
the country. In the bayous, it is sometimes thought, is where you'd
find the cuisine called "Cajun," unless you went to a city
restaurant specializing in it—K-Paul's, for instance. In reality,
however, many Cajun-style dishes are found in fine restaurants like
Hebert's. Creole cooking is such a mixture of styles and cultures it
can't really be classified. An excellent book on New Orleans notes
that, "In each bowl of gumbo served in Louisiana today, there is
French roux, African okra, American Indian file, Spanish peppers,
Cajun sausage, and oysters supplied by Yugoslav fishermen, served
over Chinese-cultivated Louisiana rice."

Red beans, however,
essential as they are to the city's cuisine, are humble enough that
you'd more likely find them at neighborhood restaurants than on the
menu at Antoine's—or Hebert's.

* * *

Why?
thought Sugar as she
dished up beans one balmy evening in June.
Why,
when we could be having a nice crab salad? Why, week after week, red
beans and rice, nothing else? Ever.

Why?

Because Arthur wants it. Everything's that way.

Why did the termites nearly eat the restaurant?
Because Arthur wouldn't believe it was happening. Why did we almost
lose Nina? Because Arthur's such a snob he wouldn't speak to her at
first.

"Mom, can I help you?" It was her daughter,
Reed. "It's done now." Sugar could have used her twenty
minutes ago.

Eighteen-month-old Sally was already at the table,
rocking in her high chair, straining to get out.

Reed's husband Dennis was trying to talk her out of
it. Arthur was opening champagne.

That was Arthur's little irony. He might eat red
beans and rice, but he always served an excellent wine with it.
Tonight they were having champagne because there were things to
celebrate.

He filled the glasses.

"A toast," he said, "to
la
deuxieme Hebert's
—a triumph against
terrific odds."

"May our luck hold," said Dennis.

Arthur gave him a look that said,
What
do you mean 'Our'?

"
Hear, hear," said Sugar, to smooth it
over.

"We did it," said Reed. "I don't know
how, but we did it."

"May you never have to sit through another board
meeting."

"I'll drink to that."

A dozen restaurateurs—some old, some new—had
fought for the concession at the casino. An elegant restaurant was
called for—something in the New Orleans tradition—and it had to
be a name brand, something the tourists would recognize. Hebert's was
certainly in the running, but it was in competition with bigger
names—huge names like Antoine's, Arnaud's, Brennan's.

Yet it had won.

Hebert's had won. Reed's relentless research and
planning, her constant dogging of the board, the endless nights she'd
put in planning the restaurant, then planning her strategy, had paid
off. She was a prize, Sugar thought. Surely the pride of the Heberts.
It was a miracle, and she'd pulled it off.

"
We have something else to drink to," said
Dennis, his grin slightly crooked, a little unsure.

"What's that?"

"Arthur's sixty-fifth."

Reed said, "Happy birthday, Daddy."

"We already did that."

"
Let's do it again."

"
Let's don't."

Oh, don't be an old coot.
Sugar didn't say it, but she was rnad; she hated it when he put Reed
down. And putting Dennis down was putting Reed down.

You'd think that with Sally and everything, he'd
have simmered down. But he gets more and more irascible. I wonder if
he's depressed? Doesn't Alzheimers start like this?

Despite his ill nature, everyone drank to Arthur.
Sugar served the plates, as she had every Monday since she could
remember.

Sally protested.

"
What is it, baby?" said Reed. "What's
the matter? Mmmm. Red beans. Yum. Sally's favorite, hmm?"

Arthur seemed embarrassed. "Hey, Dennis,"
he said. "There were these three black guys, Jackson, Leroy, and
Clarence. And Leroy says to Clarence, he says—"

"Daddy, please don't." Reed's face said
she'd just seen a car crash; her voice sounded desperate.

"Oh, Reed, take it easy—I haven't even said
anything yet."

"I can tell this is going to be the kind of joke
I don't like."

"Well, la-di-da, Miss High and Mighty. You
always have to have everything your own way, don't you?"

Reed looked at the table, embarrassed.

"You just have no sense of humor." He
paused, but no one spoke. "Do you?"

"
I just don't see why you have to tell racist
jokes."

"
I am not a racist and you know it, Reed. Dennis
doesn't mind. Dennis likes my jokes, don't you, Dennis?"

Dennis bared some teeth, but Sugar wasn't sure it was
exactly a smile.

"
Look, I pay my employees better than anybody in
the Quarter, don't I? And I hire blacks. You know I hire 'em. Look at
my second-in-command—not only black, but a woman. I give the best
benefits of anybody around too. You watch out who you're calling a
racist."

"I didn't think that joke was going to be
appropriate, that's all."

To deflect the two of them, Sugar said, "We
certainly had a good crowd over the weekend."

"Reed put in twelve hours on Saturday,"
said Dennis. "Sally was beginning to wonder if she had a
mother."

Arthur smacked his lips. "Hell, she should have
gone home. Doesn't do that much anyway."

Reed's voice was small. "I try."

Sugar knew he didn't mean it—Reed had been more or
less running the restaurant for years; it was just the way he talked.

"
Anyway," said Reed, "you can relax
soon. It'll all be up to me."

"God help us."

"Know what I think I'm going to do? Have the
place painted cream—like this room, like your dining room—and put
in a lot of mirrors."

"No, you're not. We've got a winning formula—why
mess with it?"

"Some plants too. I'd just like to update it a
little; freshen it up."

"
You mess with Hebert's, I'll update you, young
lady."

Far from being daunted, Reed smiled; he was just
being Arthur. "I think the wait staff is a little short too.
We've never had waitresses—I'd like to hire some women."

"No!" It was a roar. "You don't have
waitresses in a place like Hebert's. You have waitresses at lunch
counters."

Sugar spoke up: "Oh, Arthur, take it easy. She's
just excited. There has to be a period of adjustment, you know; when
a new person takes over."

At his birthday party the previous Friday, Arthur had
officially announced his retirement, passing the torch to his
daughter. Since Reed had worked in the restaurant from the time she
was a teenager, had gone to Cornell to learn how to run it, had
eaten, slept, and breathed Hebert's all her life, it was her big
moment in the spotlight—the culmination of her training and her
life's work.

"Anyway, Reed's been full of plans for three
days—the only thing is, they're different every hour."

Reed seemed not to be listening. She said, "Daddy,
what would you think about getting a decorator in? Maybe you're
right. Maybe I shouldn't try to do it myself."

"You're not getting any decorator in."

Sugar had had enough. "She can do what she
Wants, Arthur. Reed's in charge now."

"Well, I don't think she's up to the job."

"
You should have thought of that before you gave
it to her."

"
I didn't give it to her, I was just talking."

BOOK: House of Blues
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