Chapter 1: Part One
It was the traditional post-New Year’s-pre-Epiphany dinner, and the Heffron household was filled to capacity. The Spinas, Julians, Guanreres, and half of Pennsport were among the crowd stomping in and out of the house, and up and down the stairs. Babe was hiding out in the kitchen with his Ma, Pop Spina, Ralph and Julian, where it had peace, quiet, and cookies.
Babe loved Pennsport, but damn, his people were loud.
He sat at the table next to Ralph, who was buried under a pile of medical school forms, and Julian, who was busy eating all the cake Ma set down in front of him.
Babe twirled his mug of hot chocolate, topped it off with some Bailey’s, and did the same for Ralph and Julian. He studied Ralph with his pen-stained fingers and stress lines around his mouth. The deadlines for the applications were February, and Ralph was trying to hit each city on his list before he agreed to an acceptance. A nursing graduate degree or medical school, those were Ralph’s two options. He was already a Licensed Nurse Practitioner and a certified paramedic, but now it was time for the next step. Boston and Chicago were a bust, Ralph wanted out of Pennsylvania, and all other options were anything but Baltimore. New Orleans was the next stop on the magical medical tour.
“Remember when you didn’t want to be a nurse, much less a doctor?” Babe asked. Those rants – the ones about not becoming his mother and not doing something because his father said so – were legendary.
“I’m still not quite sure I want to be one,” Ralph admitted. He blindly grasped his mug and took a swig. “But this ain’t about playing doctor.”
“Nursing is different how?” Julian asked.
Ralph looked up from his paperwork. He leaned back, let his fingers fiddle with the sleeves of his wool sweater while he tried to form the answer. “I guess it’s just I spend more time with my patients and their families and less time in med school,” he said.
Julian shook his head. “Spina, that Registered Nursing test is over $100.”
“Then I better not be the fuck up you are, Julian,” he said. He ran a hand over his face. “Look, I just need to get out of Philly for a bit. Plenty of cities need medical professionals.”
“But New Orleans, Raphael?” Mr. Spina asked. “It’s so far away.”
“Would you rather I choose Oakland, Dad? Or Dallas? I’ll still be able to get home in one day with time to spare. It’s not that far,” Ralph said.
“You could go to Baltimore.”
“I’m not going to Baltimore. I don’t want to go to Baltimore. We agreed Baltimore was out of the question, and that I could try the interview in New Orleans.”
Mr. Spina sighed in the way that everyone knew Baltimore was only out of the question for now.
“I just don’t trust you three down there,” he said, head shaking. “Remember what happened when you went to Southie?”
“We got lost and the cops were very understanding,” Julian said.
“And Jersey?” Mrs. Heffron asked.
“They just didn’t like guys from Philly,” Babe said.
“Arlington?” Mr. Spina asked with a dark glare and raised eyebrow.
“How was I supposed to know it was a national monument?” Ralph said. “It’s a friggin’ tree in a field.”
“And every time you went to Delaware,” Mrs. Heffron said.
“Yo,” Babe interrupted. “That was all Ron’s fault. Every last time.”
She slapped him on the back of his head. “Edward Heffron, it’s shameful to speak lies about your friends.”
“Ma, we wouldn’t have been in Delaware if it wasn’t for Ron. I sure as hell don’t want to work for a credit card company and DuPont ain’t looking to hire Julian.”
“I could work for DuPont,” Julian said.
“Julian, no one’s going to trust you around that many chemicals,” Ralph said.
“Yeah, remember when you blew up half that desk in science class—” Babe said.
“—That time when we were imploding cans.” Ralph finished.
“They should have made the directions more clear about the Bunsen burners,” Julian huffed. He sat back in his seat, taking his mug with him. “How was I supposed to know some of that shit was highly flammable?”
“Language,” Mrs. Heffron scolded as she slapped Julian on the back of his head.
Mr. Spina ran a hand over his bald head and sighed. “I know I can’t stop any of you from going. You boys are adults. I want you to stick together as often as you can. No wandering the streets at night when you get there. It’s not Pennsport, boys. There will be no friendly neighbors to give you rides home, front bail money, or save you from your own stupidity.”
“Have a little faith, Mr. Spina,” Julian said. “We’ve never gotten ourselves into trouble we couldn’t get out of.”
“There’s a first time for everything,” Mrs. Heffron said. She put down plates of apple pie for everyone. “Eat,” she demanded, “the refrigerator and back up freezers are already full.”
Even Mr. Spina knew better than to argue with Maryann Heffron. They meekly ate their desert under her watchful eye.
Babe wondered when Ralph would tell everyone he had set the trip for the Mardi Gras weekend. And how loud Mr. Spina and the Julians would yell.
“If I gotta search a goddamned bayou for your corpse, your ma will never forgive me,” Bill yelled from his spot on Babe’s bed. He had come over to supervise Babe’s packing, and hadn’t shut up since walking through the door. Babe missed Bill when he was in D.C., but during times like these, he missed the silence more.
“Jesus, Bill, are you giving Ralph and Julian this shit?” Babe asked as he threw a couple of t-shirts into his duffle bag. Bill immediately fished them out and folded them properly.
“I’ve never had to make a deal with one of the Old Families to get Ralph or Julian out of a bad situation,” he said, folding with more petulance than anyone had managed in the history of the world.
“For fuck’s sake,” Babe said, “That was one time and I was thirteen.”
“It was five times,” Bill said, gesturing at him with a Phillies t-shirt, “and you ranged from the ages of twelve to seventeen.”
Babe shoved his sock drawer closed. “New Jersey was not my fault.”
“But Delaware was,” Bill pointed out.
“Bill,” Babe said as he dumped a handful of socks into the bag, “Pop Spina won’t let Ralph go down to New Orleans alone or with Julian. You and Joe are due back in D.C., Fran’s got kids to teach, Skip, Penk, and Malark are working the alumni weekend and nobody wants to piss off Speirs. It’s down to me. I always planned on going. I always said I was going. I’m going.”
“Funny how you boys never mentioned Mardi Gras in all that planning,” Bill said.
“My ass,” Bill said. He remained quiet while re-rolling the socks into balls. “We’re cradle to the grave, Babe,” he said. “I am allowed to worry about you when you go-off on some crazy scheme. Just like you sent me more threatening letters than Frannie to kill my ass dead if I got it shot-off in Afghanistan and Iraq. So you’ll have to excuse me when I worry about you wandering the streets of a city and community still in the process of being steamrolled by hell.”
“Bill, I have two cans of pepper spray and Joe’s back-up brass knuckles in Ralph’s checked bag. I’ve packed my phone charger and sneakers. Yes, I remembered sunscreen.”
“You got a hat?”
“Back up money sources?”
“Extra IDs and copies of everything?”
“Everything right down to the hotel directions.”
“Okay,” Bill said, “Alright.” He patted Babe on the back. “You taking a cab to the airport?”
“Nah, you know how Mr. Spina is. Has to photo-document everything like it’s Ralph’s first day of school all over again.”
Bill shrugged. “Must come with being the first born.” He grabbed Babe around the neck and pulled him in for a hug. “Don’t do anything that’ll make me have to slap ya. And don’t forget your razor. Can’t have you going down there and giving us all a bad name.”
“Okay, Pops,” Babe said. He didn’t really rag Bill for the long goodbyes anymore. Not since Henry died on the job; not since Bill came back.
“You call me when you land.”
“I always do.”
“Yeah, well, you better.”
“I’ll be fine, Bill.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I don’t, but no point getting an ulcer over it,” Babe said. He zipped up his duffle bag. “I promise you can kill Julian if anything happens to me.”
“That’s very charitable of you, Babe,” Bill said.
“I thought so,” Babe answered. He grabbed his bag full of electronics and pushed Bill out of the room.
Flying into the city, it was still possible to see the damage left in the wake of Katrina - the flood, the broken levees, and promises. Everyone in the plane grew quiet. It reminded Babe of the first time he flew into New York after 9/11, where the only response a person could grasp was silence. There was no way the crowd coming in for Mardi Gras could match that of years past, but there was still a plethora of college kids wandering the streets, some already with a beer in hand. Spina’s list of meetings started in the afternoon and didn’t let up until they were due to fly back to Philly.
Julian had been bitching non-stop about the humidity. It was hard to take, coming from Philly where the snow banks stood at hip level to here, where all three of them kept shedding layers the farther they got from the plane.
At the hotel, they dropped their shit and basked in the air conditioning. Spina was the only one moving, getting out his suit and making sure it wasn’t wrinkled.
“Spina, calm the fuck down. The program director’s not going to tell you to get the fuck out if there’s one wrinkle on your suit,” Julian said.
“Babe, take the kid out and get him wasted before I drown him in the toilet.”
“You sure it’s fair to unleash Julian on the city?”
“I’m right here,” Julian said. He’d already put his shoes back on.
“Go out into the city, take some pictures, meet some people. Pick up postcards for my dad. I’ve got to coach myself for this interview and I can’t do that between your snoring and his gum popping.”
“You’re such an ass sometimes, Spina,” Babe said.
“Babe, I wouldn’t taunt the man with the hot iron.”
“I’d listen to him if I were you,” Spina said. “Do you have the maps Bill gave you?”
“The ones telling us where we are absolutely not supposed to go?” Babe asked. He pulled a stack of papers out of his duffle bag. “Yeah, I’ve got them.”
“Holy shit,” Spina said. “Did he take advantage of the Freedom of Information Act or something?”
“I don’t think we want to know how Bill got these maps,” Julian said, thumbing through the pile. “There are blueprints in here.” He flipped a whole stack over. “He mapped out escape routes in case of any and all emergencies and natural disasters.”
Spina shook his head and turned back to his suit. “Take your cell phones with you and stay within three miles of the hotel. I don’t think you can do that much damage.”
“Oh, now you’re just challenging us,” Julian said.
“Out,” Spina ordered.
No one was answering their phones. He had lost Julian somewhere on the bar crawl they’d joined. Spina was probably still at dinner. And Babe really shouldn’t have thrown down that last shot.
He had stumbled out of the bar into the path one of the Mardi Gras floats and fallen face first into the sidewalk. The head wound wouldn’t stop bleeding and he knew just enough about medicine that he needed stitches. One of the National Guardsmen was kind enough to get him a ride to the ER. Babe still felt like an ass, but it wasn’t like he meant to kiss the ground.
He must have hit the ER during a lull because it only took forty-five minutes to get a bed. Thankfully, someone turned the TV to ESPN, so he could watch highlights of the Flyers trying to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The staff were nice; nurses and interns fussing over him, bringing him more gauze for his head and paper cups full of water. One of the younger female nurses, Jessie, kept trying to flirt with him. He finally told her he was more interested with the male EMT standing in the corner, but Jessie quickly informed him that paramedic was an asshole and not worth anyone’s time.
“Besides,” Jessie said, “a boy as cute as you with those eyes, you need to go for a doctor.”
“Isn’t that every mother’s dream? ‘Hey Ma, I went down to New Orleans and came back with a doctor.’”
“You could go back with worse,” Jessie said. She slipped him a sheet of paper. “Call me if you want to do something away from all the tourists traps. Mardi Gras is a whole different world away from all the boobs and beads.”
“Thanks, Jessie,” he said. He used his free hand to put the paper in his pocket. “My buddy Ralph might be moving down here, so we could do with the local knowledge.”
“Is he as cute as you?” Jessie asked.
“Like a teddy bear,” Babe said.
“Definitely call,” Jessie said. She walked off with a little wave when Marlena came over to his chair.
Nurse Marlena was about his mom’s age. She kept checking on him, ensuring he didn’t pass out on her watch.
“Edward Heffron, we finally got a cot for you to bleed all over,” she said.
“Aww, you’re too sweet Marlena,” he said.
“Can you stand?” she asked.
“As long as you don’t ask me to walk in a straight line or recite the ABC’s backwards, I’m golden,” he said. He pushed himself up and followed Marlena past the stacks of old People magazines and fish tanks, to an area full of even more medical staff and curtained off beds.
“Hop up, cher,” she said. She pried his hand away from the gauze and made a tsking sound at the wound. “You always been this much of bleeder?” she asked.
Babe shrugged. “Liquor is evil.”
“Stupid,” Marlena chastised. “If you were my son, I’d be beating your ass right about now.”
“When my Ma finds out, I’m sure she will.”
“Boy, are you even old enough to drink?”
“You saw my chart.”
“I swear, Marlena, I’m 22. I’m almost 23. And if it wasn’t for avoiding almost certain death, I wouldn’t be here.”
“If you say so,” Marlena huffed. She started cleaning the dried blood off his head. “You better hope this don’t get infected.”
“I tried to clean it at the bar I fell in front of, but could only really pour hydrogen peroxide in it.”
“Better than nothing,” she muttered.
Babe bit his tongue to keep the curse words from flowing when Marlena started pulling off the parts of the gauze damn-near glued to his skin.
“Most boys start cursing a blue streak right about now,” she commented.
“Most of those boys probably don’t have Ma nurses. She works at a retirement home, but still. I know better than to curse in front of people who are on their feet all day dealing with the sick and pissed off.”
Marlena just smiled and peeled off her gloves. “The doctor will be with you in just a second, cher. Everyone’s a little backed up tonight but I think you’ll fine on your own for five minutes,” she said as she patted him on the shoulder and left.
Babe took a minute to look around. No matter where he went, all ERs seemed the same. Same fluorescent lighting and pastel curtains. They could at least try to make things interesting. He checked his phone again, no messages from Julian or Spina. He would definitely be holding this one over their heads for years to come. He would call Bill if it wasn’t for the balling out he’d receive in response. Life behind the curtain was boring; he should have swiped a magazine.
“So,” a low voice with a smooth southern drawl said, “Edward Heffron, you lost a fight with a concrete sidewalk.”
Babe turned his head to find a young man, not much older than him, standing there in a set of navy blue scrubs. He was slender, with short dark hair, and pale skin. His tag read Dr. Eugene Roe, MD.
“Uh, yeah, Doc Roe. Just lost my footing and bam, hamburger meat.”
The doctor looked up at him, before glancing to the chart in his hands with a smirk on his lips. “And I’m sure the amount of alcohol in your system had nothing to do with it, huh?”
Babe shrugged, more concerned with trying to figure out if the Doc’s eyes were blue or brown. It was hard to tell.
“Yeah, probably, but my buddy Bill always says I have the grace of a rhino, so there’s that.” He studied the doctor again. Something was off about him, not in a bad way, just different. “Hey, Doc, how come your nametag’s a different color than Nurse Marlena’s?”
“Good to see all your observation skills ain’t gone. I ain’t from here,” he said, a small smile on his thin lips. “Just down here to help with the deluge. There’s a few of my people all through this hospital, but don’t worry, I still have an M.D.”
“That’s what they all say.” Babe laughed, before glancing and looking at some of the empty beds around him. “Deluge?’ he asked.
“Later tonight this place will look like a war zone. Mardi Gras brings out the drunken tourists,” Doc Roe said, admonishment in his tone.
“At least I got myself to an ER though.”
“Maybe you ain’t completely without smarts,” Doc Roe said. “Drinking ain’t gonna help with the healing of this. You promise me you done for the night.”
“Doc, trust me, I know better than to fuck with deep cuts and binges. My boy Ralph’s a certified EMT and a nursing student. I’ve heard the spiel.”
“Uh-huh,” the doctor replied. He set the chart down, and moved closer to Babe. He started doing the basic run-downs, checking Babe’s pupils, re-checking his radial pulse. “You lose consciousness?” he asked.
“Nope, wide awake for all of this. Little dizzy, but that could be the beer. Or the blood. No confusion though.”
“You sure about that?”
He ran his fingers over Babe’s scalp, and even though he knew it was all professional — that Doc Roe was checking for some deeper cuts, contusions or breaks, Babe found it difficult not to shiver.
“Well, Mr. Heffron,” he said, “it seems like the worst part of your fall is that cut.”
“I could of told ya that, Doc.”
“But now you have a medically certified opinion.” He stepped back and washed hands. “So, you’ve got some options. We can do the glue version or stitches.”
“You understand that stitches may cause more pain.”
“Doc, I’m trusting you’ve worked in the ER before, so you could probably do stitches in your sleep. This ain’t the cleanest cut in the world and I’m honestly too old school to be sold on the skin glue. Leave it for the kids and let’s just get this closed up.”
“Thanks for the faith.”
“I’m a generous kind of guy.”
“You still going be here in the five to seven days these need to come out?”
“I know about fifteen people up in Philly who can do it.”
“In what is considered a medically sterile environment?”
“Yeah, I ain’t stupid, Doc.”
“Your head begs to differ with you, Mr. Heffron.”
“It normally does,” Babe said.
“What’s that?” Doc Roe asked.
“Nothing,” he answered.
Babe stayed silent while Doc Roe pulled out all his tools for the sutures. Babe watched him, caught by the quick and efficient work of the doctor’s hands. Frannie would’ve called them elegant, artist’s hands, but Babe was having the kind of thoughts he shouldn’t be having about a random doctor in an ER in New Orleans. He snapped out of it when Doc Roe put some gloves on.
“Okay, now I just want to make sure your medical history is clear. You’re not allergic to lidocaine, epinephrine and do not have a sensitivity to local anesthetics.”
“Naw,” Babe said.
“How do you feel about needles.”
“Good, because I’m about to shoot a small solution of lidocaine with epinephrine into your head around the wound. It’ll numb the area. Please feel free to close your eyes. Please do not feel free to vomit all over my scrubs.” He put a tan plastic tray down on the cot. “You got to let loose, try to do it in there.”
“So, how well did you do on your bedside manner evaluation?” Babe asked.
Doc Roe smirked. “If I was you, I wouldn’t be taunting the doctor who’s about to stitch up your head.”
“What happened to ‘first do no harm’?”
“Mais, cher, they don’t teach us Cajun witchdoctors that.”
Babe gaped for a moment, which was right when Doc Roe went in for the shot. He was almost pissed that he got the ‘distract the kid’ treatment, but hell, Babe heard plenty of Spina’s ‘dealing with the drunk idiot's medical emergency’ stories to know it was probably standard. That didn’t mean Babe was going to be a nice, quiet patient though.
“Where do you normally work, if you’re only down here for the drunken deluge?”
“I go to school in Baton Rouge, and work there and outside Lafayette.”
“You deal with the ER there too?”
“Sometimes. Depends on where I’m at. Baton Rouge is all sorts of hospital work but I’ve worked at a free clinic in St. Boniface since I was fourteen.”
There was something in the way Roe said free clinic that made it sound like home.
“So what about you?” Doc Roe asked while he pulled open the suture kit. “You just visiting?”
“Yeah, Ralph, one the buddies I flew down with, he’s meeting with the teaching hospitals down here. Trying to figure out which program to go into, you know? His dad just wouldn’t let him come alone. He heard stories about New Orleans.”
“Not just stories,” Doc Roe said. “The Lower Ninth Ward and almost all of St. Bernard Parish are wiped out. It’s only been a few months and we got problems that are going to last decades.”
“People still come for Mardi Gras.”
“Still a small crowd. Still missing our locals. We’re open for business though, Capitalism and Dionysus won’t be denied.”
“The bars are definitely paying their proper tribute.”
Doc Roe laughed, turning his head to the side and checking for other people. “Sorry, they don’t like it when I laugh at the patients here,” he explained. “Used to working with a much more relaxed crowd.”
“Yeah, why don’t you tell me about that.”
“Nothing to tell. Just a free clinic in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.”
“But you’ve been working there since you were fourteen. You’re this big city doc and then you go home to help the small town. There’s something more there.”
“Sometimes you grow up with a community as well as a family,” he said. His voice had gone soft, his mind obviously more on the task at hand than what he was saying.
“Yeah, I know a bit about that,” Babe said.
“And where do you come from?” he asked. “I know you’re from up North, just don’t know where.”
“South Philly,” Babe said. “Pennsport. Born, bred and proud.”
“Your buddy Ralph from there too?”
“Uh-huh, so I know who to tell the cops to look for when you three get into more than you can handle.”
“We’ll be fine.”
Doc Roe just looked at him.
“Hey, I’m the only one in here. You don’t see them around.”
“So it that a ringing endorsement for them or you?” he asked. He finished his sewing and put his tools down after cutting off the thread. He reached for a q-tip and some cream. “Almost done getting your face back to normal.”
“Yeah, I’d like to not have my ma weep over some scar.”
“Isn’t the rule that chicks dig scars?” he asked.
Babe shrugged. “No use to me if they do.” It took him a moment to realize what he said. And that was why Babe hated hard liquor. Might as well just shoot sodium pentothal into his veins.
Doc Roe paused. He studied Babe for a moment before resuming.
“Is that why you drank so much?” he asked.
“Hey, whoa, Doc, before you try to get me a psych consult, let’s make one thing clear. Not depressed, not in denial, been out and proud for the past five years. I don’t need one of your shrinks to hold my hand and tell me everything will be peachy. I’m a bartender, I know better than to mix beer with hard liquor. In the middle of our bar crawl, I got talking to the guy behind the bar at Saint Albans. We were testing each other’s concoctions. What you just stitched up, I swear on my great grandmother’s grave, is from tripping over my own two feet.”
“Tate or Rick?” he asked.
“What?” Babe replied.
“The bartender at Saint Albans, was it Tate or Rick?”
“Tate,” Babe answered.
Doc Roe nodded. “Yeah, you’re Tate’s type. He likes redheads.” He applied the cream to Babe’s head and sat back. “We’ll let that soak in for a minute.”
Babe was still a little drunk, or so when he told himself when he blabbed out his next question. “You want to go out for a cup of coffee while I’m still here. Obviously not tonight, but tomorrow?”
Doc Roe fiddled with the bandage in his hands. “There are rules and lines, Mr. Heffron, and I’m not keen on crossing either.”
“It doesn’t have to just be us. Ralph and Julian would come. Ralph needs to get some local knowledge.”
“So you’re asking out of professional curiosity for your friend?”
Babe just smiled. “Come on, just a coffee with some passing tourists,” he said.
“Whose head I just stitched up.”
“Look at it this way. We’ll never see you again, you’re not my regular doc, and I have no need to report you to an ethics board. I don’t boil any bunnies.”
“That’s what they all say.”
“Do I look like a Thumper killer to you?”
“No one ever looks like a serial killer.”
“Then you’ve got to go with your gut. What does your gut tell you about me.”
Doc Roe rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. Each tourist needs to see Café du Monde.”
“Great. Now why don’t you slap that bandage on my head, give me the spiel about not getting water on it for at least 24 hours, no bathing or soaking, yada yada yada. I’d like to get out of here before sun-up.”
“I’m already starting to regret this,” Doc Roe muttered. He did just as Babe said, including a greatly detailed speech about gangrene.
“Now, let’s get you checked out of here,” he said.
Babe hopped off the cot, tilting only a little as he followed Doc Roe to the admittance and discharge desk. Doc Roe signed off on one of the sheets and snatched a generic business card from the counter, jotting something down on the back.
“If anything should happen, you call this number. I don’t want your blood poisoning on my conscience.”
“Nice way to cover your ass, Doc,” Babe said. He waved at the girl behind the counter and ignored Doc Roe’s slightly amused glare.
“Hey, Spina,” Babe called out when he stumbled into their hotel room. It looked like a bomb went off, with clothes scattered over every possible surface. Spina was in the middle, still clutching that damn iron and a tie.
“Where the hell did you get to?” Julian asked.
Babe took his hoodie off. “Went to the ER after saying hello to the ground. If either one of you assholes bothered to turn on your phones you’d know that.”
“Oh shit,” Spina said when he caught sight of Babe’s forehead. He fumbled the iron. “Bill’s gonna kill me. I forgot to turn it on after my meeting. Fuck, I’m a dead man.”
“What Bill doesn’t know won’t kill you,” Babe said.
“Dude,” Julian whispered, “Bill knows. Bill always knows. Somewhere, right now, Bill is in a meeting with that rich drunk guy, getting really pissed off for no reason.”
“Julian, his name’s Nixon and he paid for your associate’s degree.”
“Yeah, by telling me he loved pissing off his old man by helping the lower class advance.”
“I really thinking he was just being facetious.”
“Julian, stop acting like you’re stupid.”
“But it’s so much fun.”
“Look, we’re going for coffee in the morning. Try to wear something decent,” Babe said. He stepped into the bathroom and grimaced at the first good look of his face. “The doctor I met seemed pretty cool, but no need to assault him with Julian’s lack of color-coordination so early in the morning.”
“Wait, you macked on your ER doc?” Julian asked.
“Why are we going for coffee,” Ralph said at the same time.
Babe stepped out on the bathroom and threw his dirty clothes on the laundry pile. He pulled a clean t-shirt out of his bag before answering.
“I did not mack on my doctor, Julian,” he said, voice muffled as he pulled the shirt over his head. “And we’re going because the doctor doesn’t normally work in New Orleans. I figured, since Ralph’s so stressed a friggin’ diamond could pop out of his ass any minute, we might as well talk to someone that knows about programs in other parts of the state.”
“How generous of you,” Ralph said.
“How badly do you want to move to Baltimore?” Babe countered.
“Fuck you,” Ralph answered.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to hook up with your doctor.”
Babe threw his rolled-up sweaty, dirty socks at Julian’s head.
“Aw, dude, that’s just not right,” Julian said. He gagged and threw them back.
“Where else did this guy say he’s worked?” Ralph asked as he threw the socks in the hamper, one having hit him in the head.
“Uh, Baton Rouge and Lafayette or something. I don’t know, some parts are kind of fuzzy.”
“Yeah, about that—.” Ralph said. He turned to Julian. “Where the fuck were you?”
“I was with the other people on the pub crawl. I thought Babe was hooking-up with the bartender.”
“What bartender?” Ralph asked.
“Tate, at Saint Albans. And look, I was not hooking-up. We were comparing our bartending skills. I was rushing after Julian when I almost got pancaked by a Mardi Gras float.”
“You tripped, didn’t you?” Julian asked.
“Kiss my ass,” Babe said. He stepped over two other bags and settled down beside Julian. He stole one of the take-out boxes Julian had hoarded.
“What, did you hit up every restaurant in five miles?” he asked.
“I was hungry and everything smelled good. I hadn’t eaten anything since the flight.”
“How are you not passed out drunk right now?” Ralph asked. He finally settled on the right tie and shirt combination and was now working on the socks.
“I didn’t drink that much,” Julian said. The little fucker had the tolerance of a man three times his size. He was a marvel of the South Philly bar scene.
Ralph shook his head. “Just don’t puke on my clothes tonight after you eat all that shit you ordered. I just got all the wrinkles out and the lint off. You ruin any of it and they won’t be able to find a finger. It’ll be you and Jimmy Hoffa, got it?”
“I put a small hole in one of your sweaters once and you won’t let it go.”
“It was Dior.”
“Spina, you know labels and quality clothing are wasted on John Julian. If it doesn’t come from T.J. Maxx or J.C. Penny’s he’s not wearing it.”
“Hey, I expanded to Macy’s.”
After a moment’s silence, none of them could stop laughing.
Babe had called Doc Roe early that morning. After failing to get Julian out of bed, Babe and Ralph set out for Decatur Street and Café Du Monde.
“Is this some late on-set post-teenage rebellion?” Ralph asked while they walked past groups of tourists.
“What?” Babe said. He stopped in his tracks and stared at Ralph.
“You’re going out on a date,” Ralph said.
“For coffee. And you’re coming with me. ”
“It’s a date with a guy you just met. A guy who put stitches in your head. The only reason I’m coming is to act as some sort of chaperone. Do you see the problem with this?”
“Look, Spina. Ralph, my brother, it’s just a coffee. And a talk. I doubt it will go beyond that. I just met the guy, okay. I doubt the guy’s into me. We just had a chat and I felt a connection.”
“Yes, Ralph, a connection. What the hell is your problem?”
“Rob Carson, the last guy you had a connection with and who broke your delicate little heart into tiny, minuscule pieces.”
“Yo, fuck you for bringing that bastard up. Look, this guy is a doctor, not an assassin. He’s not a former fuck-buddy of Ron Speirs and I highly doubt he’s ever signed on with an international organization in charge of shady shit.”
“You don’t know that, Babe.”
“You’re right, I don’t. But you know what? I can’t turn away from every guy I meet in fear he will be another smug bastard asshole with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. I think we can both agree, nine times out of ten, I’m a good judge of character. Smug bastard asshole was my one out of ten.”
Spina sighed. “Why am I here again?”
“Spina, if your ass decides to move down here, I want to make sure we’ve got someone in the area with honor. And some sense since you’re clearly loosing yours. This guy is a no-bullshit kind. He’s all still waters run deep and shit. Yeah, I like him. I think he’s hot. I wouldn’t mind having more than a coffee with him, but that’s not going to happen. He didn’t want to do this with just me and only gave in once I mentioned your whole life story. So, please, don’t go into this thing with your back up and attitude out. You might even like him.”
“Of the two of us, I am the one who doesn’t need a boyfriend.”
“Yeah, but you do need some friends down here. You know how tough it is to be an outsider in Pennsport. I can’t imagine what shit they make the new guys go through in this city. You need all the contacts you can get, why not actually embrace one who works in many parts of the state?”
Ralph punched him in the arm. “I thought the rule was you’re not allowed to be sensible before ten am.”
“It’s only nine, fucker. You still need to change your watch.”
Café Du Monde was already swamped by tourists. The patio was full of people in all states of alertness. The workers moved around in their uniforms, something that felt like a throwback to the old soda jerks. One street musician was already setting up.
Doc Roe called out to them from across the street where he was leaning against a newspaper stand. He still wore his scrubs, but had a wool jacket thrown over his top.
“Heffron, good to see you’re still alive.”
“Told ya I’d go right home and rest, Doc.” He gestured to Ralph. “Doc, please meet Ralph Spina. Ralph, this is Doc Eugene Roe.”
Doc Roe held his hand out. “Hi Ralph, just call me Gene.”
“Gene, nice to meet you,” Ralph said. He used his business meeting handshake which made Babe grin.
“I hope you boys are hungry,” Gene said.
“Haven’t had breakfast yet,” Babe said.
Gene nodded. “Guess this could be my breakfast. Or my dinner. Just got off shift, so we’ll go with dinner.”
“Hey, you can be like Babe, eating at the Waffle House all hours of the day.”
“Who’s Babe?” Gene asked.
“What’s this some ‘Who’s on First?’ thing?” Ralph asked.
“Nah, Spina, believe it or not, my birth certificate says Edward.”
“Aww,” Ralph said, swinging an arm around his neck and pulling him close, “but you’re such a Babe.”
“Funny,” he said.
Gene just looked at the both of them like they were just as crazy as he feared. “Let’s try and get a table before it gets busy.”
“This is slow?” Babe asked. He shrugged off Ralph’s arm and elbowed him in the stomach. “But there’s like fifty people here.”
Gene smirked. “And what it’s like at the Liberty Bell at nine in the morning compared to noon?”
“Man’s got a point,” Ralph said.
They took a seat at one of the round tables.
“Any suggestions?” Babe asked.
“What are your feelings on chicory?” Gene asked.
“Hey, Bennie,” Gene called across the room. “Get the tourists two plates and some strong black coffee. Just the regular for me.”
“You got it, Gene,” one of the workers said. “Merl back yet?”
“Nah, still got his ass somewhere on the other side of the world.”
“Safer for all of us then,” Bennie called back.
“Don’t worry,” Gene said, “Bennie will bring a whole tray of milk, sugar, and creamer for you to get your coffee the way you want. This place ain’t like Starbucks. You want to ease into the normal brew.”
“What Starbucks?” Babe asked. “If Dunkies don’t serve it, I don’t drink it.”
“You’re such a friggin’ stereotype,” Ralph said.
“Kiss my Irish-American ass.”
“You two are more entertaining than a sitcom,” Gene said. He sat back in his chair and studied them both. “So, Spina, you want to come down here to work. Why is that exactly?”
“It ain’t Philly. It ain’t Baltimore either.”
“What do you have against Baltimore?”
“Don’t ask,” Babe said.
“Look, I know New Orleans is lacking in all types of professionals right now. Unlike where I am, where practically everyone you meet is either a nurse or related to one, I just want to be somewhere that needs help. Look, I’m not trying to be all Saint Ralph of Spina, and I’m not looking to be anyone’s Florence Nightingale.”
“Which is great, since she probably killed more people than she saved,” Babe said.
“Anyway, I know it’s not going to be easy. The people here, they’ve been through hell, still going through it, and will keep going through it for a long time. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur going on here. I just want to work somewhere that honestly needs people willing to work, as opposed to other programs who want people for statistics sake. And yeah, one day, I might train to be a trauma doc, but right now I’m happy with nursing. It was either here, Florida or Alabama. Mickey Mouse scares me but I think Alabama might scare me more. We went there as a kid, it wasn’t a good time.”
“Was that the game farm where the emu attacked you?”
“Not the point, Edward,” Ralph said.
“So what programs have you looked at?” Gene asked.
“LSU and Loyola. I’m already an LPN and an EMT. I need to do my RN and finish my Bachelor’s.
“You’re looking to go for a Master’s? You sound more than ready for field work.”
“I might try for my trauma doc licensure one day. My father really wants me to, but he’s letting me do things at my own pace.”
Bennie placed their orders down on the table. She gave Gene a little slap on the head when she walked off. “Next time, don’t take so long to come by,” she said.
“Sorry about that,” Gene apologized. “I worked here one summer. I don’t get down here all that often.” He took a sip of his coffee. “If you really want to work in Louisiana, I’m going to suggest places other than New Orleans. I take it you’re a Philly Boy like Heffron over here.”
“Yeah,” Ralph said.
Gene nodded. “You’ll need time to adjust. Can’t have you fainting in the middle of an ER when the first hurricane of the season rolls through. Baton Rouge and Lafayette both have good programs. Alexandria’s got one that might suit your needs. There are some smaller schools in the area, but this place, especially now. It’s something you have to get used to, you have to know the people and the community before you can treat ‘em. Most of what we’re getting, 95% is a result of Katrina, and it’s going to stay that way. I’m not saying don’t come and help us, we do need help, but I am saying I think you’d be much better in other parts right now.”
“Populations booming in the other cities and we don’t have the staff to keep up with it, especially during the flu months.” Gene pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and laid it down in front of Ralph. “That’s the contact information for Doctor Adam Thibodaux. He knows damn near every important medical personnel and program head in the state. You give him a call, talk to him for a while, and he’ll give you a better idea of where you need to be than any campus recruiter.”
“Thanks, Gene, that’s really nice of—,” Ralph stopped when his phone went off. “Sorry, guys, got to take this.” He stood up from the table and hurried off to the sidewalk.
“Good to know he’s not the kind to just stay at a table and chat.”
“Please, we were all raised with better manners than that.” Babe took one of the beignets and placed it on his napkin. “How exactly do I eat this?” Powdered sugar was everywhere.
“Here,” Gene said, throwing some napkins at him. “Tuck some of those into your shirt. I should’ve told you not to wear black. Wrap the beignet in a napkin and eat like you have the greasiest po-boy ever in front of you.”
“You mean hoagie?” Babe asked. He took a careful bite of the doughnut and tried not to grimace when he felt the powdered sugar start to smear. It was sweet, but still pretty damn good. “So you really do deep fry everything in the South.”
“Does it taste good?”
“Then just shut up and eat it.” Gene took a long sip of his coffee. He placed it back on it saucer, fingers tracing around the rim. “So how long have you and Spina been together.”
Babe actually choked.
“What?” he croaked out. “You’re kidding right. Christ, that’d be like sleeping with my brother.”
Gene gave him that flat look that was starting to become very familiar. “He calls you ‘Babe.’”
“Yeah, that’s my nickname. Everyone calls me Babe. Except my teachers and my priest.”
“Your nickname is Babe.”
“Well, it was Baby Face but my mother, thank Christ, shortened it to Babe when I was three.”
“No one calls you Edward?”
“Nah, not really. I mean, if you’re hung up on it, go ahead. Most new people just call me Heffron.”
Gene nodded. “So, Edward, how long ago did you know your buddy Ralph wasn’t suited for New Orleans?”
Babe stopped mid-chew. It was one thing for someone who knew him for years to work out his plan.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Gene said. “I heard you talking to Jessie. She was your initial plan, but after you heard me talk me about programs elsewhere, it was like finding the golden ticket.”
“It’s wasn’t just the other programs,” Babe said. “You don’t bullshit, you’ve got a sense of humor. You’ve got the kind of attitude Ralph’s used to at home. We’re tough love in Philly, but we’re also about deep bonds. I think you get that.”
Gene nodded. “I do.” He reached over and picked up one of the beignets. “You always rely on your gut when it comes to strangers?”
“Only let me down once. Major let down, but I’m still here.” Babe used the extra napkins to rid his hand of the excess sugar. The beignets were good, but it was like eating a funnel cake. He met Gene’s gaze. “And don’t think I’m that generous. I’m not just here for Ralph.”
“You always this bold?”
“You always this subtle?”
“Hey, I’m not the one with powdered sugar all over his mouth.”
“What the—.” Babe reached up to wipe his mouth. Nothing was there.
Gene sat back in his chair, a wide grin on his face as he chewed his doughnut.
“You going pull my pigtails next?” Babe asked.
“Naw,” Gene said, “I’m don’t want to pull out those stitches.” He checked his watch. “I hate to be the first to go, but I’ve been up for close to two days.”
He threw down some cash, ignoring Babe’s protest. “Consider it a welcoming gift.” He stood up and pushed in his chair. “And Edward?”
“I ain’t that generous either. Why don’t you call me again tomorrow morning. Give me an update on your progress.”
“You can say no.”
“I’ll look forward to it then.” He gave a little wave and jogged across the street, heading back through Jackson Square and disappearing through the crowds coming into the French Quarter.
Spina returned to the table, powdered sugar all over his face.
“What the hell happened to you?” Babe asked.
“Apparently there’s some bullshit here about blowing sugar on the newcomers while making a wish. Restaurant hazing man, it’s a bitch.”
“Who was on the phone?”
“Bill. He said he had a bad feeling. He knows about the whole shitshow now. I promise you, Julian’s getting his ass reamed.”
“Nice way to wake up.”
“Yeah, where’d Gene go?”
“Needed to get home.”
“And he paid for our breakfast.”
“Shut the fuck up, Spina, and eat your fried dough.”
“You’re so impressively fucked it’s not even funny anymore.”
“The way you keep going, I’ll have to kill you in your sleep.”
“Nice try, Babe. We both know Julian’s too delicate to help you bury a body.”
Babe threw a wad of napkins at him in response.
Chapter 2: Part Two
Gene woke up six hours later with his face buried in Renée’s couch cushion. He checked his watch and groaned, three more hours until it was time to go back to work. Only one week left until his return to Baton Rouge where they didn’t try to kill their residents with sleep deprivation. He pushed off the couch and got as far as the kitchen threshold when Renée stopped him in his tracks.
She had that look on her face that meant someone was about to get hit.
“Gene,” Renee sighed, her accent making his name sound particularly pitiful, “I do not know what to do with you. You were supposed to come down here to help, not to pick up some random university boy.”
“I wouldn’t call it picked up.”
“You treated him last night and went out for breakfast this morning. The English language may confuse me on a rare occasion, but I am certain that translates into picking up.”
“It was a cup of coffee. During the morning. At a tourist trap. With a third person.”
Renée rolled her eyes at him. “Because cups of coffee never led to anything more. Ever. And a third person present always stops you. Did you pay?”
“For their breakfast. Did you pay?”
“They’re guests, it’s only proper.”
“Date!” Renée yelled. She put her head in her hands. “Please tell me you are risking your medical licensure for someone who is worth it.”
Gene reached up and pulled her hands down. “He’s here with his friends, Ree, but he’s also here for them. I think, if there is anything to risk, it will be worth it. I don’t know. He’s fun to rile up.”
“Is it a crime I like talking to some guy? Nothing might happen, it probably won’t, and that’ll be a loss, but.” Gene sighed. “I can always use another friend.”
Renée took her hands back and slapped his forehead. “Stop underestimating and devaluing yourself.”
Gene rubbed the spot. It didn’t hurt, but he just knew she left a mark. “So now you want me to go out with him?”
“I want you to be happy. And to shower. You smell like a hospital.”
“Alright, I’m going.” He stumbled into the closet Renée called a bathroom and wrinkled his nose at the smell. She favored vanilla and sugar scented bath products, and Gene always smelled like a cake after he used her shower.
He finished his shower in the methodical manner of the over-tired and stared at himself in the mirror once he got out. He didn’t exactly look like a prize these days; eyes bloodshot, skin pallid, bones starting to stick out. Part of it was the job, he knew that. Most of it though, the bags under his eyes and the sleepless nights, that was all the cost of memory. Always got worse this time of year, when he couldn’t forget what happened over there.
Gene never did like the desert and after Afghanistan, he could honestly state that he’d be happy staying in Louisiana for the rest of his life. He could still be at a cushy government funded job with all the latest tools and technology, traveling the world in the name of medical advancement. He just couldn’t sacrifice that much of his moral center. He owed Ron, Bill and Brad more than could ever be repaid for getting him out of that hell hole.
He left the bathroom to find Renée speaking in a rapid-fire French dialect, which meant Dr. Anna Sora was on the other side of the line. She swatted his hand when he patted her head while he walked over to his duffle bag.
“Oh, Eugene?” she called.
“Your cell phone rang. A Babe Heffron called for you. I took it upon myself to set up a dinner meeting for you tomorrow.”
He glared in the face of her wide smile.
“What happened to the talk about risking my career?”
“He is very polite and charming,” she said. “Anna agreed that it was best I set it up or else you would take him somewhere so very,” she paused for a moment. “Gumbo,” she finished.
“You take him for your Cajun gumbo and it will all be ruined. One revelation at a time, Eugene.”
“I’m sure he’s used to spices.”
“Red sauce is far from the Cajun palette. Something simple. Now go to work.”
“I really hate you sometimes.”
“You will thank me later. Profusely. With chocolate.”
Gene gave her the finger and shuffled out the door. It was going to be a hell of a long day.
Tourists walked by Mae-West’s as if it didn’t even exist. It was a small diner, dating back to the fifties, and established by a couple of World War II vets fulfilling a vow they had made in Belgium.
Gene made a point of stopping by for a meal every time he was in New Orleans, where the regulars made up for the lack of fine cuisine and good lighting.
That and they had the best burgers this side of the state line.
He had called Babe on his lunch break last night to set up the final details. He got ragged on for Renée’s meddling and spent most of the phone call trying to discern the yelling in the background. Still, they’d managed to set this meal up and Gene was only a little nervous.
He never really did the dating thing. It was hard enough coming from a small tight-knit Louisiana community with Cajun family traditions deeply centered around children. College was a confusing time for him over everything, from his sexuality to his own moral code.
Desperation saw him signing up with the government to pay med school costs, but he had damn near lived like a hermit during the semesters. There was always too much at stake to risk any chance for a scholarship or internship based on the close-minded board members. Doc Thibodaux couldn’t give a damn about anything, but Gene couldn’t keep running back home when times got rough.
He’d spent most of his life either working, studying, or hanging out with Merl-Francis. A hook-up here or there, a ton of coffee dates that never really counted and a few awkward relationships with men from Baton Rouge, who found Gene more amusing as a cultural stereotype than a real person left him uncertain.
He could be friends with Edward Heffron. The attraction would make things difficult, but he couldn’t help it. He liked him. Not in the middle-school way, but in the honest-to-god, we-can-talk- for-five-hours-and-still-not-be-bored way.
“So tell me,” Babe said, sliding into his chair with the ease of someone who knew dive bars and diners, “why does anyone name a restaurant after a Hollywood legend best known for certain assets.”
“Something about life saving opportunities. I see you didn’t get lost.”
“Oh, hell no. I got lost five times and walked by here at least three. Not really trying to pull the tourists in here.”
“It’s a local spot.”
“Yeah, no shit.” Babe ripped open the paper ring holding the napkins together. “So, what’s good here?”
“What? No Cajun or Creole cuisine?”
“I was warned against your weak Irish palate.”
“Don’t mock until you’ve faced down a Grandmother insistent on corn beef and cabbage every Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s not even a real tradition.”
“Then enjoy this burger in the spirit of Lent starting and the fact you won’t be able to have it again come Friday.”
“Amen to that,” Babe said. “So, how do we get a waiter here?”
“They’ll come on their own time.”
“Something’s wrong about that.”
“Yeah, well, this ain’t exactly Chili’s,.”
“Never liked that place. Too much flare on the wall.”
“I’ll take it over the Submarine Chic of Red Lobster.”
Babe’s eyes comically widened. “Dude, do not hate on the Lobster.”
“That is not a real seafood restaurant,” Gene scoffed.
“They have lobsters in a tank. And cheese-garlic biscuits. And butter-sauce. There is no need to hate on the Lobster just because they don’t serve crawfish.”
“It’s not fresh.”
“Doesn’t mean it can’t taste good.”
Gene couldn’t stop grinning. Damn it, he was screwed.
“Gene, boo, I didn’t know you’ve come down to these parts again,” Sheryl cooed while she made her way over to their table.
Sheryl was one of the most musical and flamboyant waitresses in all of New Orleans, and that was saying something in this city. She didn’t even have to waitress, making more than enough money with the gigs and events she worked, but she liked being around people. The owners, Bobby and Johnny, let her get away with whatever she wanted. Anybody rude to Sheryl, or any members of the staff, were shown the door. It might have violated some rules of hospitality, but such rules only went so far when dealing with assholes with entitlement problems.
Gene stood up from the table and greeted her with a tight hug. She had known his family for years, and was one of the few people from his father’s life he always kept in touch with. She was the closest thing Gene had to an aunt, besides the Sheltons, and he hated that their schedules rarely lined up for a visit.
“I didn’t even know you were here,” he confessed.
“God shines down on us sometimes,” she answered. She fussed with his hair and tugged on the collar of his shirt. “You not eating enough, boy.”
“It’s a busy time of—” he started.
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” she cut him off. “And mind your manners.”
Gene shook his head. “Edward Heffron, please meet Sheryl St. Martine. Sheryl, this is Edward. He’s a visitor, so go easy on any surprise dishes.”
“You act like I try to force my meals on everyone.”
“I don’t think Jon appreciates your special additions to his creations.”
“A little extra spice never hurt anyone.”
“Sheryl,” he warned.
“Fine, be boring. Two cheeseburgers, fries and some slaw and cornbread coming up. Gene, I know you want some more sweet tea, but what about you Heffron?”
“Uh, Sprite if you got it?”
“Coming up,” Sheryl said. She gave Gene a quick kiss on the cheek before moving off to her next table.
“Do you know a member of the wait staff at every place in New Orleans?” Babe asked.
Gene shrugged. “Sheryl’s a nomad. I honestly didn’t know she was in the city. Half the time she’s anywhere between the Panhandle and Dallas. You just get to know people when you work odd shifts.”
“I know,” Babe said. “I’ve been working in bars and restaurants since I was fourteen. You always know your shift regulars.
They talked until Sheryl returned with their meals. Cheeseburgers with a coleslaw, cornbread, fries, Cajun corn, and carrot salad.
“Don’t give me that look,” Sheryl said. “Both of you look like a few extra sides couldn’t hurt.”
Gene just waved her off and tried not to laugh as Babe poked at the carrot salad.
“It’s not so bad,” he said.
“What is it?” Babe asked.
“Carrots, cranberries, some pecans.”
“What the hell?” Babe said with a shrug. He took a bite and nodded. “Different, not what I’d put with a cheeseburger, but what the hell do I know?”
“So,” Gene started after taking a sip of water, “are you like Spina? Running around the country trying to figure out what to do with life after college?”
“Oh, I’m still a freshman.”
Gene froze, his fork halfway to his mouth. He placed it down very deliberately and then looked at Babe. He knew Babe was younger than him, but that was going beyond Gene’s comfort level.
Babe laughed. “You should see your face right now, Gene.” He shook his head. “I’m twenty-two, but didn’t start college until last year. I had to work and save up the money. Don’t want to spend the rest of my life working off student loan debt.”
Gene coughed in his hand then took a sip of water. He shot a flat look at Babe over his glass.
“You one smart ass son of a bitch, aren’t you?” he asked.
Babe smirked. “Sorry to ruin your school-boy fantasies.” He leaned back in his chair. “To be honest about it, I don’t think college is the place for me. All my buddies went there, got some sort of degree, but I just don’t like it.”
“Not a fan of homework?”
“Nah, not that. I like the classes, but too many things interest me. I hate this whole idea of ‘you got to know you want to be this and have to take these classes to get there.’ I mean, come on, fitness walking ain’t going get me a job at the Mütter Museum.”
“Call it professional curiosity but I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Spina can take you,” Babe said. “My brothers left me there on my own when I was ten. Hated the place ever since.”
Gene laughed at that. It sounded like something Merl-Francis would do. He studied Babe, with his open smile, and the marks and callouses on his hand from someone used to working.
“No one says you have to go to college, or that you need to do it before your thirty. Most of us have no clue about what we want to do, where we want to go in life,” he said.
“Unlike you,” Babe countered.
“I was—,” Gene paused. He fiddled with his napkin trying to find the right way to phrase it. “Let’s just say I was a special case.” And that was all Gene was willing to say. No need to unleash his Samsonite-sized baggage on Babe during their second meal together.
Dinner went well, even if Sheryl snuck in a few more jibes before she let them leave. Babe tried to get the carrot salad recipe out of her, but she couldn’t be bought. They walked back towards Babe’s hotel, Gene leading the way through the streets at dusk. No need to have Babe knifed in a back alley on the way home.
“Why do all these spray painted signs mean?” Babe asked.
Gene looked at where he was pointing and bowed his head. “It depends,” he said. “When they came through, checking the houses, the clean-up crews left those marks. If the house was checked, if there was a body inside, if that body was removed. Half the time the signs were wrong. Some people came back to find their relatives still in there. No one should ever come home to that.”
Babe nodded. “You can forget, you know, going through the French Quarter that the city’s still…”
“You can say damaged. Hell, it’s always been broken. Part of the charm but, this,” Gene paused. “I just can’t imagine. I’ve been coming here my whole life and even I’m at a lost over all that’s gone. I just, these are people’s homes, their livelihoods. This ain’t supposed to happen here. Look, every city’s got is problems, but it’s not like New Orleans was doing great before all the shit went down. Always do find a way to survive, but no one’s going to forget it anytime soon.”
“And they shouldn’t,” Babe agreed.
Even here, in the parts of the city relatively undamaged in comparison, there was still debris and boarded up houses. The city officials always tried to clean it up when the press come through, but back here, on the streets away from all the tourists, it always was and always would be a different story.
“So, your first Mardi Gras,” Gene said. “What’s next on your stereotypical college student list? The spring break in Cancun?”
“Oh hell, nah. I’ve still got scarring from my last spring break at the beach and that was the friggin’ Jersey Shore. I know a guy whose done some work in Mexico. That is not a place I want to get mixed up in. Or Jamaica.”
Babe toed at a piece of broken concrete. “I spend most of my time-off visiting my buddy Bill. He’s usually in D.C., but sometimes it’s Kentucky or Texas. All depends on where the job takes him.” He smiled up at Gene, his brown eyes flashing in the glare of the streetlights. “What about you? Where do you go when you’re not chained to your stethoscope?”
“Backwoods Cajun towns where my kin live, a friends place in North Carolina, Gulf Coast when I need to get away. Louisiana got just about all I want or need.”
“Just about?” Babe asked.
“Don’t be a wiseass,” Gene said. He nudged Babe back onto the sidewalk towards his hotel. He dropped his hand down, letting it brush Babe’s as they walked the streets.
“This typical for you, Edward?” he asked. “You always go out with guys who stitch up your head in a city you never been to?”
“Gotta be honest with ya, Doc. I do it everywhere I go. I just got a thing for sutures.”
“You know there are folks like that out there.”
“God I don’t want to think about it.” Babe intertwined their fingers. “I don’t do this, ever,” he said, suddenly serious.
“You should be. My ma tells me I’m quite the catch.”
Gene laughed at that but didn’t doubt it. Edward Heffron clearly had a strong sense of loyalty and family, if nothing else.
It wasn’t a long walk to Babe’s hotel, only about two miles, and they both walked at a slow pace. Babe was leaving in the morning, flying out right when Gene started his next shift. This was supposed to be something fun, a friendship, maybe more, but Gene couldn’t help the sense of loss that kept creeping up. This right here, laughing and talking with this young man, practically a stranger, just felt right.
And despite all the promises of keeping in contact, including a threat or two Babe made over dinner about hiring a former spy he knew to comb the bayous for Gene’s location, he still couldn’t stop the fear that this was it. It was alarming. Gene didn’t do this. He didn’t date his patients, he didn’t outright fear the departure of men he just met, and he was never this sentimental.
Somewhere Merl-Francis was lying around and laughing his ass off for no reason.
They stopped across the way from Babe’s hotel. There were already a few college kids out on the streets, half-wasted.
“And there’s the great John Julian,” Babe murmured, his eyes fixed on a young man in a pair of raggedy jeans and a Phillies jersey. He looked vaguely like Babe in the distance, but his voice came out louder, less of an obvious accent and lacking in the confidence Babe and Spina spoke with ease.
“He the youngest of your gang?”
“Do you have a degree in psychology too?”
Gene shrugged. “You and Spina talk about him like a younger sibling, someone who needs watching after.”
“He stumbles into trouble.”
Gene gave a pointed look at Babe’s head.
“Hey, a quarter of this wound is on Julian’s shoulders,” he said. “At least I have the brains to call someone if I get into trouble I can’t talk my way out of. Julian, well, he’s the trusting kind.”
Gene felt his eyebrow rise.
“Hey, I brought back-up on my first meeting with you. In a crowded place.”
“So, do you—.” Babe was cut off by Gene’s pager.
“Merde,” Gene cursed. He wasn’t supposed to be on-call.
“Work?” Babe asked.
Gene nodded, trying not to let the annoyance get the better of him. “I wasn’t supposed to be on-call, but…” he trailed off.
“Deluge,” Babe finished. “Well,” he sighed, “that fucking sucks.”
Gene nodded. “I’ve got to go,” he said. He let his fingers grip Babe’s wrist. “You’ve made for a very interesting few days, Edward Heffron.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” Babe said. He used his free hand to tilt Gene’s chin up. He pressed a chaste kiss to his lips. “Couldn’t leave without doing that first.”
Gene smiled and kissed Babe again. It wasn’t a perfect kiss, not that those really existed. They both had chapped lips, Babe’s probably from Philly’s winter and Gene’s from his current work schedule. Babe smelled like hotel shampoo and Gene probably wore the antiseptic smell of the hospital. Still, there was something more there. They were both holding back, they had to. A street corner in New Orleans wasn’t the safest place, and Gene should have left five minutes ago. But it was nice to have this, just this, simple and sweet for a few seconds more.
Gene pulled back and rested his forehead against Babe’s. He dropped his hand and forced himself back. “I really have to go but Edward Heffron, if you do not call me after you land tomorrow I will send the very terrifying group of Recon Marines I know to find you and put the fear of god into your soul.”
“Duly noted,” Babe said. “I’ll see ya around, Gene.”
“You better,” he replied. He gave Babe one last look before jogging off to the nearest streetcar stop. Some member of the hospital staff was about to get a new asshole, but Gene still had a job to do and people to take care of.
His personal cell phone buzzed with a text message.
So, just how many Recon Marines do you know?
It felt good to return to St. Boniface, even if the house smelled musty from closed windows and unoccupied rooms. There was a pile of mail on the table, brought in just like Remy promised, and Evie had clearly been by if the stocked fridge was any clue.
Gene dropped his duffle bag in the laundry room and plopped down on the couch. His cell phone rang to the tune of Born on the Bayou which could only mean one person was calling. Gene jumped toward the phone and threw it open.
“When the hell did you get back to Pendleton?” he asked.
“Nice to hear from you too, Gene-Baptiste. Renée shot me an e-mail, told me you were doing something stupid down in New Orleans. Now I gotta be all busy with checking flights down there and I just got back.”
“Stay put, you swamp rat. It ain’t none of your or Renée’s business but I’ll go ahead and tell you anyway. These poor people don’t need you tear-assing through their streets.” He paused, trying to find a way to tell Merriell without letting on how much the past week meant. Not that it would work. Merriell would know, he always did. “I met a guy.”
“A patient,” Merriell said, not bothering to hide the sneer.
“For twenty-fives minutes.”
“You stitched up his head. You got his blood on you. What happened to that rule of no exchange of bodily fluids before the first official date? Even if it was the ER, that’s still a patient.”
“He’s not a regular patient, not even someone from Louisiana.”
“That’s damn near blasphemous. You trying to spoil your proud Cajun blood line?”
“Merl-Francis I am the spoiled proud Cajun blood line.”
“For which your Paw-Paw weeps. So, you met a guy.”
“It was coffee and a dinner, nothing else. We’re keeping in touch in this modern age of technology. That’s it. Now let’s talk about the more pressing matters, like are you finally done with your exercise to rejoin polite society?”
“Now you know I ain’t never been fit for polite society.”
“I’d hoped the brainwashing took this time.”
“I’m still the modern mystery,” Merriell said. Gene could hear the puff of smoke he blew into the receiver. “I’m just going through the final steps for my retirement.”
The retirement was something Merriell wasn’t too happy about but Gene knew, they all knew, he couldn’t go back. “Tell me when to come get you,” he said.
“I can do it myself.”
“If you can get out here by next week it would be much appreciated. I do need some help with the move.”
“What happened to your harem?”
“They’ve all left, except Burgie. Said he can’t trust me not to burn the apartment complex down.”
“Don’t make me come down there and kick your ass twice over.”
“I’d like to see your skinny-ass try.”
“It wasn’t just coffee and a dinner, was it?”
“We’re not talking about this.”
“We might not, but I am. Didn’t take you for the romantic comedy cliché type.”
“Really, you want to go there?”
“I just want to make sure he’s good enough for my Gene-Baptiste.”
“He’s loyal and cares about his friends. If nothing else, that should make him good enough to pass your initial inspection.”
“Still want to meet him.”
“Jesus Christ, Merriell, I just met the guy.”
“You’ll see him again.”
“Oh I will? You like your Great Aunt Millie now? Seeing the future in playing cards?”
“Don’t mock the spirits, Gene-Baptiste, they’ll come back to bite you.” He paused. “You’re not forgettable.”
“And neither are you,” Gene argued.
“We’re not talking about that,” Merriell said in a tone that meant that conversational topic was done.
Gene didn’t push. Some things just couldn’t be hashed out over the phone. “So, next week?” He laid back on the couch, listening to Merriell go off about his apartment complex, life, the universe, and cab drivers with more attitude than Ray Person on Ripped Fuel.
He sorted through the mail while he listened, pausing when he found a card with a Philadelphia postmark. He ripped it open and smiled at the picture inside. It was of Babe and Gene at Café Du Monde.
On the back, in a strong, clear hand, it read Spina is both a stalker and an asshole.
Below that, in a scratchier version of penmanship followed, Just documenting the clearly momentous occasion.
Gene smiled widely, stood up, and placed the picture on the fridge, right in the middle.