THE MULE CARRIAGE
Annie couldn't remember when she last felt this good. For years, her legs had been too weak to stand. Even if she could stand, an alarm would go off.
A cord, clipped to her gown, ran to a small box fastened to the back of her wheel chair, notifying Mrs. Thibodaux that Annie had slipped and needed attention. Tonight, for some reason, the alarm cord was disconnected and Annie knew that she had the strength, knew that she could stand. For the first time in four years, she could stand again! Once on her feet, the next step was obvious. She would escape through the front door before anyone noticed.
It wasn't that Mrs. Thibodaux's nursing home was unpleasant. The meals were small but decent, the room was clean, and Mrs. Thibodaux was there to count the medications and assist with sanitary needs. Nevertheless, it was not a licensed nursing home, and Annie knew it. The three story neoclassical structure on New Orleans' Royal Street was home to seven elderly women and a sweet old landlady who exchanged their endorsed Social Security checks for room, board, and minimal personal care. Unlike a real nursing home, there were no outings, no trips to musical venues or city parks. And that, thought Annie, was the problem.
Annie was surprised how easy it was to slip out the door unnoticed. She made it no more than half a block down Royal Street when one of the dozens of mule-drawn carriages that trot tourists around the French Quarter pulled up next to her.
"Ride, Ma'am?" asked the handsome young driver.
"I ain't got no money," said Annie.
"Then this is your special day," said the driver. "I know what you're lookin' to see and tonight your ride is free."
"Sir, I can't even give you a tip," smiled Annie.
"And I wouldn't accept one." said the driver as he helped her into the carriage. "My name's Gabe," he added.
"They call me Annie," the old woman replied.
The carriage trotted just a few blocks down the road before Gabe pulled on the reins and brought his mules to a halt in front of a club on Bourbon Street.
"I'll be right back, Annie," Gabe said as he jumped down from the driver's box and dashed into the club. She wished she could have gone in with him. She could hear the sax and trumpet inside playing "When the Saints". It was the most beautiful rendition of the song she had ever heard.
In a flash, Gabe walked out of the club with an elderly black man that Annie immediately recognized.
"You're Lips Nelson," said Annie as the man climbed up next to her in the carriage. "I heard you retired, that you had cancer."
"That's true, ma'am. I just wanted to stop by at the club tonight to see if the boys would let me sit in for one more set. I tried but I just don't have the wind for playin' trumpet no more. Lost my lip, too. Felt like I was going to faint. Then I my friend Gabe grabbed hold of me. He used to run a streetcar here in N'awlins before they tore up the tracks. Used to play the trumpet sometimes when he rolled that old streetcar down the center lane. I'd say he inspired my career."
"So, you remember seeing me back then?" asked Gabe. "Most folks don't."
The mules clopped their way down Bourbon Street until they suddenly lurched to a stop next to a young white girl lying face down in the street. Her left cheek rested in a pool of vomit, a mix of stomach acid and numerous drinks with colorful names like Hurricane and Hand Grenades. Three other young women who appeared to Annie to be in their early twenties knelt near their unconscious friend, crying and yelling, "Stacie, Stacie, wake up".
None of them seemed to object when Gabe jumped down, picked up Stacie, and placed her in the shotgun position of the carriage driver's box. Maybe they are just too drunk themselves, thought Annie.
The jolt of the carriage as it moved forward and turned down Conti Street seemed to return the drunken girl to semi-consciousness. Gabe held on to her with a firm grip as she began to trash about and moan. Her speech was slurred, but Annie thought she was saying, "It's too hot, too hot."
"Don't be alarmed", Lips Nelson told Annie. "They get that way sometimes when they've had too much to drink." The carriage zinged and sagged until the Gates of St. Louis Cemetery Number One came into sight.
As Gabe's chariot swung low through the gate, Annie began to remember. She saw her body slumping in her wheelchair and hearing Mrs. Thibodaux say, "She's having a stroke." For an instant, she could see Lips Nelson lying across three chairs in the club, struggling to breathe. Next, there was a vision of Stacie checking her purse for condoms and snorting a line of cocaine in some Bourbon Street ladies' room before staggering into the street.
Annie turned away from the vision and saw a great number of men, women and children marching through the cemetery gate. It was the finest second line she had ever seen and her mother and husband were in it. Inside the gate there was daylight. Gabe's carriage stopped.
"If you want to be in that number, you two best be going," said Gabe. "I have to take Stacy someplace else."