Orange and Yellow
Drinking a therapeutic concoction of herbs wasn’t the worst part of the healing tea treatment. Gerald’s mother-in-law, Sonia Bonnefoi, had warned him about the taste. “It’s bitter,” she said. “That’s how you know it’s medicine.” It was the night-long purge that broke his spirit and left him burning as though shedding his skin from the inside out. After the sweating and shivering had stopped, he entered dream sleep.
He was a young man, again, walking the empty downtown streets of his hometown alone. Colours came vividly, each with a meaning and a voice like shouting or whispering. White was the inside of his church, countless Sundays spent looking at the ceiling of white plaster and thousands of cracks intertwined like spider webs. Where one ended, the next picked up the thread, never broken, and he was as small as a seed at the source of the sprayed lines overhead. Black was a heavy canvas overhang of the drugstore where his girlfriend first touched his hand and shared his ice cream soda, the memory of cold sweetness on his lips like an antidote to the bitter therapy. Yellow was aggressive and blinding, the childhood home he painted one summer with his father, oddly bright like Van Gogh’s house in Arles where the artist’s earlobe was cut off. Blue was the ice pond in Maine where he skated as a boy, powdered snow misting his face, his heart pounding because while dreaming he knew those times were over. He would never again feel as he did then.
The realization was enough to bring him back to the dark, still room. He turned over and vomited into a bucket beside the bed.
He wanted to walk through the colours some more when his wife, Helen, came in to rub his back and press a cool cloth to his forehead. She whispered all the things they could return to doing when he recovered—shopping for antiques, having champagne brunches with other couples.The expectation of his crawling back to the artistic circle he’d once ruled over made him turn over on his side and push her hand away. He understood her attempt at encouragement but in his suffering, he wondered why couldn’t she let him be? In the dark, he blamed her. If she hadn’t pushed him to be better, he could carry on in his new sham life as the elite neighbourhood vagabond with the signature white hat who sips wine in cafés. Couldn’t she see this was all he was—a tired, confused, old man no one cared about?
He woke, again, when the cat jumped on his bed and stretched across his legs. Sonia entered the room and threw open the curtains. The glare of morning filled the window frame with orange and yellow. She went over to the bucket and looked at its contents.
“Looks like you have a heart problem, too. You’ll need to get that checked,” she said. Those first words after a long night normally would’ve angered him if he’d had the energy. In the only protest he could muster, he sat up too quickly and saw the room spin. Her gentle touch on his shoulder calmed him. “I can see you don’t care for me right now. Just remember, now your body can heal. Did you see what you were looking for?” He hesitated. “Maybe I did. I don’t know.”
“When you know, you will be cured of this ailment,” she said and limped away while massaging her bad hip.
At night, as he went through the cleansing, a thunderstorm had rumbled and crackled outside, but now the sunshine was bright, and birds sang as they perched among new blossoms. After dressing, he went downstairs to the kitchen. Fresh air entered softly through the open window. The coffee had already been made. The black cat slept curled on a chair. Sonia read the newspaper, her face hidden. The headlines were about bad news in other places but add one small misstep and a headline could’ve been about him. Instead, another man was having the bad day that could’ve been his, perhaps should’ve been his.
Gerald fixed a plate of eggs and toast.
“I can overcome this on my own. I don’t need any more help,” he muttered fiercely to himself.
Sonia spoke from behind a leaf of newspaper. “Who knows the right thing? Thinkin’ about it and tryin’ to change, that’s a misperception there. You don’t change with your head. You do it with doing. It’s a mistake to try to put a righteous action over a tainted one. You must take the old covering off first. The good one won’t go on over. It just fits, and you can’t get it on over anything. Take the old off, I say.”
“I’m not a religious man.”
“Religion?” she said, looking over a leaf of paper. “It’s called having fortitude and common sense!”
Helen came in and touched his back as she went by. “You should drink a lot of water today and no caffeine. Do you want me to run you a bath?”
Sonia scowled at her daughter. “He’s not a child.” To Gerald she said, “You’re not a child. You’re a 60-year-old man. Listen to me. I’ve heard all about your eye trouble, your hallucinations or what have you. Your eyes are speaking to you, and now that they have your attention, you need to spend some time understanding what they say instead of spending all day on the street like a hobo. My Helen should not be wandering the streets at night looking for you. Your eyes cannot speak English or French, so don’t use your head.” She scanned the kitchen. “I got something to see to. Bébé, go get my purse in the hallway, would you?”
When Helen returned with the purse, Sonia rummaged through it for pen and paper and scribbled a name and address.
“Murphy’s Drugstore in New Orleans. They have remedies for every manner of ailment, I guarantee it. Don’t stare at me with bug eyes. I know you know it’s a hoodoo shop. Every problem you can imagine goes in their door. You tell Miss Geneviève you’ve taken my medicine already. You can go while you’re there for your art thing today. Get it done! No point in being idle now.”
After a short while on the highway, Gerald and Helen approached New Orleans.
Helen instructed him, “Don’t tell the employees about your problems. At these hoodoo shops, they put spells on customers to get them to spend money. If that doesn’t work, they try to upsell. You tell them your problem, and they say you need ten things to fix it.”
“I haven’t made up my mind about going.”
She laughed in a forced way. “I thought that’s what all this was for. I thought that’s why we went to see my mother. You know her way of treating health problems.”
“What would people say if they knew I’d resorted to using folk medicine?”
“No one will know unless we tell them, Gerry.”
He tried to bring some levity into the conversation. “I feel better. Maybe Sonia’s strange concoction has cured me,” he said. “Why don’t you come with me to the fundraiser? You might see some people you know.”
He glanced at her to see if she had a reaction. Her face was calm.
She said, “You should follow through with the drugstore and be done with it. It won’t hurt you to go and it could help. Be polite, be friendly, but know your boundaries. Talk only to Miss Geneviève.”
Quietly, he said, “It occurred to me I could bear it if you went to the fundraiser with me.” She looked at him and raised her eyebrows. “You know I never go to the charity art auction events anymore.”
“I’m having lunch with Marcus afterward. Come with me,” he said and instantly regretted it.
“You said I’d only be bored. You told me it was a distraction with me there.”
“I know, I just thought…”
“Oh, Gerry, you really want me to come?”
She looked expectant like the young woman he met years ago. Only now it was as though she’d been waiting for the real him, not this changed him, to show his face, but he didn’t know who that was anymore.
“You’re probably right. Not exactly your scene, as you said. Maybe it’s best if you see your friends and I go to this thing and have lunch with Marcus.”
He glanced at her. Her head turned away to face the window.
“We can visit our favourite spots afterward and go to dinner,” he said.
“Fine, fine,” she replied.
After a few minutes, she said, “I want you to be well. That’s all I want.” She held her gaze on him now. “Would you do that for me?”
He told her he would.
While Helen visited friends, Gerald went to the art auction fundraiser and had lunch afterward with two men. Jim was a wealthy donor from Florida who had recently begun purchasing art to reflect his sudden dramatic wealth from cell phone grips that attach to just about anything. The other, his friend Marcus, was a painter. Since Gerald’s art critiquing had ended abruptly with his eye trouble, he’d become a consultant to wealthy clients, making art deals on commission. They may as well have hired someone younger and hungrier, who’d hustle and pretend to like people, but Gerald needed a good piece to sustain his reputation, and such things still mattered to him.
“The auctioneer was good,” Jim said as they sat at a table outdoors.
“He should be. He prepped for hours,” Marcus replied.
Gerald’s interest in talking shop had drained away. He tried to change the subject. “I haven’t been here in some time. You can see the work they’ve been doing on the river, redirecting it,” he said.
Marcus shook his head. “I’ll never understand why they think they can do a better job making a river than Mother Nature herself. It’s a kind of institutional arrogance. The river will have its way. We know that. We live with the risk.”
“They have to find a solution,” said Gerald.
“There is none except for the next disaster,” Marcus added. “They think we don’t know what they’re doing and we’re a bunch of dummies, but they’re hiding in plain view, like politicians and their donors.”
The server came and asked to take their order.
“I’ll have the chicken and a green salad,” said Jim.
The server said they had an arugula salad. Would that do?
“Surely, and a Dr. Pepper and some crackers to go with that salad.”
“I’ll try the pasta with pesto sauce. Let’s have a bottle of Pinot Noir, too,” said Marcus.
“The same,” Gerald said.
The server nodded his approval, collected the menus, and went away. When he came back, he brought a glass of soda and a bottle of wine, popping the cork and filling two glasses. Jim lifted his soda, saying in his toast, “Two things you can’t get in Florida—jalapeños and Dr. Pepper. Cheers.”
“That’s fascinating,” said Gerald and raised his glass before downing half the glass. New Orleans brought out the fighter in him, the one who owned his life instead of timidly wondering whether or not the pieces of his life would come back.
Jim said, “Plenty of things you can get anywhere—hookers, for instance. Not that I ever tried. You can’t tell them from anyone else. Maybe you meet someone at a bar, but you’ll never know if she’s a hooker, a college girl, or a cop until it’s too late. Used to be you could tell. Not that I would know.”
“You’re crazy,” Marcus said.
“I’m a by-the-book kind of fellow now,” Jim said.
Their meals arrived. When Jim’s chicken and salad came, he took a bite, winced, and dropped the fork. “I didn’t come all this way to eat hamster food. Hell, pass me the bread and butter,” he said and tossed the ice water into a bush. “Fill up this glass with wine.” He drank. “Ah, like warm velvet.”
Marcus laughed. “You know what they say: ‘All roads lead to sin.’”
Jim asked, “Is that what they say?”
“Sure. Know what comes next?”
“You’re about to tell me.”
“You ever slipped with your wife?” Marcus said.
“Nope, never slipped. Been married twenty years. No point in slipping now.” Gerald was following the conversation in silence as he drank. He could feel the warmth of the alcohol in his veins, in his mind’s eye see it opening sweetly his closed spaces. The men looked at him and laughed. “Come on, Gerry!” Marcus said.
“Hmm? No, of course not. Helen and I love each other very much.”
In this relaxed state, he would not come out and tell the truth—Helen was unhappy. He hadn’t touched her for some time and was often foul-tempered. Some nights he got out of bed and went to the living room to sit and think. When he couldn’t reach a decision from thinking, he fretted over losing her at this late stage in the game.
“It’s got nothing to do with love, you know that,” Marcus scoffed. “Helen is a lovely lady, I’d like to add.”
“Marriage is a kind of tug-o’-war,” Jim said, pointing his fork at Gerald for emphasis. “You do slip, and Helen’s gonna torture you the rest of your life. Maybe even come into your bed at night and cut you.”
“She would never!” Gerald said.
“Did you hear about that woman who locked her husband in the bedroom after he got drunk and rough and then he got out and shot everybody with a pistol?” said Marcus. “Where was that at?” asked Jim.
“Down in…you know where I mean, twenty miles from Thibodeaux. He shot the four kids and they killed themselves, the parents did,” Marcus said.
“Oh, he killed the four kids?” Jim said.
“That’s what they say.”
“She killed herself after?”
“The news said that, but I don’t know if I believe it. He probably killed her, too. She was probably the first to go. They always kill the woman first. The kids came after. He was mentally disturbed. Delusional,” Marcus said, shaking his head. “The devil whispered something in his ear, and he went over the edge.”
Jim said, “I heard he came from a big family. He had friends. It doesn’t make sense. There had to be something wrong with him to crack like that. Hallucinations. Voodoo. It infected his mind.”
Fear sparked in Gerald. There were those words—hallucinations, voodoo! With the turn in their conversation, his happiness—once alive in the banter of their conversation—flickered in a dark place.
“That’s not right,” he said and looked at Marcus for support.
Marcus said, “That’s not voodoo. That’s something else. Voodoo is a religion with gods and rituals to help you get through life. All we got around here now are shops for tourists.”
“How do you know?” Jim said.
“I live here, don’t I? We shouldn’t be talking about it casually in conversation at the table. It’s bad luck. Bottom line, people need to keep their business in their pocket, do their job and follow Jesus. Those poor people were unlucky,” said Marcus.
Jim said, “No matter. Even if the kids survived, they’d of had nothing. I can only speculate if my parents killed themselves how I would’ve ended up. I’d be seeing doctors my whole life. Maybe become a pervert or a thief or something.”
Marcus said, “I don’t understand it.”
“Some people are so messed up they don’t even know what they’re doing to people.”
“We all have to die,” Gerald said, “but what a terrible way to go.”
Drinking steadily, he downed his glass and waved for another bottle. A wave of dizziness swept over him. He placed a glass of ice water against his head, and the spell quickly disappeared. He noticed Marcus watching him. He dreaded moments like this when he’d have to explain himself.
As calmly as he could, he asked, “What is it?”
Marcus said, “We’ve been friends for, how long now, about ten years? I just realized I don’t know what you’re running from.”
“Every person runs. You carry it with you, this thing. Come on. Tell your old buddy your secret.”
Gerald thought for a moment. He would not tell them about his marriage (because it would be inappropriate) or how he feared a descent into dementia more than death. He would not tell them about his mother-in-law’s treatment and his hallucinations followed by ecstasy (because the teasing would never end). He was a dignified man who had given in to folk remedies. He settled on the most personal without giving away too much.
“A funny thing happened. One year ago, I was sitting at my desk writing and when I looked up, the room had changed, as if someone had come in and replaced the table and chairs. After that, whenever I have an episode, I stop what I’m doing and leave for a few hours until it passes,” he said.
The men stopped eating and looked at him.
“Have you been to a doctor?” Marcus said.
“Yes, of course.”
“What is it?”
“Maybe dementia, maybe stress. The tests are inconclusive. My eyes are fine,” Gerald said and added reluctantly, “I’m thinking of retiring.”
Jim said, “Not a bad idea. I’m ready for it myself.” He reached for the butter. “Maybe he shouldn’t,” Marcus said. “I have one Gerry’s never heard before. My friends and I got drunk at our high school homecoming and went to a palm reader as a joke. She told me if I didn’t stop drinking by the time I turned 30, I’d get sick and die within five years. I’m still here,” he said, raising his glass above his head.
Gerald patted him on the back. “You’re going to die, but she got the date wrong.” Jim said, “Have you ever thought about what you want to be done after you die?”
“Here we go,” said Marcus.
“Let’s change the topic, gentlemen,” Gerald said.
Marcus said, “That’s the wine talking. When I kick the bucket, I want to have a Hurricane on the rocks in my hand and my lady love in my arms. I want to be cremated. That way all my friends, like dear, old Gerry here, can take a handful of my ashes and spread them anywhere—in the river,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder, “in the backyard, hell, sneak me into some concrete and make me part of one of those new buildings going up over in Marigny.”
“Ever the pragmatist,” Gerald said and motioned for the check. He wanted the talking to end and to lie down somewhere alone.
Gerald excused himself and paid the bill before there was any argument. When they stepped outside, Marcus embraced him and told him to be well. Gerald walked unsteadily to his car and fumbled with his keys. When he got in, he promptly fell asleep and dreamed of flowing colour, and he was a boat floating on a river of cool, soft mud into a black hole. He woke when Helen called.
“Are you picking me up now or later?”
“I can come get you now,” he said.
“Are you hung over?”
“I knew I should’ve gone with you. What did you have? Never mind, I don’t want to know. Get yourself a cup of coffee and go see Miss Geneviève, honey, and I’ll meet you at St. Augustine in the square at three-thirty. Don’t argue with me. I’ll see you soon,” she said and hung up.
Gerald went back into the restaurant to get some coffee to go and drove through city neighbourhoods until arriving at Murphy’s Drugstore. A small sign indicated it was a seller of root remedies, candles, herbs, and charms for believers and non-believers alike.
When he arrived, he stood on the sidewalk and looked around to be sure no one he knew saw him considering the place. The storefront was a plain building with vines of ivy on the sides and along the windows. They were respectable-looking windows. Surely nothing so horrible could come from such a place. Inside, the wood flooring was worn. The place smelled of herbs and burning candles. The interior of the store was mercifully dark and cool.
In the store, three people stood in line—a man wearing a hard hat, a young woman in a dress suit, and another woman with bangles along her arms. When his turn came, he gave his name, and a woman came from behind the counter to take his hand.
“I’m Miss Geneviève. Sonia Bonnefoi said to expect you. Come on in the back with me,” she said.
She led him down a long aisle, reciting the contents of the shelves—bayberry candles, brown bottles of oils of narcissus and myrrh, statues of Mary, Caribbean herbs for Yoruba spells and Santeria palos from spirit trees, snakeskins, bath salts and charms.
“We have candles for steady work, candles for want-a-man, candles to keep the law away and for finding a job. The most we sell are for people looking for work,” she explained. She led him into a room in the back of the store and shut the door behind her. He fiddled nervously with a toothpick in his pocket. “I don’t buy into folk medicine ordinarily. I’m only here as a last resort,” he explained.
“If I had a dime for every time I heard that,” she said and motioned him to a seat. Gerald sat in a metal chair in front of a painting of Jude, patron saint of hope and impossible causes, staring directly at him, and a small table of burning candles. She sat next to him and said, “Tell me about your problems, and I’ll try to help you.” As he told her about the episodes, she nodded and frowned. She said, “Something has taken up residence in your body. I have just the thing. Hang on a minute.” She rose and went to a desk where she studied an open book, flipping tattered pages. She went over to where he sat, touched his shoulder, and moved her lips silently. Back at the desk on a folded card she wrote his prescription. “You’re to say these words out loud, recite Psalm 59, ‘Deliver me from my enemies, O God…’ and burn a ‘stay away’ candle every day until the symptoms stop.”
It seemed easy. Too easy.
“That’s all?” he said. “Excuse me, Miss Geneviève. Are you sure?”
“I’m certain if you let this spirit go, your life will be there waiting for you,” she said. When he took out his wallet to pay her, she shooed him out the door. “It’s getting late, and you’ve had a big day,” she said.
With the windows down, Gerald drove to the square with new eyes. He was not prepared for the lush beauty of the day—the bluest sky, the deepest green of the trees, the people moving in sync. The colors made sense! He wanted to taste flavors rolling in his mouth, drink the sweet warmth of fruit, smell the air while floating in it and roll his skin in the dirt. The hunger of the living was endless. If the medicine he’d taken hadn’t purged him of this illness, if some days he saw a room in a different way, bigger and brighter, he could live with it. He could befriend it. He wasn’t crazy. He had an awareness of life and its movement with or without him. A new dimension to life opened, something that may have lived inside him forever, and he was the smallest part of it. When he reached the square, he pulled over. Helen sat with her eyes closed and face turned up to the sun. He watched her for a while until she caught sight of him. She went over and got in, and when her worried look melted into a small smile, he knew she saw it, too. He leaned in and kissed her.
“Let’s go home, darling,” she said.
As they drove away, Gerald took Miss Geneviève’s incantation paper from his pocket, rolled down the window, and let it fly away.
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