Hit Me Page 18

It was evening, and Jenny had gone to bed, clutching her new rabbit. Julia and Keller were at the kitchen table, drinking coffee with chicory.

“I wasn’t sure it would work,” he said.

“But you came home anyway.”

“Well, if it didn’t work, what was I going to do about it? I didn’t have anything else to try.” He thought for a moment. “Besides, I was ready to come home. I had you and Jenny to come home to.”

“Otherwise you’d have stayed there.”

“Probably. But there wouldn’t have been any real point to it.”

“More coffee?”

“No, I’m good. Does it bother you that he was a priest?”

“No, why should it?”

“Well, it’s your church.”

“Only in the most tenuous way. I’m the child of lapsed Catholics. I was baptized, that was their sole concession to their own upbringing, but it was pretty much the extent of my own involvement with the Church.”

“I never asked you if you wanted Jenny baptized.”

“Don’t you think I’d have said something? Do you even know what baptism is for?”

“Isn’t it to make you a Catholic?”

“No, darling, guilt is what makes you a Catholic. What baptism does is rid you of original sin. Do you suppose our daughter is greatly weighed down by the burden of original sin?”

“I don’t even know how you could go about finding an original sin these days.”

“I suppose selling somebody else’s kidney might qualify. And no, what do I care about some fat drunken priest whose greatest boast was that all his sins were strictly heterosexual? You want to know what’s exciting?”


“That you can tell me all this. That we can sit here drinking coffee—”

“Damn good coffee, too.”

“—and either of us can tell the other anything about anything, and how many people have anything like that? God, though, I have to say I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me, too,” Keller said.



When Julia and Jenny got home from day care, Keller was sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a magazine, The American Stamp Dealer & Collector. He’d picked it up after he got off the phone, but couldn’t keep his mind on what he was reading. It was restless, darting all over the place. So he was more than happy to set it aside and ask his daughter what she’d learned in school that morning.

It wasn’t a school, and the harried woman who ran it didn’t try to teach her charges much; she was happy if she managed to keep them from hitting each other and screaming their little heads off. But Jenny, Julia had reported, called it school, and took the whole enterprise very seriously. As far as she was concerned, she went there to learn stuff, and it seemed to piss her off that they weren’t teaching her to read.

So Julia had picked up a book on phonics, and Jenny was learning to sound words out. You couldn’t always understand what she was saying, because there were words she couldn’t yet get her tongue around, but damned if she wasn’t reading.

She had her lunch and went in for her nap, and Keller asked Julia if she’d like to go on a cruise.

“A cruise,” she said. “You mean like on a ship? Yes, of course that’s what you mean. A cruise. You know, that sounds heavenly. When were you thinking? In the winter?”

“Actually,” he said, “it would be sooner than that.”

“Late fall?”

“A lot sooner.”

“Oh. Can you get away?”

“There’s no work,” he said. “Getting away has never been less of a problem. Donny called me this morning, very apologetic. He’s hired on with a contractor based over in Slidell. Says the pay’s not much but he’s sick of sitting in front of the TV while he runs through his savings. At least he’ll have something to do and some money coming in.”

“That part’s good. But he must feel awful.”

Donny Wallings had given Keller a job when he’d first moved in with Julia, and almost before Keller knew it he’d found himself a partner in an enterprise that bought distressed homes, patched them up, and flipped them. That worked well in the early post-Katrina days, but then the economy cratered and there was no money to be had for home renovation loans, no money to finance home sales. And, just like that, no business.

“He was concerned about us,” Keller said. “But I told him we were okay.”

“Are we? I mean I know we are, but can we afford to pick up and go on a cruise? You know, if we can it’s actually the perfect kind of vacation. I bet Jenny’d love it, too. There are plenty of cruises out of New Orleans, and you can literally walk from here to the cruise port. Unless our ship uses the Poland Avenue terminal, and that’s what, a ten-minute ride?”

“We’d be leaving from Fort Lauderdale,” he said.

“In Florida?” She looked at him. “You’ve got a particular cruise in mind. Did somebody call this morning? Besides Donny?”

He’d just got off the phone with Donny when it rang again. He picked it up, and Dot said, “Keller, I can’t help thinking you need a vacation. But before I go any further, there’s something I have to ask you. Do you get seasick?”


“You know, rushing to the rail, tossing your cookies, feeding the fish? Seasick, Keller. What happens to you on the high seas?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“You’ve never been on a boat? And the Staten Island Ferry doesn’t count.”

“I’ve been on the Gulf,” he said. “I don’t know if that counts. A friend of Julia’s, well, he and his wife are actually friends of both of us by now—”

“Do I really need to know that part, Keller?”

“Probably not. I’ve been out a few times. Fishing, but I have to admit I never caught anything.”

“But you didn’t get seasick? Have they got waves there?”

“It’s the Gulf of Mexico,” he said, “so yes, there are waves, but they don’t toss you around all that much. One time it was a little choppy, but I hardly noticed it.”

“So you’re a good sailor, Keller. And the cruise ships have stabilizers, and you can always take Dramamine, so I’m sure you’ll do fine. Keller? Where’d you go?”

“I’m right here, waiting for you to tell me what you’re talking about.”

“Oh,” she said, “I thought it was perfectly obvious. You’re going on a cruise.”

“Saturday,” Julia said. “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Why are you looking at me like that?”

“If you were Jenny,” he said, “I’d congratulate you for getting your days right.”

“My point is there’s not much time.”

“I know.”

“I suppose we’d have to fly over there on Friday.”

“The ship doesn’t sail until late afternoon. We could get a flight Saturday morning and be there in plenty of time.”

“It sails from Fort Lauderdale and returns to Fort Lauderdale. So you’re back where you started. There’s a pointlessness about it that’s curiously appealing.”

“There is?”

“Yet at the same time,” she said, “it won’t be entirely pointless, will it? You’ll be working.”

“That’s right, and I can see where that might be a deal-breaker right there. There’s something I’ll have to do.”

“Something you’ll have to do. Some passenger for whom the cruise will have a surprise ending. Do they still bury people at sea?”

“I don’t think so.”

“There’s probably an ecological argument against it, though I couldn’t think why. People are biodegradable, aren’t they?” She stepped behind him, put her hands on his shoulders, and began to knead the muscles. “You’re all tense,” she announced. “This feel good?”


“I know what you do,” she said, “and I don’t entirely know how I feel about it, but I don’t seem to mind. I honestly don’t.”

“I know.”

“But I’m not there when it happens, am I? And in a sense I wouldn’t be this time either, in that I wouldn’t be in the room when—when what? When push came to shove?”

“When it goes down,” he suggested.

“That works. I wouldn’t be in the room, or I suppose you call it a cabin. Or is it a stateroom? Is there a difference between a cabin and a stateroom?”

“I have no idea.”

“Does Dot know you’re thinking about taking me along?”

“She suggested it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“She apologized for the fact that it wasn’t that long since New York, and I said I didn’t really feel like being separated from you again so soon. ‘It’s a nice big cabin,’ she said. ‘Plenty of room for two.’ And she went on to say I’d be a lot less conspicuous if I had a companion.”

“That actually makes sense.”

“I guess.”

“‘Look at that handsome gentleman all by himself. I wonder what his story might be.’ But with me along you’re far less interesting. I want to come.”

“To make me less interesting?”

“Partly that. Partly because I’ve never been on a cruise. Partly because I don’t feel like being home in New Orleans while you’re island-hopping. And partly because it scares me.”

“Then why—”

“‘Do the thing you’re afraid of.’ I read that somewhere. Don’t ask me where.”

“I won’t.”

“But as for taking Jenny—”


“Even if I were deranged enough to think it was a good idea, we don’t have time to get her a passport. She’d need one, wouldn’t she?”

“It doesn’t matter, because neither of us is nuts enough to take her. But yes, she’d have to have a passport.”

“These days you just about need one to cross a state line. Well, this way she’ll have her own vacation.” She went to the phone, dialed a number she didn’t have to look up. She said, “Claudia? Julia Edwards. Darlin’, Nicholas told me how Donny’s hired on with a crew, and I just want to say I was glad to hear it. Not that he had to but that he was able to, you know? And I know Nicholas already told Donny that we’re fine here, but I wanted to say so myself, to you…”

Keller knew where the conversation was headed, but didn’t feel the need to listen to it. He reached for his magazine and got lost in an article about a recently discovered cache of letters to and from a young Mississippian in Pemberton’s army who’d been killed during Grant’s siege of Vicksburg. He surfaced in time to hear Julia say she had a real big favor to ask, and Claudia should feel completely comfortable saying no. Then he went back to a letter filled with the youth’s big plans for after the war was over. The letter was dated March 7, 1863, at which time its author had all of three months to live.

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