January 19, 2008


Robert Johnson stood on the second floor landing of his family’s home and stared out the large plate glass window at the tour group gathered on the sidewalk in front of his gate. He sipped at his after-lunch tea and wondered idly what sort of person not only decided to come to New Orleans in June, but then decided that they should take a walking tour in the middle of the day.

Though no one outside could see him, Robert made an imposing figure, staring down at them from the landing with a heavy brow. His white classmates frequently describe him as “chill” which not only irritates him to no end but is fundamentally untrue. His demeanor is in fact far beyond chill, past inscrutable, and well into the territory of the statuesque.

This was a particularly ill-looking group today; they looked like rejects from a Midwestern hall of wax left on the curb to melt in the sun. Thick streams of sweat ran up and over their round cheeks, then dripped off one of their chins and into the complementary Mardi Gras beads that are foisted on tourists by hotels, restaurants, and tour companies.

The tour guide was gesturing up at the front of the house with an honest-to-god walking stick. He had his back to Robert, so all Robert could make out was a ponytail (as thick and silky as an actual pony’s tail), some sort of felt vest, and a leather fanny pack. He seemed to be the sort of person who spent his free time doing magic tricks or dressed as a medieval jester. Possibly both.

A tour group stopped in front of Robert’s house a few times a week. Robert often wondered why. Their house was large, yes, and classically beautiful, but so was every other house in his neighborhood. Maybe it was because of who his father was, but he couldn’t really imagine that people flew in from Wisconsin just to stare at a city councilman’s house through sweat-stung eyes.

Once, Robert had been forced to slip politely through a crowd of tourists gathered by his gate. He’d kept his head down and moved with a guilty purposefulness, as though he were being led from a courthouse to a waiting police escort. He didn’t know why…possibly because he didn’t want to hear the true and infamous story behind his home: the legend of a mad widow’s ghost, perhaps, or the gory massacre of a wealthy family two centuries before, never solved.

But as Robert stood at the window with his tea, however, he realized that there could be another explanation why he’d hurried past that day…maybe he was afraid to hear a more banal story behind his house: a unique style of window sash, say, or a typically New Orleans shingle.

Behind him, Robert could hear his mother’s heels come down the hall, pausing as she caught sight of him. He could actually detect the falter of her step before she finally stopped. He knew she was staring down at him, probably adjusting an earring. Robert watched the tour group stumble down the sidewalk as he took a final sip of his tea, holding the saucer up to his chest to catch an unlikely drip.

“It’s 12:30, Robert,” his mother said.

“Thank you.”

His mother didn’t move for a moment, then she clicked off down the hall. What she had meant, of course, was that it was 12:30, the end of the time Robert allocated for himself for lunch, and that it was time for him to get back to his self-imposed summer studies. His parents never forced him to spend his vacation preparing for the upcoming school year, but they certainly approved and facilitated it.

According to the schedule he’d drawn up just the week before, Tuesday at 12:30 meant AP Physics for an hour. He would have to pick up his sister Miranda at the stables at two, which allowed him a generous half hour of driving time.

Back to work. Robert drained his tea and carried the cup and saucer to the downstairs kitchen, then stepped into the small unused pantry he used as an office. He slid the thin plywood door shut behind him. The room was small, barely larger than the cheap desk in the exact center of the floor. Robert had to shuffle sideways on tiptoes to get behind it.

Robert had a desk in his bedroom, of course, a sturdy oak desk that had been his great-grandfather’s, and his house had plenty of other flat surfaces he could study on, but he liked his little pantry. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, it was cramped and stuffy, and it was his favorite place in the world.

Sitting behind the desk, he slipped off his wingtips and corralled them together with his foot. He flipped on the surge protector with his besocked toe, and the desk lamp and small fan turned on.

Robert pulled down the AP workbook Mr. Parker had recommended, and placed it before him, its spine parallel with the edge of the desk. In the larger of the two drawers was a neat stack of legal pads, and each one was labeled with a different subject in his girlfriend’s bubbly handwriting. He chose Psychics—Litta’Bit had been listlessly hanging around the night he was making the labels and he finally put her to work; she thought “Psychics” was hilarious—and gently pushed the drawer closed.

Finally, Robert uncapped his plain black MontBlanc and rested it on the first blank yellow page of his pad. He scooted his chair forward and opened the workbook to the second chapter, tucking the bookmark deeper into the book. With a satisfied sigh he picked up the pen and began writing the date at the top of the page.

His cell phone rang between June and 4. “Damn it,” he whispered. One of the advantages of his “study” was that he got terrible reception in there, and most of his calls went straight to voicemail.

He answered the phone without looking up from his writing. “This is Robert,” he said.

“What?” It was his girlfriend Litta’Bit. “Hello?”

“Hey, hello.” Robert slid out from behind the desk, pleasantly surprised. Litta’Bit usually waited for him to call her. “Hey, I thought about calling you earlier, but I didn’t want to wake you…”

“Yeah, I just got up.”

Robert quickly slid past the desk and stepped back out into the kitchen. He felt silly in his socks, but the reception was much better. “What did you get into last night?”

“Not much. Just hung out.” In the background, Robert could hear her typing something on her computer.

“Oh. Hey, you wanna get together? I gotta pick up Miranda at two, but after I drop her off I could swing by afterwards…”

Litta’Bit sighed. “No, I gotta help my mom pick up the house for the dinner.” Ms. Huynh was having a reception that weekend for some members of the New Orleans school board.

“Ah.” Robert knew it was no good mentioning that Litta’Bit’s family used—in fact, owned—a cleaning service. Litta’Bit’s mom felt that the maids should have as little to do as possible in her home, and tried to get the house spotless before their visit. She didn’t use maids so they’d clean her house; she used maids so they’d go home and brag to their neighbors about how clean Ms. Huynh kept her house. As far as she was concerned, she got her money’s worth.

“So what’s up?” Robert asked. As much as it pained him to admit this, he couldn’t imagine that his girlfriend had called him up just to talk.

“Oh yeah…the Budds left town today.”

“Really? Today?” Robert leaned forward over the sink and stared at his teacup. There was a minuscule puddle of tea in the bottom, with three tea-leaf scraps stranded on the shore. “I thought it was later. I talked to Alexander, I don’t know, three days ago, he didn’t mention it.”

Litta'Bit didn’t answer for a second. She seemed distracted, and Robert tried to remember which of her soap operas was on right then. “Yeah, well, they’re gone. Emily wants us all to get together tonight at David’s around seven.”

“Emily, huh? Classic.”


“So, you want me to pick you up? I could come early, we could get some dinner.”

“No, it’s stupid to run all the way out here just to come right back to town.”

Robert straightened up. “Well, you pick me up, then.”

“Why can’t we just…? Okay, fine, I’ll see you tonight.”

“Okay. I love you.”

“You too.”

Robert set his phone down and had washed out the teacup before he’d even realized he’d done it. The twins were already gone, and for the whole summer. He tapped his middle finger on the screen of his phone, lost in thought, before finally shrugging. Well, there was nothing he could do about it; time to get back to Psychics.

But instead, he found himself climbing the stairs to the second story. Maybe there was something he could do about it after all.

Tabitha Johnson, Robert’s mother, was sitting at a small table in the room they called the “second upstairs study.” In Robert’s house, any room left unused for too long was eventually turned into a study by his mother. However, almost none of the family actually studied in these rooms: Robert had his pantry; Miranda, like all 14-year-olds, cloistered herself in her bedroom; and their father, of course, did his work in his home office. (When things were particularly hectic, like before one of his wife’s dinner parties, Councilman Johnson was known to take a legal pad and move into his SUV for hours at a time.)

Only Robert’s mother, in stubborn allegiance to her renovations, did any work in the studies, moving to a different one whenever she felt it was being neglected. She’d been using the second upstairs study for a few days now. When Robert was a kid it had been known as the game room.

She sat in an over-stuffed armchair by the large French windows, with her heels off and her feet tucked up underneath her gray skirt. Various shades and hues of unopened envelopes waited on the small table beside her, mostly Thank You notes and invitations for the upcoming wedding season. A small silver letter opener lay perfectly across the pile as though posed. (Which it probably was, Robert having acquired this trait from her.) She was carefully eating a small bag of Cheetos with a pair of teak chopsticks.

His mother hadn’t seen him in the doorway, and Robert couldn’t decide if he should speak to her or even clear his throat. Maybe he should tiptoe down the hallway backwards, then re-approach the study while dragging his feet, jingling his keys, maybe even whistling.

Mrs. Johnson looked up suddenly at Robert, a Cheeto delicately poised between the bag and her mouth. “Oh, Robert. You startled me,” she said, though she didn’t seem that startled.

“Sorry. I was hoping I might have a word with you.”

“Of course. Any time.” She pushed the chopsticks into the snack bag and set it beside her correspondence. With a slight tilt of the head, she indicated the antique wicker chair across from her, the one that looked out the large French windows and across the backyards of their neighbors.

Robert sat down across from her and crossed his legs, adjusting the cuff of his pants. “Is that a new necklace?”

His mother’s hand went up to her throat and fingered the large necklace. “It is, actually. I got it at Valerie’s little shop the other day. Do you like it?”

“I do.” It was a large necklace made of wooden beads that looked like—though obviously weren’t—polished chestnuts. It looked good with her outfit, though Robert had to admit that this wasn’t his mother’s usual style. She usually favored precious metals over earthen artifacts. Robert had noticed some other changes in his mothers wardrobe recently; a few weeks ago she had her hair pinned up in a leather contraption that looked…well, Robert hated the word ethnic, but still.

Robert wondered if this was the new direction his mother was moving towards in anticipation of middle age. According to the family picture albums, a teenaged Tabitha Morris had perfected the look of the all-American girl-next-door. (“Black Barbie,” Robert’s Uncle Tony had said once, notably when his sister-in-law wasn’t within earshot.) After meeting Jerome Johnson at a Alpha Kappa Alpha social during her senior year at Tulane, her style changed slowly from Promising Lawyer’s Fiance to Politician’s Wife to Hardworking Mother, and had in the last few years finally morphed into Successful Careerwoman.

Now Robert saw a few softer elements creeping into her wardrobe of business suits and high heels, and he sensed a new gradual shift beginning. Was she preparing herself early for her role as Earth Goddess In The Guise Of Loving Grandmother? Robert tried to imagine his mother a decade from now, wearing a brightly colored silk caftan, with graying dreadlocks tucked into a turban, lullabying a half-Asian toddler in an old rocking chair. The thought was ridiculous.

Robert cleared his throat. “The twins left town today.”

“I just saw that on the news. Was it a surprise?”

“Not entirely. We knew they were leaving, we just didn’t know when.”

Tabitha Johnson shook her head sadly. “God, when I think about what that poor woman must be going through…”


“Mrs. Budd, silly.”

“Oh.” Robert parted the thin linen curtains and glanced outside into the perfectly still image of the backyard’s landscaping. The only thing moving was the mirage of rising heat. He could feel the warmth on his knuckles through the glass. “Isn’t there anything Dad can do?”

Robert was still looking out over the neighborhood, but he could sense her tilting her head at him. “What do you mean, Robert?”

He dropped the curtain and met her eyes. “I mean, Dad’s gotten plenty of other people out of trouble. Uncle Tony, lots of people. I just don’t see why-”

“Robert,” he mother said softly, folding her hands in her lap. “Don’t you think he’s doing everything he can? Mr. Budd is your father’s best friend, they’ve known each other since they were at Beaumonde together.”

“I know, that’s why I thought-“

“Your father is a powerful man to have on your side when you’re in trouble, Robert, and I assure you he’s doing everything he can to get this worked out. But Lucas is accused of some pretty nasty stuff, remember. No matter how much we love him we don’t want to use our positions to set a guilty man free, do we?”

“I guess not.” It actually hadn’t occurred to Robert that this was anything other than a ludicrous misunderstanding. “No, of course not.”

His mother picked up her letter opener and a baby blue envelope. She pulled a cheap card out of the envelope and glanced inside it. It’s A Boy! a teddy bear on the front announced. She frowned at the card and set it to the side.

“Is that why Dad hasn’t been around lately? Last night I was in bed before he got home, and the last few weeks he’s barely been here at all.”

“Well, things have been very hectic for your father lately. Lucas Budd and your father were partners, you know, so your dad has his hands full ensuring the rest of their allies that Lucas’ arrest won’t affect their plans for the city.”

Mrs. Johnson opened another envelope, this one ivory, and skimmed the handwritten letter inside. She folded the letter up before she’d finished it, stuck it sideways in the envelope, and placed it on the tray. After a second, she reconsidered and moved the envelope on top of the birth announcement.

“Was there anything else?”

Robert looked up at her. “Nothing else, no. Thank you for talking to me.”

“Good heavens, Robert, you don’t have to schedule time with me, I’m your mother.” Tabitha Johnson picked up an azure envelope with a gold seal. “You’re as bad as your father.”

Robert stood up and made a show of looking at his watch. “I’d better get Miranda. It’s getting late.”

His mother reached up and grabbed his hand. Giving it a soft squeeze, she said, “Robert, I’m sorry this happened to your friends. They’ll be back before you know it.”

“I know.”

Robert walked across the second upstairs study, noticing a small statue of an elephant that he’d never seen before. He paused in the doorway and turned back to his mother, who was carefully threading her letter opener under the rich blue flap of an envelope.

“Mom? You don’t think Lucas Budd really did all those things, do you?”

Tabitha Johnson paused for a second, holding Robert’s gaze. “Now that,” she said, ripping the envelope open with a quick slice, “is a very interesting question.”