The magnolias and the debutantes blossomed onto the New Orleans' social season with great fanfare, even though the flowers were much more appealing than many of the young ladies. Luckily, I was not among this spring's unfortunate few and would not have to spend hours feasting on wilted cucumber sandwiches and flat champagne while wearing a long, white taffeta gown as elevator music numbed my brain. I had already suffered my own humiliation three seasons ago when I was primped, powdered, and paraded across the lawns of many of the city’s finest homes.
The entire experience resembled a horse auction as observers tried to imagine what type of wives these young women would make for the lawyers, bankers, and doctors of tomorrow. Of course they had to have the proper physique to interest any potential suitors: small enough to remain feminine, but large enough to breed half a dozen healthy little future social climbers. Their teeth had to be white, buffed, and polished as a sign of good breeding and their parents’ ability to afford premium dental care. They had to be able to walk without slouching, speak without saying anything of importance, and act as if the only reason for living was to carry on the traditions of polite society. This was the essence of being a debutante in the minds of all of the best of New Orleans' oldest families.
For this particular garden party, I was to act as cheerleader for my cousin, Colleen. She was the latest member of our family to suffer the piercing gazes and snake-like charm of "the old guard"-what we younger folks affectionately called the long-standing members of the ruling social sect in our city. They were a rather elderly group of bored women who held firm to the belief that one or two ancestors who had died for the cause in the Civil War put them on only a slightly higher pedestal than anyone else who just had a whole lot of money. My cousin Colleen, however, was parading among the elite of our city not because she was interested in pedigree but because she was very interested in finding a husband with money and connections.
The main job of these functions, of course, was to arrange matchmaking services to the children of suitable families. The old guard would provide important introductions to a boy’s family that they felt best suited a lady’s individual class and breeding and also matched her father’s income. It was considered a detriment to her social standing to question the judgment of these esteemed and rather stuffy individuals. It was like a type of protective inbreeding program. Unfortunately, that resulted in a great deal of idiocy among their offspring. If my particular generation was any example of what faulty genetic material could produce, then Colleen could have been their poster child.
Colleen had been given all of my Aunt Hattie's looks and none of her social graces. She was short and plump with a large mouth, small chin, dark hair, and sad brown eyes. Like my aunt, she had an annoying habit of sucking large gasps of air in through her teeth when she laughed. This habit prompted my father to always refer to the two women as the Hoover girls.
I had spent the entire afternoon at Colleen's designated white linen table watching as my aunt downed mass quantities of tea sandwiches and champagne. The more champagne my aunt drank the louder her laugh became, drawing the occasional curious stare from neighboring tables. I kept waiting for the appropriate moment to make a speedy departure, but Hattie kept waving and calling to friends from her botany club or other various civic groups to come over and join us; and I would once again have to delay my retreat. Colleen, who was constantly fidgeting, looked completely miserable as the barrage of well wishers breezed past our table.
"Do you think I look stupid in this thing?" Colleen asked, pulling at her white, off-the-shoulder dress.
"You look great." I brushed her heavy black bangs away from her eyes. "You're the prettiest girl here."
"Ha! You're the prettiest girl here, Nicci! Look at how the guys always watch you." Colleen looked around at the crowd mingling about us. "You've always been the pretty one, but thanks for the...well, thanks." She turned to me and patted my hand just as Hattie came waddling up to our table.
“Colleen, come on, girl, sit up straight." Hattie fussed over Colleen’s hopelessly rumpled gown. "Mrs. Jacobs has someone she wants you to meet."
Colleen looked at me, terror stricken at being summoned to a command performance with the captain of the old guard, Eileen Jacobs. I stood up and helped her straighten out her dress.
"Don’t worry," I whispered in her ear. "You don’t have to marry him. Just smile and make some small talk and you’ll never have to see him again."
"Yeah, right, you don’t know Mom," was all she could get out before Hattie dragged her away, still fussing.
Colleen was right, of course. All Hattie had in mind for the poor girl was a good marriage to a sociably suitable husband, and about six children. But then, Colleen did not want much more than that for herself. She would have been happy with any man, whether or not he was sociably suitable. With only her mother’s absentminded intellect and plump figure going for her, Colleen was doomed from conception.
I sat and watched across the lawn as Hattie primped Colleen’s dress and danced about nervously, waving her arms, when Colleen shook hands with her prospective suitor. I laughed to myself, remembering how different my aunt had been from my mother.
Where Hattie was scatterbrained, my mother had been witty. Hattie had always been overly excitable and demanded attention like a puppy. My mother, on the other hand, had been calm; people gravitated to her like a beautiful work of art. She had been someone people had admired, someone people had always wanted to get to know. Mother had been tall with deep auburn hair, creamy white skin and warm gray eyes. She lacked all the classical features of her Italian heritage, but she had been the pride of the Bascelli family. Her musical laugh lit up a room, and men-well, men found her to be the most fascinating creature they had ever seen. My father had worshiped her until the day she died.
"God, it was awful," Colleen said grabbing my shoulder and shaking me like a tree branch. "He was very snooty and had huge buck teeth." The inbreeding, no doubt, I thought. "Never again." She eased into the chair next to mine and grabbed for her glass of champagne, downing the contents with one gulp.
"I'm sure it wasn’t that bad," I laughed.
"Easy for you to say. Who got introduced to Parker Roy at her first lawn party?" She rolled her eyes. "Parker Roy, only the best looking and richest guy in the town." Colleen reached across the table for her mother’s half empty glass of champagne. "You always get the great guys, you just never go out with any of them."
"Colleen, you know Parker and I are just friends. Anyway, I consider myself selective, that’s all. Looks and money are not important criteria for me." I stared off into the crowd trying to avoid a confrontation.
"There you go again. You know, I think you have turned down half the male population of the city." She paused and looked around the table. "I would love to know, Nicci, can you ever just look at a man for the sake of looking?"
"So are we talking now about the rating of buns or the general appeal of the guy’s body?"
"You are hopeless." Colleen got up from her chair. "I’m going in search of more booze. Care to join me?"
"You know, Nicci, you can't keep hiding up in your room with your books all your life. You have no friends and you never go out. Christ, you’re missing out on everything." Colleen stumbled closer to me.
"Colleen, I don't think you need any more champagne."
"You know what else? Well, never mind." And with that Colleen turned and walked away, trying to look poised as her high heels stuck in the grass under her feet.
"At least I can wake up the next morning and remember the night before," I said aloud to myself.
I knew once Colleen got started with the booze she would not quit until someone pried her hands off the bottle. Then again, this was New Orleans where one’s first encounter with alcohol usually occurred before puberty.
I watched Colleen stumble her way to the bar at the far end of the lawn. I was pondering how I was going to get her back to my car, when I noticed the new face in the crowd.
What immediately struck me about the man was that he did not seem to belong there. He was poised, tall, and slender with expensive looking, well tailored clothes. From a distance, I watched, dazzled by the stranger’s ability to glide about, smiling, laughing, and working his way through the party. He seemed at ease among the people, traveling like a graceful actor across a stage. The head of every woman followed him as he moved. He appeared indifferent to their gazes, but I could sense he was acutely aware of the attention he was attracting. It was as if every movement, every nuance of his performance was perfectly timed and executed. The way he recklessly carried his champagne glass but never spilled a drop. How he took the occasional sip, which lingered momentarily on his lips. The way he ran his hands through his thick brown hair then raised his eyes and stared off into the throng. But what probably attracted the most attention from the crowd was on whose arm he strolled. It was Samantha Fallon.
Samantha, Sammy to her friends, was a woman who used any means at her disposal to perpetuate her many lucrative enterprises. She owned oil leases, real estate, vast amounts of stocks, and dabbled in scrap metal. My father considered Sammy a formidable competitor to my own family’s scrap metal business, Beauvoir Scrap.
Sammy had married into her fortune and status, and unlike my mother, she lacked the ability to enchant people with her beauty and charm. Any beauty Sammy possessed had long since faded, so she had become another of the plastic surgery addicts among the old guard. If it had not been sucked, lifted, or stretched on her body, it was silicone. She had the face and figure of a centerfold model, but the eyes of a well-worn and cruel old woman.
It was rumored Sammy had started out as a stripper in the French Quarter and that was supposedly how she met her late husband, an affluent and powerful Louisiana attorney named Gerald Fallon. Mr. Fallon was a notorious gambler, drinker, womanizer, and bully. Their union lasted twenty years, with Sammy spending most of that time in Europe. She would often be overheard saying there were only two things Gerald had given her: money and her son, Edward.
Edward, or Eddie as he preferred, was also among the guests at our social affair. I had seen his bright red mop of hair hiding among the magnolias throughout the afternoon. Most people generally tended to steer clear of Eddie since he always had insufferable body odor and a perpetually swollen red nose. Like his father, Eddie had an affinity for drinking, gambling, and fighting. Women, however, scared Eddie, and his fighting rampages usually correlated with Sammy’s interest in a new man.So I eagerly watched for Eddie in the crowd, wondering if he was aware of his mother’s newest flirtation. And I became alarmed to see Sammy continually kissing and touching her escort, teasingly trying to invoke a response. The gentleman, however, was more discreet with his affections. He simply held her hand but did not return her flirtatious mannerisms. I couldn’t help but think that Sammy was not getting her money's worth with this one.