The Project February 2008
Vintage Ansco Shur Shot Camera. Comes with a “new” roll of Kodak Film and also film in camera that has been shot. $50
“I’m sorry, only one picture came out,” said the Camera Store Clerk.
Tuere T. S. Ganges
“No way!” Tracy squirmed away from Victor’s kiss just as his full lips pressed into her neck.
He pulled away from her quickly, his green eyes bulged incredulously. “What?”
Tracy raised the newspaper she was reading over her head. She was sitting at the kitchen table, the one they found at the flea market last spring. Victor stood behind her. “Not you. This.” She laid the paper back on the table with new scuffs and scratches from their life together blending with nicks and discolorations from decades of previous owners. “For Sale: Vintage Ansco Shur Shot Camera. Comes with a new roll of Kodak Film and also film in camera that has been shot. $50. Cool, huh?”
Victor slid into the straight back wooden chair next to his young bride. “Um, sure, I guess. What do you want to do today?” It was Saturday and they’d been talking about starting a family. He was beginning to feel like their time together had an expiration date.
“I want to go buy that camera.”
“Really?” It was early and she was still in her bathrobe. He wanted to entice her back into bed and watch the creeping sunlight give her cinnamon skin that angelic glow he witnessed their first morning in their house. “Right now?” He touched her shoulder and rubbed it in a soft, circular motion that loosened the robe on each rotation.
Tracy put her hand over his and gave a coy smile. She shifted her weight and leaned against him, breathing in his scent; spearmint from his mouthwash, musk from not taking a shower after their night of passion. “Can you see it, Vic? That cute, boxy camera sitting on the bookshelf?” The house came with built-in bookshelves and stained-glass windows. She’d been buying up anything that was advertised as “vintage” or “antique” since they’d closed on the place a little over a year ago. “And it has film in it already. I’m going to get it developed. I bet there are some interesting pictures we can frame.”
Victor snorted a little laugh. He couldn’t help himself. He loved to see her light up like this. “Call ‘em before someone else gets it.”
“I’m sorry, only one picture came out,” said the Camera Store Clerk.
Tracy nodded her head. She was a little disappointed, but she was prepared. “The guy said we’d be lucky to get anything from this old roll.” She took the thin envelope and pulled out the glossy photo. A woman was standing before a palm tree with flowers in her hand. There were hazy streaks and spots distorting the shot. “Double exposure?” She pulled the photograph closer. “What is that?” She thought she saw faces: a masked woman on a bench, an angry bald man in a tree, two skeletons wrapped around a branch as if they’d been holding on for dear life. It looked like hell stowed away to paradise with the pretty lady and her shaded smile.
“Let me see.” Victor reached for the photo. “Humph. Doesn’t seem like much of anything to me. Kind of a dull picture. Grainy.”
“Yes, it’s grainy,” Tracy replied, a bit exasperated. She took the photo back. “But hardly dull. Look at the bald man in the tree, and the skeletons. Not exactly dull. And that’s such a creepy mask that woman is wearing.”
Victor leaned over from the driver seat. Tracy tilted it so he could view it better. “Hon, I don’t see anything like that. The woman hasn’t got a mask on, and there’s no bald man. The leaves of the palm look a bit like skeletons, but… only kinda.”
“Not the woman holding the flowers! Here, by the bench.” She pointed. “See. I’m not sure that’s a mask. Oh my god,” she whispered. “I think she’s deformed.”
Victor looked at his new bride, expecting to see a smile, or perhaps that twinkle in her eye that he so often saw after he had fallen for one of her gags. But her furrowed brow and earnest stare told him this was no joke. He looked back at the photo.
“Hon, seriously, I don’t see anything.”
Tracy looked into his face, perplexed. She looked back at the photo then slid it back into the envelope.
“Let’s go home.”
Over the next few weeks she shared the photo, now framed, with anyone who came over. No one, including her parents, Victor’s parents, siblings, friends, no one saw anything she so clearly saw. At first she had set it on the small dresser on her side of the bed, but found it disturbing to wake up and see that sight. She moved it to the home office.
Tax season was keeping her busy. Her list of clients had grown so long that her workload was wearing her out. She was going to need a serious break. Yesterday she had suggested to Victor that they go on a romantic getaway, maybe to the bed and breakfast they went to last year, and put some serious effort into getting pregnant. She smiled at the thought.
She stretched, rolling her shoulders to work out the ache between her shoulder blades. She found herself looking over the rim of her teacup, gazing at the photo. She had come to the decision that the woman in the mask was actually deformed. She was pretty certain of that. And the bald man definitely seemed malevolent. As for the skeletons, maybe that was someone’s idea of a joke.
Who is the woman holding the flowers? And why can’t anyone else see the other stuff in the picture. It’s fuzzy, sure, but the people are clearly there.
She looked at the clock. Lunch time. Mr. Archibald’s taxes weren’t going anywhere. She had been playing with the idea of tracking down who these people were. She made her decision, scooped up her jacket, the camera and the photo. She was going to ask the old man who had sold her the camera some questions.
Sitting in her car in the parking lot of Hunt’s Drug and Photo, Tracy sipped down hard on a can of cream soda, questioning her own sanity. The seductiveness of the woman in the picture was beginning to turn her. This wretched photo, all beaten and sun drenched, was arousing delirious thoughts of domestic corruption within her. Foul play was involved. No question. Tracy was sure of that. Possibly even espionage, something having to do with the mangos in the trees with the ghouls and skeletons. The bald heathen was rotten, too. Again, she was certain. She could smell the hate of the mongrel’s teeth.
“Enough!” she shouted to herself, hammering the photo back into the envelope. With that, Tracy got out of her car, slamming the door. Her pocket book knocked into the side mirror of the pricey vehicle parked beside her. Her breathing was labored, her mouth was agape and Tracy’s breasts began to sting within the nipple. What is wrong with me? The electric sliding doors welcomed her in.
“I’m looking for an older man. Kind of stout with small teeth,” Tracy said to a teenage clerk fidgeting with a row of holiday gift cards. “He sold me a camera.”
“That happens a lot around here,” the kid said without turning his head.
“Do you know who I’m talking about?” Tracy asked, picking up the kid’s filthy disposition.
“Ah, yeah. Warren. Old and stout covered it,” the piss ant said.
Tracy’s cheeks were getting hot. She began to sting again. “So is he working today or not?”
“He doesn’t work in this section,” the kid said with a soft grin.
Tracy had had it. She slid her pocket book off her shoulder slow and easy, letting is glide down into her thin, clean arms and into her tightly clenched fist. She jutted her chin forward. She licked her chops and got real close to the kid’s rancid nose. Now, deep in her privates, Tracy felt different, too, more aware than yesterday.
“Listen. Lift those pin thin arms and point to where I can find Warren. Do it now and do it quick. You are dealing with someone in crisis. And I’m not even close to being pregnant. Now point, creep.” she said.
Yonder, past rows of computer paper and digital cameras, the man who sold Tracy the camera holding the mysterious photo stood behind a raised counter, ringing up an order.
Tracy wondered as she stood in line if Warren would easily recognize her. Would he know why she was there? Had he been waiting for her?
Tracy wanted to turn back. She liked the confines of her working office. There among the reams of spreadsheets and folders she could concentrate on the numbers, doing things that add up. Not chasing images of an unknown woman who possibly had been imprisoned and beaten.
“Do you remember me?” Tracy asked the portly gent as she approached the counter, bypassing any real greeting. The man’s teeth were smaller than she remembered. “I do,” he said.
“Do you know why I am here?” she asked.
“I do,” he said with little eye movement.
“So you have seen the picture?” Tracy asked.
Now Warren was the one who wanted to run, be gone, far away from this prodding stranger. This was a recovery mission for Tracy, he was sure of it. But for him, well, this was the unveiling of a penetrating moment. A time in his life when the numbers weren’t adding up.
Biting down on her words, Tracy said with contempt, “You have seen the picture.”
Warren motioned Tracy away from the counter. Still standing three feet above Tracy, Warren leaned his elbows on the counter, looking down at her disfigured mug that was starting to swell in the cheeks and neck. It felt like high noon for the both of them.
“Yes,” he said. “I took the picture.”
Tracy mulled over Warren’s declaration that he indeed was familiar with the picture since he took it. Suddenly she was embarrassed by her brash behavior towards him as she realized what she had instinctively known all along; the camera she bought had actually belonged to Warren, he hadn’t been selling her any old vintage camera, he had sold her his vintage Ansco Shur Shot camera.
“Oh,” Tracy said softly, “Of course. I think I knew that.” Her tone and demeanor had gentled substantially and she was pleasantly surprised to see she was breathing easily. As is always true, Tracy’s behavior was reflecting what she was experiencing and she was experiencing and soaking up the good energy Warren was giving off.
“I don’t exactly know what picture you are talking about since you haven’t shown it to me but I know I have seen the picture because I took all of the pictures on that roll,” Warren added.
Tracy got the picture out of her purse and handed it to Warren. He took it and silently looked at it for what seemed like an eternity.
“Yes, I have seen this picture,” Warren sighed and his tone was barely audible.
He started to hand the picture back to Tracy, “Wait! Do you see what I see in that picture?” Tracy’s voice was rising.
Warren looked at the picture again and then gently smiled at Tracy as he said softly, “I won’t see what you see in this picture because my thoughts are different than your thoughts. You will see what you think you see and I will see what I think I see.”
Tracy was growing exasperated. “I don’t understand that! It’s all the same. The woman in the picture looks the same to both of us…”
“No, she doesn’t,” Warren cut Tracy off as he responded.
“Well, of course, she does,” Tracy insisted. “She is pretty and she is wearing a shirtwaist dress and ankle strap sandals and she is holding flowers and she is smiling. That is how she looks.”
“Ah,” Warren said, “So, you see her as a one dimensional picture. Yes, I see all of those things you just described but I see so much more. I see her as a human being full of vim and vitality and tremendous joie de vivre. The way I see her makes her countenance not just pretty but dazzling.”
Tracy jumped in because she was tired of wasting time on philosophy, “Okay, fine, but what I really want to know is do you see the skeletons and the disfigured woman and the angry bald man in the shadows of that picture?” Tracy’s tone was pleading. Somebody had to see them besides her.
Warren studied the picture very carefully before he responded. “No, I don’t.”
“Then why do I?” Tracy was near tears from frustration.
There was a period of silence before Warren answered her. “Because you want to see them there, that is why they are there. You think they are there and they therefore, are there for you. You are what you think, you know. I guess what really needs to be known is why you want those grotesque images in that picture.”
“What do you mean, I want them there?” Tracy’s eyes were filled with tears and her face was red and the veins in her neck were bulging. “Why would I want something so ugly to be part of my life?”
Warren didn’t answer. Warren couldn’t answer. He didn’t know what the answer was.
After a while, Tracy asked, “Who is she anyway?” She nodded towards the picture Warren held.
Sighing deeply, Warren answered, “My mother.”
“Your mother? How could you leave a roll of pictures of your mother in a camera you sold?” Tracy was both confused and angry at the prospect.
“I really don’t want to talk about it, however, I think you are entitled to some answers. I took that roll of film all in the same day. It was a splendid day, a day I will always have in my memory. Soon after that day, everything changed and I put the camera away and didn’t pick it up again for decades, in fact, not until I decided to sell it.”
He stopped talking.
“What changed?” Tracy quietly asked.
“My mother died.”
“I’m sorry,” said Tracy.
“Don’t be,” he replied. “It happened a long time ago.”
“You never developed the pictures,” she said. “I‘d think that you would’ve wanted them.”
“I took the pictures,” he said, “but they weren’t for me, really.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
Warren looked at her, and then rubbed his eyes. “I’m due for a break right about now,” he said. “How about a cup of coffee next door, my treat?”
Tracy looked at Warren’s face, taking in the stubble on his cheeks and the softness of his eyes.
“Sure,” she replied.
The coffee house was small and narrow. Rows of tables were lined up against one wall, the bar and counter along the other. Artwork hung on the walls, filling the space with form and color.
The man behind the counter looked up and smiled as the door opened.
“Hey, Warren,” he said. “The usual?”
“Why not?” he replied. He turned to her. “What would you like?” he asked.
She smiled at the barista and said “cafe latté, please.” She turned back to Warren. “My name is Tracy,” she said.
They sat down at a small round table by the window. The light was fresh and bright. Tracy looked at Warren and waited. He looked out the window, watching the traffic go by.
“The picture,” she said.
“I was just a little kid, maybe ten or so,” he replied. “I loved that camera, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. You see, it belonged to my father. My mother kept it up on the mantle, another reminder of him. His birthday was coming up and I convinced her that we should take some pictures of ourselves and send them to him. I missed him terribly and I didn’t want him to forget us. He had been gone so long that I was afraid. I was afraid that he would forget what we looked like, where we lived, how to get home again.”
“Where was he? She asked.
“Korea,” he replied. “In the midst of the worst of it, though we didn’t know it at the time.”
Tracy wrapped her hands around her cup, pulling in the warmth and aroma of the latté. She knew the answer to her question but asked it anyway.
“He never saw her again, did he? I mean, he didn’t get back home before she died, did he?”
“And you? What happened to you?”
“I went to live with my aunt and uncle. “
“What happened when your father got home? Did he ever remarry?” She looked up at him.
“Did he come home?”
Tracy put her hands up to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m asking such personal questions. It’s really none of my business.”
Warren looked at her for a moment then replied, “It’s O.K., Tracy. It’s been a long time since I have talked to anybody about my life.”
“Could I ask you one more question, then?”
“Sure,” he said.
“How did she die?”
The front door swung open and slammed shut.
“Tracy is that you?”
“Victor come here. You’re not going to believe this”
“Can it wait a minute?”
“No come in here, you have to hear this.”
Victor enters the living room with shaving cream on his face, and a bath towel wrapped around his waist.
“What’s so important that can’t wait?”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Tracy I told you I had to work today. Do you listen anymore? I need to get ready can you just go in there and tell me while I’m shaving?”
Tracy sits down at the computer begins typing.
“No, I have to look some stuff up on the internet. I met with the guy today and he told me he took the picture the day she died and his dad never came home.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The guy we bought the camera from took this creepy picture. The woman in the picture is his mother. The day he took the picture she died. He took it for his father who was in Korea during the war and he never saw the picture because he died in the war.”
“Conflict Tracy. Korea was never declared a war. It was the Korean Conflict. I have to get ready for work.”
“You’re missing the point Victor. Her murder was never solved. It’s been well over 50 years and no one was ever arrested”
“Okay, I’m getting ready for work.”
“You don’t get it do you? It’s why I see those things in the picture. She’s not at rest. She can’t rest until the killer’s caught. I’m going to find the killer.”
“Think about it. The guy’s probably 80 years old or dead. Good luck with that honey. If the cops haven’t found him by now you won’t.”
Victor walks out of the room and into the bathroom. Tracy picks up the phone and dials a number.
“Hunts Drug Store, this is Kenny, may I help you?”
“Hello, Kenny. My name is Marie and I was there last week. The gentleman at the photo counter was so helpful that I would like to write a letter to the manager. I just need his name please. I believe it was Warren something.”
“Yes, his name is Warren King. But are you sure it was Warren ‘cause he ain’t really known for being all that helpful.”
“Yes, I’m sure thanks Kenny.”
Tracy hangs up the phone, continues typing and staring intensely at the computer screen. Victor re-enters the room dressed and ready for work.
“Any luck super sleuth?”
“Not yet. I have a sick feeling about this. I don’t think I’m going to like what I find out.”
“You’ve got to stop watching Medium hon. Gotta get going I’m running late.”
He leans over and kisses her on the cheek. Tracy never takes her eyes away from the computer screen.
“Okay, babe have a good day at work.”
Tracy heard the door lock and Victor’s car drive away. “I must remember to remind Victor to get that muffler fixed, before he gets a citation or whatever it is called”.
Her eyes were fixed intently on the computer screen. “Unsolved Murders, 1953” Tracy felt apprehensive as she read the accounting:
“Belinda, Joyce King, (29 year old wife of PFC Michael Warren King, MIA, and mother of one son Warren, age 10), killed by person or persons unknown, on or about July 24, 1953. Exhaustive investigations by local homicide detectives came up empty. No arrests have ever been made. The file sits in a box at Police HQ, 53 Division, New Orleans, in the “Unsolved Archives”.
Tracy let out her breath with an audible “Oh My God”….Now that she had met Warren, she felt kinship with Belinda Joyce and anger that PFC Michael Warren King had not returned to his family.
Poor guy was probably looking forward to lifting his son high in the air, and hugging his wife until she could hardly breathe…. But he was MIA….Young Warren would never feel the wind whistling past his ears as his dad whipped him around…. Belinda would never feel Michael Warren’s strong arms comforting her quivering body. Tracy’s eyes blurred through tears, at the thought of losing Victor, the love of her life.
“Wait a minute!” Tracy loudly exclaimed. She quickly wiped away the tears and surfed the internet once again….MIA is “Missing in Action”…. Tracy was scanning the site for “USA Soldiers killed in Korea.” Where was Michael Warren King of New Orleans, LA? Tracy scoured the list at least six times of more than 33,000 names of American Battle Dead in Korea. There were many soldiers called Michael W. King, but not one from The Big Easy.
Next: “USA Soldiers Missing in Action in Korea”. Two King’s, one from Claiborne, and one from Bossier, neither of whom were Michael Warren.
Perhaps Michael Warren King is included in the 4,700 presumptive dead, who died while MIA?
Or… is it possible he is one of the 21 who refused repatriation?
Tracy nervously checked the telephone directory for 53 Division. With a shaky hand she dialed the number; she was angry at herself for her nervousness.
“53 Division Homicide; Detective Harry Phillips speaking.”
“Detective Phillips, my name is Tracy, and I would like an appointment to speak to you about an unsolved murder case. You were probably too young to have been on the police force at that time, but if you would let me look through the file, I would really appreciate it.”
“What case was that, Tracy?” Tracy’s heart beat faster at the prospect.
(Tracy doubted Harry Phillips was even born in 1953.)
Her voice cracked when she responded “Belinda, Joyce King, killed July, 1953.”
The long pause in conversation heightened Tracy’s anxiety. She surmised from the pause that Detective Phillips was indeed aware of the case.
“What was he thinking at this moment? Can’t sound too anxious”. She was aware of her quick breathing and tried to imagine what his response would be.
Finally Detective Phillips asked, “Are you a relative, Tracy?”
She knew she had to think fast or Detective Phillips would never consider her request.
“Yes, I am her granddaughter”, she lied.
There was another long pause, during which she thought she heard a faint voice on the line say “Christ not another one” .
When Detective Phillips finally spoke to her he was all business. He pumped her smoothly, with practiced ease born of years of police work.
” Well Tracy, are you married or should I call you Ms King. Before she could stop herself she gave him her real name. Tracy Eisman. She also told him what town she lived in, her husbands name and what she did for a living.
When he got what he wanted Detective Phillips wrapped things up quickly but like any good animal trainer who hoped to work the animal again in the future, Detective Phillips threw Tracy a bone. “Well Mrs Eisman, as much as I would like to help you the case is still technically open and I am not allowed to discuss it with the general public, even relatives of the victim.(pause) I know someone who can help you though. You want to talk to Joe, Joe Saltz over at the Parrish Register. He covered the whole thing for his newspaper back when he only worked for the paper. He can tell you all about it! Tell him Harry sent you. I wish you the best. Goodby “.
Before Tracy could say another word the line had gone dead. So much for the police. “Well” she thought “At least he gave me a lead”. Another brief search on the internet got her the phone number for the Parrish Register Weekly. The phone call to Joe Saltz went even worse than the one to the detective.
As soon as she identified herself he cut her off and got right to the point. “Harry told me you were going to call and that you said that you were Belinda’s grandaughter. Bullshit!” he exclaimed, “Warren was an only child and he never had the proper equipment to father a child. I know, I asked Doc Clancy myself. You dont talk like one of those snooping weekly world news types either, looking for the next sensational unsolved Devil worship gone wrong story. So just what is your connection? Mind you missy, no more lies! Well.” he snapped over the telephone. “I’m waiting”.
Cornered Tracy thought about hanging up and forgetting the whole thing, but his comment about devil worshippers made her think of the picture that had in it only things she could see, and she realized once again there was no turning back.
She needed to trust someone who was around when Belinda was murdered if she hoped to learn more about it, so she told him the whole story. Start to finish. She told him what she had seen in the picture. She told him how she had felt unreal, at times almost possesed when she thought about it. She told him every detail as best she could remember it. She told him about her conversations with Warren. She even told him her own vauge memories from childhood of a woman in a deformed mask and a bald man. Something she had never told anyone before.
After Tracy was done, for the first time in a long while she felt like herself. Fresh and clean after an unpleasent experience. The relief caused her to begin to cry softly to herself forgetting there was someone on the line. When Joe Saltz finally spoke Tracy was so startled she almost dropped the phone. When she got it back up to her ear all she heard was ” Mrs Eisman you are in great danger. You need to get to New Orleans as soon as possible before its too late.” Then all the anxiety of the last few days came flooding back into her, sucking the air from her lungs and causing her to faint dead away. She woke up lying on the couch with Victor standing over her, an open bottle of ammonia and a worried look on his face.
Forcing a smile he said “thought I lost you there for a minute Trace. What happened?”
Talk about ghosts. New Orleans is a city Tracy could stay away from forever. The last trip was all about the other love of her life and how true love doesn’t ever work out in the end. Now, instead of willingly returning to a city where she could wander and rediscover the smells, sights, sounds, and tastes of that summer, she would be searching for a Voodoo Priestess in the Bayou.
Dazed and looking up at Victor’s worried face, Tracy wondered how she would explain it all.
“Victor I need to fly to New Orleans today.” Tracy waited for his confused response. Instead, Victor sighed and looked away. “So it is her is it? I have waited for this day Tracy – dreaded it actually. How can you leave me now? Is she that much more to you?” Realizing that her June fling was not so secret, Tracy had no choice but to come clean with it all.
“Victor, it is a long story and I would love to tell it to you on the plane.” Cleary furious, Victor replied, “Tracy, you know I cannot miss work right now – we have the big project to finish, it is my turn to complete the RFP for section 9 – I will lose my job if I leave now – and I refuse to let you go alone. Whatever this is will have to wait.”
Two hours and many tissues later, Tracy was on the Southwest Flight from LA to New Orleans through Houston. Joe was clear that if she did not make it by sunrise tomorrow, Victor would be deciding what to write on her tombstone instead of what dead relative to name their baby after. She was pregnant she was sure of it. No need to tell Victor, it would just complicate everything – and Victor was not in the mood to listen.
Tracy looked at the name written on the napkin. Joe told her to ask for a waitress named Ofelia at Dominique’s in the French Quarter. Joe told Tracy that Ofelia would know where she could find the Priestess so that the ceremony could be performed today. “Why Dominique’s,” Tracy wondered. The last time she was in Dominique’s it was a pleasant dinner and drinks – and the beginning of a night and a love that would never end.
As Tracy walked into the restaurant, the smells brought her back to that hot June night and she could almost see the long ago pair sitting at the table enjoying the local fare. She grabbed the first person she saw and asked for Ofelia. The waiter told her to have a seat because sometimes it took awhile for Ofelia to come in, but that she should be here any minute.
“Tracy, what are you doing here?” Tracy could feel her insides heave as she saw her – the HER of that summer. Just then, the waiter came back around, “Ofelia, this woman says she needs to talk to you.”
The syllables of the name ratcheted in Tracy’s brain. Ofelia, it sounded like a song. She turned slowly, her soft eyes scanning the room. She wanted to run, wanted to be anywhere but here. The clamor of the restaurant was confusing… Tracy didn’t see anyone unusual. She realized suddenly that she had no idea what to expect, this woman could be anyone.
“Tracy?” A strong melodious voice found her ear.
“Oh… um…” Tracy turned again. Just four feet away from her was an immaculately dressed woman in her early 30′s. Tall and dark, Tracy was unsure who she reminded her of, someone a long time ago, she tried to place it but the woman could have been anyone. She looked as though she had just stepped out of an executive board room. The light made the black fabric of her suit look like an oil slick.
“You are Tracy aren’t you?” Ofelia looked worried.
“Yes… yes I am. I was um… well… you’re just not…”
“What you expected?”
“Yeah.” Tracy said trying to hide her sheepishness. She felt foolish and young. This woman couldn’t be older than her… could she? Tracy wasn’t sure; Ofelia’s features quivered in the dim light of the restaurant. Tracy had the distinct sensation of being in over her head.
“I get that a lot. Don’t worry about it.” Her smile was broad and welcoming. Ofelia nodded to the back of the restaurant. “You want to come with me?”
In Ofelia’s office they lounged in overstuffed leather chairs and sipped iced tea. Tracy was starting to feel calmer. Thoughts of the city, the photograph, her lover seated a couple of walls removed, seemed far away as they chatted about her flight, what she was doing back home, and Ofelia’s recent purchase of the restaurant. There was a pause in the conversation. Tracy sat very still, she could feel the condensation from her drink wandering down her arm in little rivulets. After a moment Ofelia leaned forward and set her glass on the mahogany coffee table. Tracy wondered if there were any coasters in the office.
“Warren wasn’t entirely truthful with you.” Ofelia spoke slowly, she wanted Tracy to understand what she was telling her. “His father came back from Korea a month before that picture you’re carrying around in your bag was taken.”
Tracy couldn’t move. “But… I don’t… I don’t know what that means.” She stopped talking. She didn’t know what to say. She felt cloudy. The thought that worried its way into the back of her mind made the inside of her mouth dry. She swallowed her tea.
“It’s not what you think.” Ofelia said pointedly, sitting back in her chair. Her dark eyes bored into Tracy and the object of her stare squirmed in her seat. “Warren’s father didn’t come back alone.”
There was another long pause. Tracy wasn’t sure what to do, she felt as though she were stuck in a bad movie. Why wasn’t Ofelia saying anything? Tracy wondered if she was waiting for her, was she supposed to ask a certain question, make a certain comment? Her tea was gone and she set the glass next to Ofelia’s. The two women stared at each other.
Tracy folded her hands in her lap and cleared her throat. “How do you know that?”
“Because I was the person who came back with him.”
Tracy felt the hairs on the back of her neck come to attention. Her curiosity had really gotten the best of her this time. Her eyes darted around the room. Feeling overwhelmed, she could no longer look at Ofelia. She didn’t know what to believe anymore. Pieces of the story flashed in and out of her mind as she tried desperately to make sense of it all. But it was impossible. She could only manage to cover her face and breathe heavily into her hands. When she looked up at Ofelia again, she saw Ofelia had aged a couple decades in a matter of a moment. Frightened, Tracy sobbed, “I have to go.”
She tried to stand to leave.
“Wait,” said Ofelia, grabbing Tracy by the arm. “I need to tell you the truth before you go.”
Tracy pulled her arm away and stepped back from Ofelia, “I don’t know… what is the truth? And who are you?”
“If you give me a second I will tell you everything, the real truth, what no one else knows except me and Mr. King.”
“No, Mike, his father.”
Tracy’s curiosity was fever pitched again. She had to hear this woman out. She had come too far and needed to make sense of it all. She stood still; slouched shouldered, whimpering with erratically blinking eyes and arms pressed at her sides. The only thing keeping her there was Ofelia’s voice unraveling the mystery.
“Mike and I met in Korea. I was a nurse and he was one of my patients. He was so dashing. Even hurt, he was handsome.”
Ofelia’s eyes brightened the way lovers do when they see each other. She continued, “I took care of him for a couple months, nursing him back to health. In that time we fell in love, I can’t explain it. How does one explain how or why they fell in love? It just happened.”
Tracy stood silent still. Her breathing began to return to normal.
“When Mike got his discharge,” Ofelia said. “I volunteered to leave with him. We came back together. On the way back, he told me his marriage to Belinda was a mistake and that he knew he was meant to be with me.”
Ofelia coughed laughter, and smiled reminiscently.
“He stayed with me for a few days when we got back. He didn’t know how to tell Belinda. Then the day he went to tell her about us, she was murdered. From that day, he went into hiding fearing he’d be accused of it. Mike felt so, so very bad about it. He felt terrible for Warren too. He even talked of suicide. He told me he didn’t kill Belinda and I believed him. I still do. I know Mike, he wasn’t capable of that. It was so hard on him. It was hard on the both of us.”
Ofelia choked back tears.
“We had to live in secrecy for years. I never knew when he would come around. For seven years I only saw him a couple days a month. He’d send me letters telling me where to meet him. It was so hard. We’d meet on country roads, in motel rooms, wherever we could be anonymous. Then in the winter of 61, the letters stopped coming. He just disappeared. I never heard from him after that.”
Ofelia leaned against her desk for support.
“Tracy, I am glad you came. So I can finally release this secret. Thank you. No one knows it, but I am terminal with cancer and didn’t want to take that secret with me.”
“No, thank you,” said Tracy.
“I am looking forward to seeing him again,” said Ofelia. “I am ready.”
“Do you think he could be still alive?” asked Tracy.
“I don’t know… I don’t think so.”
Ofelia watched Tracy finish the dregs of her iced tea. Through the window, both women could see the darkness settling upon New Orleans. Tracy could almost feel the city transforming itself into its mysterious alter ego as the daylight hours expired. She felt dizzy, which was nothing new over the past two weeks, but also cold, despite the lack of air conditioning in the office.
“Now that I have the picture, I can summon Belinda’s spirit and see if she knows where Mike is,” Ofelia said. “Meet me at Belinda’s grave at midnight. She’s buried in St. Louis Cemetery #1. I’ll need that.” She reached over and plucked the picture from Tracy’s hands, and for the briefest of moments as she leaned toward the desk lamp, Tracy thought her face looked almost – nonhuman. But when she leaned back into the shadows, she was the same beautiful woman.
Ofelia drew a quick map on a pad of paper, ripped off the top sheet, and passed it to Tracy. “Directions to Belinda’s grave. I’d suggest you stay nearby.” She nodded at Tracy’s wedding ring. “So you and your husband can walk.”
“Oh, he’s not with me,” Tracy said.
“Surprised he let you come alone,” Ofelia said, scowling. “Such a pretty woman, here in the city of sin. But maybe he thinks you’re the faithful type.”
“No, he just thinks I’m nuts, coming back here,” Tracy said. “And maybe I am, coming all this way over a picture that has nothing to do with me.”
“Or does it?” Ofelia said. “Well, this will be my chance to finally find Mike, and yours to figure out what those other faces in the picture mean.”
Tracy had never mentioned the faces to Ofelia. But when she looked up at her, stunned, the woman was smiling.
“I’m a Priestess,” Ofelia said. “Of course I see them, too. Now, go – get some rest. You’ll need it.”
She led Tracy to a back door.
“See you tonight,” Tracy whispered, as she stepped into a deserted alley.
Hours later, Tracy found herself striding toward the cemetery, following the crude map drawn by Ofelia. She kept one hand in her pocket; the fingers were numb with cold despite the humidity.
As she walked toward the gate, she heard heels clicking behind her.
“Don’t believe what she tells you,” a voice said. “She put a spell in your tea.”
Tracy reeled around to face a petite woman with a thick mane of hair and glowing brown eyes. It was Her.
“Marie,” Tracy said, softly.
“Please, don’t go in there,” Marie said. “Don’t believe whatever Ofelia has told you.”
Tracy struggled to remain strong, despite the memories that were washing up inside her. “How would you know?”
“She moved back here after you and me broke up that summer, bought the restaurant, and nursed me back to health. I was a mess.”
“But you broke up with me,” Tracy protested.
“Because you were with that guy,” Marie said. “Victor. I couldn’t stand to share you. And look at you now – it’s worked out. You’re married – and pregnant!”
Tracy gasped. “Five weeks. How’d you know?”
Marie looked down at her feet. “Because I’m a Priestess. A good one, just like you could be, if you put your mind to it. It’s why you can see things others can’t. Just like my grandmother. Ofelia.”
Tracy was silent, her mouth an oval of shock.
“Joe told you to come here, didn’t he?” Marie said. “He’s under my grandmother’s love spell.”
From behind her, Tracy heard the sound of stomping boots, and then a sinister voice. “Go home, Marie. Right now.” Ofelia was marching toward them, picture in hand.
Marie stood her ground. “Tell her how Belinda Joyce died, grandma. How you told Mike someone else murdered her, and then couldn’t stand it when he pined for her all those years, called out her name as you made love. And how you finally killed him, too!”
“Enough!” Ofelia said. “They deserved it, the two of them. And their little monster Warren deserved the sterilization hex so the family line would end! I should have put a love hex on you, so you wouldn’t have fallen for this fool.” Ofelia pointed at Tracy.
“So the faces in the picture –” Tracy started.
“The skeletons are Mike and Belinda King. The angry bald man is Warren. And the masked woman on the bench?” Marie spoke faster and faster. “That’s none other than Ofelia. Mike fought back when she killed him, and disfigured her. Didn’t you wonder why she looked so bizarrely young? She used magic to fix her face.”
Ofelia lunged toward Tracy and grabbed for her throat. “You broke my granddaughter’s heart! I’d planned to kill you tonight. But maybe I’ll make you suffer instead– maybe I’ll give you the sterilization hex, too!”
“Hands up!” a deep voice shouted from the darkness. A policeman stepped out into the puddle of light spilling from a streetlamp. Behind him were two more men. Squinting, Tracy recognized the thin frame of her husband and the squat outline of Warren.
“The hotel manager told us you came over here tonight, and I got worried,” Victor said.
“It’s too late for the hex, Ofelia,” Tracy cried. She ran to her husband, who hugged her. “I’m already pregnant.”
Warren lunged toward Ofelia, his small teeth glowing in the darkness. He wore a mask of rage, just like the bald man in the picture. “I should kill you!”
As the policeman grabbed for him and pulled him away, Warren continued to shout threats.
Tracy reached out and plucked the picture from Ofelia’s cuffed hands. She walked over to Warren, placed the picture in his right hand, and gently, gently, closed his fingers around the picture.
“She can rest now, Warren,” she said. “And now we’ve all put a hex on Ofelia. A prison hex.”
Tracy smiled at Warren, who had tears coursing down his face. He no longer resembled the angry specter in the photo.
Both he – and Tracy – looked like people who had found closure at last.