I was drawn to the front porches. They reminded me of home too. Slave mansions really. Not all but that’s what you see. Plantation houses with great big front porches and gazebos in the back somewhere, wide and wooden and pillared. They each had those big columns supporting the roof and you could sit out there and watch people walk by and sip iced tea and holler at the street.
“Rain soon, yeah?”
That’s a southern thing. To make note of the climate and aggressively, staking your place here by announcing your existence. This is my house, it says. I will greet you but don’t stop. The whole city was painted like a slum too. Like Philadelphia. Things I am used to: southern drawls, chipping turquoise paint, men whispering you are fine beneath their breath as I pass them, and the crunch of beer cans under my feet every once in a while. Days like this, when it’s 101 degrees, no one was out but me but they left their butts and sometimes their Busch cans. Sometimes a condom, a chewed up straw. I loved looking down to note the city’s trash wherever I went. But I loved looking up here. I loved New Orleans for the trees. They were everywhere in every yard and every walkway and the most shaded city in the USA. Had to be; you stay outside too long in Louisiana in the middle of July and you’re gonna drop dead of heat stroke. No question. Everywhere I walked contained giant oaks, hundreds of years old, bald cypress, thriving pines, continued growth that is and full. I went on a park tour here just to hear them talk about the three hundred year old trees. It was July and the occasional bright magnolia also hit me. Her pink among all the verdure. I’d be caught underneath, cupping the flowers and then plucking one, rubbing the petals between my fingers to feel the wax, to watch it all disintegrate. I didn’t mean to pick the flowers. I do it with the cherry blossoms too. I always say I’m sorry. That’s a southern thing: insincerity.
I love green against black sky. That’s a southern thing. Lush yards for miles and the electricity brushing the hair on your arm before the storm starts. It was 2:30 pm. I wanted the petrichor but I’d have to wait. That dirt sex smell after rain and the worms, how they writhed in the dirt having risen the way twigs float to the surface of a lake. I could watch them for hours in their gratitude dance. Pluck them from the ground and rub their body between my fingers to feel the mush, to watch it all disintegrate. I’m sorry, I’d say.
I walked Treme to admire the houses, the different colors, all bright but leaning towards that Easter theme: light blue, light pink, light yellow, light green. Reminded me of my old wooden basket; white but criss-crossed with plastic interlacing pastels through the wood that my mom laid with that crinkly green polyurethane grass. She would hide all sorts of chocolates and things; little cut-out chicks and rabbits all over the house that I had to find on top of some plastic eggs filled with chocolate eggs, plus the real eggs I’d dyed myself: sloppy, leaking, my Crayola marks where I signed one for the bunny. To be in his favor. It was real gluttony. My hands were always covered in chocolate and blue dye. I cleaned the contents of the basket out in two days and left the grass so my mom wouldn’t notice but my cat could sit in it and that would give it away. All the houses here were that same pastel if they weren’t white. As I got closer to the French Quarter, they grew triple in size. The neighborhood was silent. Abandoned. The houses looked friendlier because of their coloring and the way they stood, placid, non assuming, on their big green squares. I could see ivy creeping up the siding, tendrils of brown and green wrapping ends of gutters and giant holes forming in the fascia. The trim full of openings; a new nesting area for squirrels or birds. This is a habit of mine. Not just staring at houses, but observing them intently to look for marks. Amazing how some skills never leave you but I can tell when someone is going to ruin their roof by the facade. I once sold siding door to door as a job. I was quite good at it knowing nothing about siding from day one to day ninety one, which is I think how long I lasted. Here was my skill: I could point out where the siding was, the fascia, the soffit and the trim but I had no idea how structurally they all mattered. Mostly I smiled when they opened the door. I am often caught staring up at roofs when someone answers the door. It’s not that I cared then or now, it’s that I always remember being good at it even though I knew nothing about house. A Pavlovian conditioning of reward.
“Find something to talk about and find something wrong with either the fascia, the trim, the windows or the siding,” Tate said during our “lessons.”
Lessons were the worst part. We sat in the same room Monday through Saturday. Our only day off was Sunday. You can’t bother people on Sundays. This was Chesapeake, Virginia and this was the Lord’s day. Right before we went out in the van, we had these horrifying tests in which we had to get up in front of everyone and practice our sales pitch or answer questions about the product. This was motivation for me to succeed. I neither cared about the product nor understood it completely. If you were successful, though, you were allowed to start skipping these things and other trainings and could spend more time in the field. Due to my gross incompetence, I pledged I would memorize facts quickly, smile big and perform for Tate and everyone so I would not be corrected or reprimanded publicly, but more than that, I would get the next days. And the van rides which soothed me at times. I could sell someone anything without really understanding how roofs weather storms or how windows are related to siding and how siding will eventually come back to the roof which will affect your window. Some cycle or graphic Tate had shown us but it was like the words didn’t mean anything to me when he said it. . It was just an image of a house with four arrows pointing the same direction.
“See?” he looked at me.
Technically, I could sell anyone anything, though, I could not explain it.
“You could use the extra protection for winter. This winter we are supposed to have a lot more precipitation, possibly sleet.”
“Oh is that so?”
“Yes, it’s going to be a very wet winter and you said your roof is 20 years old? It’s quite possible there’s been more damage than you realize and you need support. Look here.”
I pointed at nothing. The elderly man walked out to meet me a bit and squinted. Holding his hands above his eyes to use them as a shield as it was a bright and sunny Friday, he looked up at the invisible crack.
“Eh, not really, girl.”
“Well, it looks like a crack has already formed. Plus, I pointed out to you the condensation in your windows.” I quickly gestured back to the windows. “This could really rot the molding and with this crack, you may end up with the entire side full of mold.” I held my hands out to emphasize how big a house was. “I think I should have a rep come out and meet with you tomorrow. Are you free tomorrow? Saturday?”
I said mold a lot. In every presentation.
“I am actually. Yeah, maybe. Maybe that will work.”
He looked back at his window, hand on his chin.
“Great. I am going to call the office right now,” I took my cell phone from my pocket, “ and put you in touch with the receptionist who will gather your address and number and set the time. Sound ok, sir?”
He looked towards the invisible crack.
“You seem trustworthy,” he paused, scratching his chin and gazing upwards as I began to dial. “Sure, I guess so.”
That was called a next day and it was the only appointment worth setting because the homeowner was less likely to cancel if you did it day of or next day. My entire job was to get people to commit to having more qualified men come out and speak to them about the shitty quality of their decent roof and house in an effort to get them to replace their windows, siding and trim. My entire commission was based on how many next days, two days or three days I got. Anything beyond that, was a waste. I didn’t get extra money and most likely, they would cancel. Because all of the women in the van hated me, I wasn’t distracted by friendship or trying to gain friendship.
“One next day,” I told Tate, smiling, back at the van where we were now going to listen to whatever top 100 rap songs were out until we got back to the office.
He high fived me and Donna and Jessica glared at me as I walked by them with my long khaki shorts, respectable blue polo and neat ponytail to sit with all the guys. Jessica had not been able to set a next day for weeks and Donna was honestly trailer trash horse shit in short spandex shorts and that’s the only way she got them sometimes. When the husband was home alone. Me, I was polite. Me, I greeted the old men with shorts near my knees. I said excuse me sir, but you have a beautiful home here and smiled. I said thank you. I dropped the word mold a lot and pretended to see things forming around the vinyl of windows. I counted cigarettes but never smoked in the field like the others. I didn’t drink before work like the others. I didn’t sneak off during shifts. I walked door to door, confidentl,y with five facts that I alternated and greeted everyone the same.
“And how’d you get that?” Jessica looked back at me and smiled.
“I said it was gonna be a wet winter.”
“Is that what you always say?” Kevin asked.
“That’s what I always say,” I smiled big at Kevin.
Donna and Kevin were fucking.
“I also say: excuse me, ma’am, you have a beautiful home. Also I just stepped in a fire ant hill. Can you believe that?”
And then I showed my teeth. Kevin clapped and laughed hard and turned his whole body to face me.
I continued by putting my hand on my chest and leaning forward, “Oh, no!”
Then sticking my hands out and waving them around.
“Yes, it’s true. I’m fine. A little shaken but fine.”
Kevin smiled at me and shot me those finger guns. Kevin was there when it really happened, when I really stepped in the fire ant hill getting off the van one day. He was the one who told me to use the line whether it happened again or not. Kevin and I were fucking.
“So you just tell them you are covered in ants and having a wet winter and they…”
Tate cut her off, “(Redacted) has set five next days in two weeks and neither of you two have set any so maybe you should shut up and listen to her.”
“Oh shit,” Kevin snapped.
I turned my face to the window quickly so they wouldn’t see me beam.
What I learned then was no one in that van knew shit about roofs and the best way to get what you want is to become the malleable indifference. To become the caricature of what will make them feel safest and change as it changes. To become the most drawling, trustworthy girl they have met or to quickly roll up your shorts when you get a lone man. Donna was wrong in her approach because women don’t like women who wear shorts that only go right past their buttocks. They like women who have never shown a shoulder. They like women with slightly uneven eyebrows. You do not agitate with your Marlboro stained fingertips but the bald face save some cherry Chapstick and a quick joke and an earnest compliment. That’s how I learned how to walk through walls. Become invisible.
I walked through Treme to the French Quarter alone, covered head to toe in sweat in my blue silk button up dress with the buttons coming undone as I walked practicing inflection, admiring the garish encasements, admiring the giant oaks teeming over with Spanish moss and desperately wanting to be taken inside of them. The respite of shade. The complacency. Being forced still in a swelter of humid breeze. The yawn of me settling back against the bark, looking up, touching moss with my fingers, seeing the sun peek through the branches. When the first rumble of thunder rolled in, I was still one mile from my destination and slower than before, caught gazing upward at someone’s fascia standing at the edge of some stranger’s front yard.
“Will I always be like this?” I said, feeling the first drops of rain hit.