“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death” – Auntie Mame
Out of all the Big Daddies in the land, Mr. Ashley is the Biggest Daddy of All. He is a Black Gold Daddy. An Oil Titan. A Recession-Proof Daddy. The White Whale of the Mississippi. And here’s one very serious, important detail: he has a heart condition and totes around a defibrillator machine that keeps him alive and gives him a 15 minute warning every 8 hours when he needs to change the battery, or else die.
In person, Mr. Ashley is ever polite, the quintessential Southern gentleman, with modest but crisp attire, and never without his signature Stetson. He arrives at the bar never too early and stays never too late – between the hours of five and eight – and has at minimum two, and no more than four drinks. He makes no show of money, and never draws attention to economic class. Mr. Ashley’s conversation is full of Southern reserve, grace, and respect. He discusses the thunderstorms rolling in, or the lovely sunshine, and inquires how your parents are doing even though he’s never met them.
One day, Ashley and I were sharing such courteous talk, when a gutterpunk strolled past us to use the bathroom. Mr. Ashley paused mid-sentence – apologized for doing so – and crinkled his nose. Gutterpunks, if you’re unfamiliar, are nomadic young persons who panhandle, live communally, and are shy of baths.
“Now, Miss April,” Mr. Ashley began. “I could nevah imaaaygine havin’ sex with someone who smells like thayat.”
I was startled, but delighted by the lewd turn of conversation. “Well, Mr. Ashley,” I replied. “I suppose they have sex with each other. Wouldn’t you agree?”
That didn’t satisfy his curiosity. “Now, I like eatin’ pussay, but I would nevah eat someone’s pussay who smellayed like thayat.”
From that point on, Mr. Ashley began to talk about more than the weather. The next night, in fact, he asked about my afternoon.
“Do you want the PG-13 version?” I asked.
“Oh, hell, Miss April, I want the full version.”
So I regaled Mr. Ashley with that afternoon’s events before I started my shift. Mr. Ashley leaned in with keen interest when I came to the part about my afternoon delight with an attorney who had a Prince Albert piercing. “Now, Miss April,” he said with genuine concern, “Is he takin’ care of you first? You know what I mean.”
I did know. And he didn’t mean paying for dinner.
A week later Mr. Ashley invited Miss Alexis and myself to lunch at Galatoire’s – an old-line New Orleans restaurant full of see-and-be-seen Southern glamour. We were to meet Sunday at 11 am at Ashley’s apartment. I had to call out sick in order to go, and with my irascible boss working at the bar across the street, we planned that I would take a cab to the corner and slink past the bar to Ashley’s apartment where he’d be waiting in the vestibule to let me in quickly. Miss Alexis, Mr. Ashley, and myself would have champagne and then take a cab to Galatoires.
The Morning of Galatoire’s…
I was running late with a terrible hangover, perhaps still a little drunk from the night before. There was a text from Miss Alexis who was already there. “Mr. Ashley is already downstairs waiting to open the door for you. Looks like I’m the chaperone on this one.”
I slipped past my place of employment and sure enough there was Mr. Ashley behind the door, looking out in both directions to check if I’d been seen. He escorted me inside, his hand on the small of my back. On the way in we were nearly steamrolled over by Mr. Shoen who is frightening to look at and has a walker but owns most of the French Quarter. Big Daddy H.Q., I noted.
I checked my phone in the elevator. Another text from Alexis: “Get here NOW. I’m in Mr. Ashley’s bathroom and there are naked women everywhere.”
Once upstairs, Ashley poured the champagne in the kitchen while Miss Alexis gave me a tour of the nudity. Almost the entire wall space was covered with large, black-and-white portraits of women’s naked asses pictured with musical instruments. One in particular stood out: a woman’s ass turned upward to such an angle as to make visible her pudgy, outer lips. “It’s clear what Mr. Ashley likes.” Miss Alexis said just as Ashley came into the bathroom and handed us each a champagne. Nothing like a little hair of the dog…
The Night Before…
I had been out until 5 in the morning playing patty cake at a dank service-industry bar with a 58 year old psychotic satyr with a French accent. For the past few months, he’d been growing on me like a fungus. Maybe because he reminds me of an ex – a man I still hate and adore. Or maybe it’s his scent, which is so intoxicating, I could live in his neck. Maybe a certain je ne sais quoi. Maybe the several months of heavy drinking. Maybe untreated psychological issues.
Patty Cake knows Mr. Ashley – the two are rivals. Petty rivals. They aren’t about to do pistols at dawn or anything, just talk about each other behind their backs. It is suspected that several years ago Patty Cake kicked Mr. Ashley out of his carnival krewe and in retaliation Mr. Ashley tells everyone that Patty Cake is gay.
That night at the bar, Patty Cake kept pestering me to “keees” him.
“Dinner first. We’ll evaluate from there.” I said for the eighteenth time.
“Zat ees bullsheet, baby! I tooooold you, you’re ouver-qualífied for dinére.”
“Mr. Ashley doesn’t think so. He’s taking me to Galatoires tomorrow.” I said.
That shut him up. “Mr. Ashley. Weally? Weally. I’m zpeechlíss.”
When I told him that I bought a new dress for it, he nearly fell off his chair. How could I go out and buy a dress for stupid Ashley?
“It’s not for Ashley,” I said. “All I own fits in one suitcase. I only have one dress and it isn’t appropriate for Galatoire’s.”
“When I take you to dinére, I want you to wear your one dress!” he shouted, tipping Lisa another hundred on the bar, signaling her to pour a seventh snifter of Mandarin Napoleon. Lisa pushed the hundred dollar bill back. “No. This is getting absurd. You’ve tipped me enough of these tonight.”
“This is what we have in common, Patty Cake.” I said. “We both came here at 31, broke. And we’re both gold diggers.”
More on that later, in posts to come…
Miss Alexis and I ordered whatever we wanted off the menu. We ordered wine by the glass, wine by the bottle, and lots of champagne.
“Let’s get a bottle of this champagne” Ashley told the waiter.
“Excellent choice, monsieur. In fact, I so deeply believe in this bottle, that if you do not think it’s the best champagne to have ever passed your lips in your very long life, I shall kill myself. I shall slay myself, right here, with a very sharp sword!”
“Now that won’t be necessary, son,” Mr. Ashley said. “I’m sure it’s just fine. Thank you.”
After our main course, I felt it was time to stir the pot. “Patty Cake wants us to stop by his bar to show him our outfits.” I said.
Mr. Ashley’s eyes were ablaze with mischief. “Oh we must go to see Patty Cake! I want to show up with you two beautiful ladies on my arm.”
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s go and treat him like a servant. Whenever he tries to talk to us, I’ll hand him a waded up napkin and tell him to throw it away.”
The waiter interjected. “Would madame care for dessert? Tell me, madame. Tell me whatever it is you so desire”
I took a glance at the dessert menu, then set it down. “I would like you on a little plate with some whip cream on top.” I said.
Moments later he delivered a plate of whip cream to the table. “What about you?” I inquired.
“I come later madame.”
At Patty Cake’s…
We were quite drunk by the time we rolled into Patty Cake’s. Mr. Ashley owns a wine locker there and we drank two more bottles of wine out of it and another bottle of champagne. Someone who was amused by our antics, sent us a cheese plate. We had many laughs at Patty Cake’s expense. The more I drank, the more I flirted with Ashley and rubbed his shoulders, and the more comfortable he became rubbing my backside. So comfortable in fact, that his fingers found their way to the thing he loves best.
At some point during the night I spoke to Fran, who owns a fine jewelry store in the Quarter. I admired her diamond fleur-de-lis necklace. “Just FYI,” she said. “Patty Cake has bought a couple from me. But not as many as Mr. Ashley. So when you’re ready to get yours, just let me know.”
Then the inevitable happened. The 15 minute buzzer. It was time to change the defibrillator battery. Mr. Ashley was three-sheets by then. So were we all.
“Shall I come over later once you recharge?” I asked.
“Oh sure, Miss April. It looks like you’ve got your hands full here, but please do. Text me.”
I suppose I should feel ashamed for letting a rich, elderly invalid pet me sexually in a wine bar. Somewhere back home in Indiana, one of my old crushes is having taco night with his wife and watching High School Musical 3 with his kids. But I don’t care. I care too much about adventure. To live intensely, excitingly. Ashley’s money doesn’t even really matter that much when it comes down to it – it’s atmospheric, like confetti.
“Go do it.” Miss Alexis and our friend B encouraged. “I just opened another bottle of wine. By the time you get back we’ll be ready to move on somewhere else and I want to hear all about it.”
I texted Mr. Ashley but did not get a response the rest of the night. Miss Alexis, B, and I invited younger men along to French 75 Bar and The Carousel Bar. I told anyone who would listen about how Mr. Ashley had felt me up. My friend Charlie from New York joined us, and was enamored by New Orleans, our whole scene. He rightly called our shenanigans, “the glamor of not giving a fuck.”
For a few days after Galatoire’s, I got no response from Mr. Ashley, and I was worried that we’d killed him. “I’m about to call the hospitals to look for you.” I texted him. “Please just send me a text to say you’re okay and I’ll leave you alone.” Moments later, Ashley called and said he was fine and insisted he’d texted me before that he was okay. “We need to take a look at your phone together and work on your texting skills,” I said.
During Lent we hardly saw Mr. Ashley at all. When he did come back to the bar, he looked worse and worse, and he kept to himself, returning to the polite, boring conversations we had before the day when the gutter punk had walked past us.
One day Ashley came in and pulled out a silver dog tag from his shirt. “Miss April, have you seen my necklace?” It was medical information jewelry. It read, No Pulse. No CPR.
“I don’t have a pulse.” he said, but it didn’t register.
Here was a 76 year old man with heart condition, whom I would have gone to bed with had his defibrillator battery and cell phone not died. What a way to tell someone you’re unavailable.
“Do you know what a pulse is?” he ventured, noting my dumbfounded expression. Of course I know what a pulse is, I wanted to say, but what I couldn’t make sense of is how someone who was sitting in a bar staring back at me and talking, didn’t have one. It seemed the foundation of life – a pulse. Blood pumping through veins. Amazing how someone can be walking around without one. Here, but not really alive.