The Franklin Avenue Rookery for Wayward Babies
New fiction by local author Laura Newman
“Some son of a bitch wet my bed!” That’s me, wakin’ up.
“Oh my God, Katrina, y’all wet the bed again?! You’re 9 years old!” That’s my brother Beau, yellin’ at me. But I don’t wanna talk about it. So I climb right out of that pee puddle. Beau opens the curtains and the sun comes in. I don’t know why my brother is in my room anyway. Where’s Mama at? She’s the one who wakes me up.
Beau tells me to wash up and come straight down for breakfast. Usually Mama does my hair. It’s Sunday so she could be hung over, lying on the floor of her bedroom, the French door with its peeling blue paint open for oxygen. I’ll find her later and tickle her elbow-insides. She hates that! But she never yells at me like Beau just did.
Beau sets out Cheerios and leftover fried chicken. Well that chicken’s from Willie Mae’s Scotch House so I’m eatin’ that. I don’t wanna eat anything called Cheerios anyway. Don’t tell me how to feel. Beau isn’t talking, he’s just shuffling around like he can’t pick his big black feet up off the ground. “Baa Baa, why aren’t you talkin’ to me?” I ask, and all he says is, “Stop calling me that.” He is flat-out angry today. He slaps a glass of milk down on the table, and Kitten Little jumps up and starts licking up the spill over. I pet her.
Charlie walks in, and he looks at Beau, but he won’t look at me so I know something shitty’s going on. The two of them go over to the kitchen sink and turn away from me, facing out the window, kind of twinned together. My brothers. Baa Baa, I call him that because he looks like Black Sheep in my rhymes book, I don’t know why he doesn’t like that. He has woolly hair. And Charlie, pock marks stitched across his left check, he’s Oriental like the drawings in my Marco Polo book. The two of them stand there looking like the black-and-white yin-yang tattoo Charlie has on his shoulder.
Well I can’t do nothin’ about whatever’s bothering those two. I share my cold chicken with Kitten Little.
Beau sends me outside to the garden, which is the size of a pea. The magnolia tree is in bloom—imagine being able to push flowers out of yourself—pink and waxy and smelling faintly like they just got out of the bath. We have a patio of old red brick mossed over and a statue of St. Francis in the corner of the flower beds. Shreds of old Mardi Gras netting from the people who lived here before us still hangs on the fence. I think about taking the netting down and wrapping it ’round my head like a sultan’s turban, but it’s probably got spiders in it. I sit down and start to color in my paper book of saints.
Color is what I do when things go wrong. If I want to pretend everything is alright I stay in the lines and press softly. I make the gold halos see-through. If I’m feeling blue, I color everything blue. If I’m angry, watch out, that page is going to be so thick you could run a fingernail through the red wax.
I know I was born in the Superdome. My name’s Katrina Theresa. Named after the storm and Mother Theresa. Not the good one. Just our mother, Theresa Chalfant.
Sometimes I imagine what it must have been like in the Superdome. Mama won’t tell me about it. So I make the story up in my head: I picture the Superdome coming off its foundations, pulled out to sea. A slave ship. The weather is like looking into the round porthole of the washing machines at the launderette. Inside the Superdome, too many people. It smells like men, hot metal, fried chicken gizzards, people shit. I picture my mom in labor, her hair tied up in her banana-print scarf, kinky hair coming out the top like exclamation points. She has to gulp down those smells. Her legs are spread and some old-men bastards sit on their cots and watch. Women coo around her, put towels on her dark forehead, but the water isn’t cool and the rags smell like old bong water. At last I come out, white hair and blue eyes. No one hears me cry. The slave ship heads into the storm.
After the hurricane all of New Orleans is a rotting bayou. Alligators eat bloaty-floaties like it was lunch at Commander’s Palace. What a feast! Water hyacinth and mosquito fern edge the streets of the Lower Nine. Mold blossoms in flower shapes inside, outside empty houses. Egrets land like angels, flutter their wings in released prayer, fly on. Motor boats putt-putt up and down the waterways, Bring out y’r dead.
I get bored imagining the past and read some of my Classics Illustrated comic books. Finally, I sneak back inside the house. Beau and Charlie are still in the kitchen drinking coffee. As I enter the room, Beau puts sugar into his cup, and when he drinks it, a few grains stick to his lips like glitter. Beau tells me go straight to my room and put on a dress. Charlie is taking me to church. I say nothing. Charlie doesn’t go to church. Mama does. Mama takes me.
I put on my blue check and head back downstairs. But my feet bypass the stairs and go into her room. I see her vanity with the Woolworth’s lipsticks and the printed cardboard box of lavender powder, white satin ribbon on the puff. A box of Dark and Lovely. Her empty bed is unmade, crazy-quilt askew. She is on the ground, toes sticking out from the far side of the bed. Wineberry polish. I watched her apply it just last week. I move a little closer. The French door is open and a slice of sunshine turns her skin two different shades of brown, like toast where one side is toastier than the other. She is wearing her Swiss dot nightgown, buttons all the way up the front.
Charlie is at the door before I see her face. “Let’s go, Katrina, let her sleep.”
Charlie and I walk through the French Quarter to the St. Louis Cathedral. I look in the windows of the shops we pass on Decatur Street. But I’m not looking at the gaudy displays. I’m looking at my reflection. My pale hair in too-tight braids and my clothes, always too big because I’m skinny as a voodoo pin. My white face blotched with freckles. I look like a girl who lies. If I see a rainbow, that’s all it is. I’m not going over it.
I beg for beignets every time we pass by Café du Monde but I never get ’em.
We pass the Presbytere where Fats Domino’s Katrina-wrecked Steinway lies in requiem. The Steinway took a vow of silence on the day I was born. Fats’ house was in the 9th Ward. On the day after the storm, morning light filtered through Fats’ punched-up roof, spotlighting the underwater piano. A catfish slapped its heavy tail on the ivory keys, and a slow cloud of algae rose instead of melody.
Church is church. Tourists, locals and nuns. Kneel, stand, kneel, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ. Yuck. I mostly look at the stained glass windows depicting the life of King Louis IX of France. He pooped himself to death in 1270 during the 8th Crusade which somehow translated into making him a saint. Charlie, who hasn’t been to church since his 16th birthday two years ago, listens to the priest and pays to light a long, sallow candle after the service. The little flame immediately blows out in the wake of a fat white woman, and against the rules, Charlie re-lights the wick. This time the flame takes hold and waves goodbye to us as we turn away.
Charlie doesn’t make me go to Little Saints Sunday School and on the way home we stop at Café du Monde! Under the green-and-white striped awnings I drink chicory coffee for the first time and although I thought chicory was a type of horse like a pinto, it’s not. Turns out beignets are sugar-powdered angels that you eat. The whole experience is more holy, more gratifying to my soul than an hour in that cold cathedral with its roofline of three pointy black witch hats. Hecate and the other two.
As we leave the café the bells of the cathedral chide me, naughty girl, naughty girl. When we get home Beau tells me Mama is dead. Her body was taken away while we were at church and all I got to say goodbye to were her Wineberry toes.
Two months later
I have cried every day for two months. I look like a snowy barn owl, all big eyes. It is hard for me to understand my brothers. Charlie is 18, and Beau, 19. They are old enough to take possession of me. But they do not. They tried, and I tried to be good as gold. But let’s face it, I’m more like that rack of cheap Black Hills gold they sell at Woolworths, they don’t even put it behind glass. I cuss, I wet the bed, I fling my thoughts to the wind. Boys that age don’t know what to do with little girls. The laundry alone confounds them. And there’s no money. Even I know that. Even I know what an Eviction Notice is. My brothers are joining the armed services, and I’m going to The Rookery on Franklin Avenue. They promise to write. I know they will. I nod to the magnolia tree and steal the St. Francis statue, squirrels at his feet, puppy in his arms, birds on his shoulders like Cinderella.
Kitten Little is lost to me.
On the day, Beau and Charlie walk me to The Rookery, my legs don’t work. Head down, I see my skinny knees below the hem of my yellow dress. My kneecaps look like little brains. My knee-brains want to turn around and run the other way. Plus, I’m so mad. A summer butterfly wings by like a sonnet and I cuss at it, call it a shithead. Beau picks me up in his big dark arms and tells me I’m acting like I got Tourette’s. I don’t know what that is, but yeah, I got it bad. “Baa Baa …” I cry into his shirt that smells like something I am going to miss, and he holds me tight. I’m just a bag of sticks.
The Rookery is a small Catholic orphanage run by three white women: young Sisters Camille and Hope, and Old Sister Lily. I meet them on the front porch. They wear full-length habits and headpieces that cover their hair, the fabric old and faded to a sad gray, and their hems are frayed. I’m not sure they would let them in at the witch-hat cathedral. Charlie tells me I am lucky—the Sisters only take in six children at a time, usually babies to be adopted out. I am clearly too old for The Rookery. I turned 10 last week. I’m probably going to be made into a slave. If they think I am going to join them in nun-dom, they got another thing coming.
I sit out on the porch in a wicker rocker, and Old Sister Lily gives me a cola drink in a glass bottle. Beau and Charlie go just inside to the sitting room and sit. It’s a hot day, and the windows are open. Everyone keeps their voices low, but Sister Hope has one of those traveling voices and I catch snitches and snatches. “What a tragedy… “ “We are happy to have her …” “Y’ll’s mother …” “Y’ll’s mother …” “Heroin …”
Heroin! Those fuckers told me it was a heart attack. If I had my crayons and my saints coloring book right now, I’d find a picture of the Virgin Mary, and I’d make her black. I’d give her springy hair and dark eyes. Then I’d get my red crayon and put the flames of Hell around her so thick I’d use my whole stick. Right over her face. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her. She died and left me at The Rookery with a bunch of penguin kooks.
When I say goodbye to Charlie and Beau I’m crying so hard it’s as if I’m behind a waterfall. They are wavery, already-gone brothers. Beau tells me he loves me more than football, but I don’t believe him. Charlie tells me not to cuss in front of the Sisters and I tell him go to shit in a bucket. They both hug me so hard all my bones crack, or at least my heart.
Well, life goes on, doesn’t it?
The Rookery is an old house with wood plank floors that talk to each other constantly. The kitchen is speckled linoleum worn to the nub. It has nothing to say. I know the floors intimately because it’s my job to clean them. The window frames are painted pink, and there’s house plants everywhere, big Boston ferns that look like banshee heads at twilight. Palms, and purple coleus. Old Sister Lily plays a rickety piano, and all the furniture is comfortable. I am allowed to sit anywhere. The TV is larger than you would think. Both younger Sisters have lap tops. Sister Camille is fond of ‘70s and ‘80s music, and she takes me with her to Euclid Records, where believe me, nuns don’t usually go. With Sister Hope, I go to the Crescent City farmers’ market, where all the vendors know her and our baskets runneth over for free.
The Sisters gave me a room of my own! It has a small bay window with a seat that lifts up, and I keep my art supplies and St. Francis in there. There are two twin beds, quilts thicker than I am. I have a trove of books—Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Anne of Green Gables, and my secret favorite, the baby book—Madeline, about the little French orphan raised by nuns.
I don’t want to say I like it at The Rookery.
The babies are the best part. Aaron, Sarah, Jacob, Charlotte and Suzette. They don’t know they are orphans, so they don’t cry over that. The Sisters don’t have to ask me to help. I like to give the babies baths, two at a time, bubbles, and powder their backsides until they look like beignets.
I have a regard for nuns, and it isn’t high. I associate them with a lack of makeup and a ruler that seems to be used for many things, excepting measuring. You don’t need crayons to draw them; a pencil will do. The Rookery nuns are different. They appear to be people.
Of course we go to church. On my first Sunday, I expected we would walk over to the St. Louis Cathedral, but instead we headed two miles straight down our street to the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. I thought it was a mistake when the Sisters started bouncing the baby strollers up the front steps, but the pastor came out to help us, calling everyone by name and asking about me, “Who’s this here, who’s this here?” His eyebrows shot up when Old Sister Lily said, “Theresa’s girl.” The babies got bundled off to the nursery, and I assumed we would leave and go around the corner to a Catholic church. But no. We went in. I didn’t think nuns were allowed to go there; isn’t that against the law?
The only church I ever met was a cathedral. Gilt and guilt. This church looked more like a movie theater, full of wood and only one stained glass window with a big white dove. Pretty much like the one on a bar of Dove soap. I’m familiar with a Jesus who hangs on a cross, all skinny wearing some diaper thing, long dirty hair, face down, nails in his hands and feet. Nails! You better listen up! Look what this man did for you! There was no Jesus on the cross in the Baptist church. How am I supposed to feel bad if I don’t see Suffering Jesus?
The three Sisters from The Rookery and I were just about the only white people there. Certainly the Sisters were the only nuns. There were no tourists, sneaking photos. Then the sermon started and Holy Christ, what a commotion. That church could bust a move. At the cathedral, I got down on my knees, head bowed, palms pressed tightly together to pray. I had nowhere to look but inside. What am I going to see in there that I don’t already know? The Baptists do it differently. I watched as those around me held open one hand, two hands, raised those hands to receive. The Sisters did it too. Hands up and open, they sang. I was a nervous little sparrow so all I could make myself do was tentatively hold open one palm, just barely, awkwardly close in to my body. I looked like I had cerebral palsy. But I left it open.
Maybe I felt Jesus there, just in the palm of my upturned hand.
For a year or more, I stayed in my room when I was sent to bed. Sometimes I would sit in the window seat and think of Charlie and Beau. They did write me, and sent me halva and Persian nougat. I tried to picture them with bandoliers crisscrossing their chests. I tried to picture them killing people. I felt I would never know them again. In the worst of the summer humidity I would watch clouds rise right out of the cypress trees, like ghosts in the moonlight. In winter, raindrops would catch in the Spanish moss, and the night birds would stop for a drink. I would sit in the window and think of my mama and how she liked to pin a gardenia in her hair. Her beautiful fingers. She would sing me to sleep. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her. Mother fucker, heroin addict drunk fuck-up dead cunt.
Late at night, I would hear Old Sister Lily at the piano, and the nuns laughing in a quiet way that made me think of crystal glasses. Always they were quiet to keep the babies still. Sarah and Aaron had been adopted out and now we had Justin and surely another baby would be here soon. I had to learn to think of the babies as puppies, something to play with that we couldn’t keep. There seemed to be no question of anyone adopting me.
One hot night I couldn’t sleep, and I listened to the Tinker Bell sounds of Old Sister Lily at the keys. Soon I heard her climbing the staircase, headed to bed. I waited a stretch. Then I ghosted out of my room and down the staircase. I could have named each plank, I knew those steps so well from cleaning them; they would not squeal on me. I peeked into the parlor and almost peed.
The Sisters were playing cards. It couldn’t have been poker with just the two of them, so maybe gin rummy. Their robes were huddled on the floor like loyal gray hound dogs. There was a bottle of dark wine. Candles. Sister Hope was in a red bra and black panties, Sister Camille in white, nothing but lacy bits. And they had hair! Just the fact of that!
Sister Camille lost the next hand, and Sister Hope gave a pirate laugh. She held her cards up like a dagger. Sister Camille surrendered her bra, but held Sister Hope’s eyes so intently that Sister Hope could not break the stare. I was the first one to see Sister Camille’s release of candlelit flesh.
I ran back up stairs.
Was that a hula girl tattoo I saw on Sister Hope’s arm?
And so began the great spying game. Most nights the Sisters sat around in jeans and ponytails, shorts, a glass of wine. Books and laptop videos. Some nights, Sister Camille liked to dress up like Madonna, wearing all her crosses at once, and she would dance to “Like a Virgin” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” and Sister Hope would applaud. On these nights they seemed like … sisters.
It was a hula girl tattoo. Additionally, between them they had a constellation, a branch of cherry blossoms, and the pinup from the cover of the Cars album, which I came to learn was a Vargas Girl. One night, I sneaked down and found Sister Hope with a tattoo gun, getting ready to use it on Sister Camille who had a look on her face like that gun was as sexy as the Sex Pistols. The Violent Femmes.
In the morning they had on their old gray habits. Nothing was different. Breakfast, lunch, dinner.
Then came the year that Ella arrived at The Rookery. She was 14 years old, one above me. She could match me for skinny, brown as bayou water, her hair an untamed afro. She had bruises, layers of green and deep purple over her skin, under her eyes. She looked like she never cried. I must have looked like a candy apple to this girl. We shared my room. She didn’t talk. She didn’t want to read my Judy Bloom books. When we went to church, she held her arms up high and wide. That part she got.
Three months later
With Ella there, I never sneaked down the stairs. Most nights, I would open the windows, settle into the seat, knees tucked up under my nightgown. One night, Ella came and sat by me. The moon shone through her stand-up hair. A teenaged boy rode his old red bike down our street, out at midnight. He saw us in the window and rang the little chime on his handlebars in greeting. We could hear the crickets until the next car came by. “Your hair is pretty,” she said, touching my long braid. I had it in my mind I couldn’t cut it or it would be bad luck for Beau and Charlie. I told her I liked her skin, because in fact it was the same shade as my mama’s. It doesn’t really take that much for two little orphans to become sisters.
I called her Annie after Little Orphan, and she called me Madeline after The smallest one was Madeline. They were our secret orphan names.
Certain minds might think that I will now tell salacious stories, but the only ones I have are of solace. Ella was my Jesus. She suffered so much more than I did, she took all my suffering away. When we held hands, black and white fingers like a checkerboard, we were saints.
Beau died in Afghanistan on a bullshit peacekeeping mission. When I got word of his death, all the anger came back as swiftly and as unhesitatingly as the bullet that blew Beau off the face of the Earth. I broke everything in the parlor. Old Sister Lily’s porcelain chow dogs, the antique tea cups, I pulled the Boston ferns down and cried like a banshee, smashing the pottery into the floor. All the babies, who were in the kitchen, shut up in fear. Ella came running down from our room, barefoot, cut her feet on the shards and smeared the dirt right into the wounds to take me directly into her arms. I pushed her away. The Sisters came running in. I was screaming, “It’s all my mama’s fault! That fuck witch burnt-out heroin addict coward!” In my mind, if she hadn’t died Beau wouldn’t have joined the army, and he would still be with me.
She would still be with me.
Sister Camille cut through my screaming with some screaming of her own. “What do you mean, heroin addict? Your mother wasn’t a heroin addict! What’s wrong with you?” She yelled this so loud all the babies started crying at once. It was louder than my heartbeat, it was the trumpet of God. I stood in silence.
We soaked Ella’s feet in lavender Epson salts. She asked us to collect all the pieces of porcelain and china; she would make a mosaic. We swept up the rest, repotted the plants. While we cleaned, the Sisters assembled the puzzle of my past and laid it at my hearth.
My mama wasn’t my mother. Why did I ever think she was? How could a seriously brown women give birth to a feather-white baby with blond hair and blue eyes? My mama wasn’t Beau’s or Charlie’s mother. She didn’t have a Chinese baby. She didn’t have any babies. She took poor orphans from The Rookery when it got overcrowded. Theresa didn’t use heroin. She was a heroine. That’s what I heard through the window, all those year’s ago. Theresa was a heroine. A goddess. But she drank. “A goddess can drink, Katrina,” said Old Sister Lily.
Did I never notice that Theresa was older than the other mothers at school? No, I never noticed, because she dyed her hair and painted her nails and wore pretty headbands and lipstick. Because I was a child.
“Katrina, Theresa was 72 years old. She died of a heart attack,” said Old Sister Lily.
“Too much Willie Mae’s fried chicken,” tsked Sister Hope.
Old Sister Lily ignored her. “She got y’all from here, same place your brothers came from, so your brothers brought y’all back.”
I was so shocked I grew an inch. And Old Sister Lily was just getting started. “Y’all might as well know it,” she continued, “The Rookery isn’t even a licensed orphanage. People bring us babies, we find homes. We’re not nuns.” She ripped her habit off her head, great waves of silvery hair cascading. It could have been the parting of the Gray Sea. I think I peed my pants. Not nuns!
“It’s impossible to keep this up. That’s why we stick with babies. We started wearing these god-awful outfits after Camille got robbed at knifepoint on our own street. While carrying a baby! Even crackheads usually don’t attack nuns. And yes, Pastor Letur knows we aren’t nuns. Everybody in that church knows we aren’t nuns!” She stamped her foot like, so there!
“So those aren’t your real names?” Ella asked looking at Camille and Hope. Ella’s eyes were bigger than her hair.
“Course not. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a joke,” said Camille. “I’m Diane. Pleased to meet ya'.”
“Brenda,” said Hope, “and well, Lily really is Lily.”
Well, bless my soul.
Five weeks later
Five weeks later, Charlie came home. I knew he was coming; letter said today. I sat out on the front porch swing and waited, nervous as a mayfly. Ella and the Sisters left me to myself. Would I know him? Would he still have the little cross-stitch pattern of pockmarks on his cheek? Would he smell like Afghanistan and dust and guns?
When I saw my brother walking up Franklin Avenue, I ran down that street and clamped on to him like I was an alligator. I pulled him under and ate him in one bite. He was mine.
Charlie stayed at The Rookery for a week. He played with all the babies, one, two, buckle my shoe, and Charlie Horse. He talked to me long and slow, and we talked about Beau and Mama. We polished the stone of what we had, what we lost. On the third day, he told me he was getting married and moving to Arizona. I should come with him, and I could grow cactus that blooms only at Christmas. I could see saguaro. The rain is filled with dust. He told me that Beau left half of his death benefit to him and half to me. I could go to college. I could buy a dress that wasn’t second-hand.
But then Ella wouldn’t have worn it first.
How could I explain that The Rookery and the Sisters and Ella, the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, and the merry-go-round of babies had become my home? How could I say that in truth we had to work hard to recognize each other, our travels had taken us so far apart? How could I leave Ella, who cut her feet for me?
I told him I would think about it.
Three years later
Ella and I rent a little two-bedroom bungalow near Tulane. Garden District folk might consider our bedrooms the perfect size for a wine cellar, but a room of my own is orphan-speak for luxurious. Ella is majoring in law with a goal to work for woman’s rights and sex trafficking. Her boyfriend brings beignets, and there’s always one for me. I’m majoring in creative writing. This is my first assignment.
On Sundays, we go to church on Franklin Avenue and then to The Rookery to do all the cooking and take care of the babies to give the Sisters an afternoon off. In good weather, we eat outside and when the magnolia petals fall, they fall right on us.