So Gentle Reader, I began a novel about fifteen years ago called GIRL JOE AND THE FLYING ACES. The novel changed over time, and a few years ago, I dusted it off and decided to work on my take on CASABLANCA. It would involve Jo, my original character, and some of the cast of the original novel, but the storyline would be completely different.
Unfortunately, it’s about a quarantine in New Orleans.
I don’t know if I can continue writing it now that there’s a real quarantine going on in the world. So I thought I’d share the first chapter with you. Perhaps drop a note and let me know what you think?
THE LAST OF THE QUARTER
AMY L. MONTZ
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
“On Being Asked for a War Poem” by William Butler Yeats
“Don’t it make you feel bad
When you’re tryin’ to find your way home
You don’t know which way to go?”
“When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin
In the fifth year of the New Orleans Quarantine, everything was rationed: food, stockings, jobs, and morality. Having a plentiful stock of all four, Jolie Arceneaux counted herself lucky that she owned the hippest joint in the French Quarter, Big Marie’s, which offered a square to every employee on the clock. Further, Jolie had a job, two in fact, one over and one under the bar. Times like these? Stockings weren’t the only things going wanting. And Jolie, well, Jolie grew up in the Quarter, in the apartment right above the bar, in fact, and knew people who knew people who knew people who had stockings, and makeup, and chocolates, and things. As for morality? Who is more self-righteous than those who work the black market? They peddle items that are necessities, for God’s sake. They’re just helping the world make right.
But it was a time of war, after all, and Jolie tried to stay neutral in her Amsterdam of a Quarter. So much loss, after Hurricane Diana, and even more loss with Hurricane Cole. New Orleans, fishbowl that it was, was almost swept away, except this time, the levees didn’t fail the city. They failed the surrounding areas. Some of Downtown New Orleans and Jolie’s precious French Quarter were all that was left of the once great Big Easy. Everything else was gone, either swept away or still buried under fifteen feet of water. Declared a “No Man’s Land” two years before the New Civil War started, New Orleans was no longer technically a part of Louisiana. Hell, it wasn’t even technically a part of the Old United States or the Neo-Confederacy. It just… was. Her dad had worked the Quarter over and under counters for as long as she lived, and soon became a King of Decatur Street and beyond. He had the connections, the name, the power. After he died, when the Kagoo River Fever swept through the middle-aged, the elderly, and the Quarantine had been declared, there had been a vacuum of that power. Jolie decided why not treat herself to legacy and snatch it up? Besides, there were plenty of souls trying to make a living in that No Man’s Land, and Jolie Arceneaux, at a mere twenty years old, was now a Princess among them.
“Hey, Jolie!” a flyboy said, swinging his glass above his head. “Gimme some sugar.”
“Get your own sugar, flyboy.” Jolie deftly dodged a probing hand headed toward her rear and plunked shots down at the table next to it. “I’m working.”
“Oh, Jolie.” He sang it from the old Louis Prima song “Oh Marie,” but still, Jolie wasn’t giving him anything. He was a familiar flyboy, a regular, even, but that didn’t change the fact that he stood up Desiree the night before, and Jolie was very protective of her Shake and Shimmies. “Oh, Jolie,” he continued to sing.
She whipped her bar towel around and snapped him in the head. His fellow tablemates began catcalling and laughing. “You stand up one of my girls,” she said, “you stand up me. Be happy you’re still drinking here.”
Flyboy—what was his name, Steve?—looked rightly downtrodden at her words. “I told Desiree, I had patrol!”
“He did, Jolie,” one of the flyboys from her current table said. He dropped back his shot and nodded. “I’m his wingman.”
“Hrm.” She picked up her tray and balanced it on her hip. “Apologize to Desiree,” she said finally. “Better be flowers or chocolates or coupons involved. You peaching?”
“Peaching perfect,” he said, and gave her a drunken smile. “You know you love me, Jolie!”
“That you wish, flyboy. You just another boy to me.” But she winked to take the sting out and headed back to the bar. They were not one but two waitresses short, and she was feeling it in the arches of her feet, the curve of her back. She hadn’t waited tables for this long straight since she was fifteen. It was a hard job. She didn’t know how the girls did it.
“Jo,” a woman’s voice said as she stepped behind the bar.
She turned and smiled. “Liz, my heart. What have you?”
Liz was a long-time friend from Before. They grew up in the Quarter together, and after the Cat 5s, she gave Liz a place to work and offered her a place to stay. Liz decided to stay at her mom’s old place on Royal Street, but came to work every night she could, solid. Dependable as a worker, was Liz. Better even as a friend.
Liz jumped up a little on the bar and pressed a kiss to Jolie’s cheek. “Rumor has it you’re light tonight.”
“It’s your night off!” Jolie protested the gesture, but knew she’d accept it with grace. She was short-handed after all. “What about Caleb?”
“Ah, he’s fine.” Liz leaned on one elbow on the bar and gestured her hand for the tray. “He got his.” She waggled her eyebrows at Jolie and they both laughed.
“Well, you’re a star. A right star.” Jolie handed over the tray and looked at the next ticket.
“Oh, before you get started, St. Pat’s outside, looking for you.”
“St. Pat?” Jolie asked. “Whatever did I do to deserve a blessing this night?”
“Everything and all,” Liz said. She slipped behind the bar and started slinging moonshine. “Go,” she said. “I got this a minute.”
Jolie wiped her hands on her apron and pulled it over her head. She stuffed it behind the bar, swung around Liz, and made her way to the front door.
“No.” She her Alcide mutter the word to someone outside the open door before she even got there.
“But Mr. Alcide, I need to talk with her!” Alcide deserved the title “Mister.” After all, at 29, he had the distinguished honor of being the oldest man in the French Quarter.
“About what?” Alcide asked, not even looking up from his novel.
“That’s privy biz between me and Jolie,” a young man’s voice said.
“That’s Miss Jolie to you.” Alcide popped his eyes over the top of his book. “Got it?”
“Miss Jolie,” the boy amended. His eyes brightened when he saw Jolie in the doorway. “Miss Jolie in the flesh!” He ran forward and waited.
“A blessing, twice in one week! My, my, my.” Jolie bent her head down and received a sticky kiss on both cheeks. “What’s going, St. Pat?”
St. Pat sighed, a world weary sigh that belied his age—somewhere between a precocious nine and a short thirteen—and grabbed Jolie’s hand. “We gotta talk,” he said. “It’s important.”
She threw a glance at Alcide who settled his book on his lap. “Go on, Jo,” he said. “I’ll watch you.”
So far in the Quarter it was a Silent Night, but that didn’t mean it would stay that way. Times were tough, and sometimes rough for a woman alone with just a boy for company.
She let St. Pat drag her down the side of the street a ways, out of Alcide’s hearing. “Make it quick, St. Pat,” she said. “I’m short-handed tonight.”
He took off his cap and wrung it in his hands. “There’s a new Ace captain coming,” he whispered. “All the way from Washington. D.C.!” he added, for clarification.
“That ain’t nothin’ new,” Jolie said. “New Ace captains are dimes in dozens.”
“No, no, Jolie. This one is not peaching, not peaching at all. He’s hardcore, a first-waver. Back before the flyboys were Aces.”
“Why, you think he won’t let you barter?” She shook her head. “Who runs this Quarter, huh?”
He smiled, innocent and huge. “You do.”
“That’s damn right,” Jolie said. “This is my Quarter. Ain’t no flyboy captain, new or no, gonna stop St. Pat and his band of ne’er-do-wells from bartering in my Quarter.”
A pause, then, with an awkward grimace, “We’re just worried, is all.”
She crouched a bit to make eye contact with St. Pat. “Who’s ‘we’ this week?”
“Two Kagoo Orphans and a monkey.”
“A monkey?” Jolie asked. “Wherever did you get a monkey?”
“I just found him, by the levee.” His eyes grew wide at his words. “I wasn’t down there much. I promise!”
She put her hands on her hips. “What I told you about going to the levee?” she asked. “You know it’s bad juju down there. All manner of things in the water, not to mention draft-dodgers and Neo-Confederates and what have you! All I need is you to be taken, and then what will I do for blessings, hmm?” She took St. Pat by his thin shoulders and pulled him closer. “We watch out for each other, remember? That’s our pact, St. Pat.”
“I know, Jolie,” he said. He wrapped his arms around her waist for a hug. “I’m sorry.”
“Hmm,” she said, and hugged him back for a long moment. Then she cleared her throat and pulled away. “You got food, coupons? A safe place if nights turn awry?”
“Caliban’s been letting us stay there, above the bar,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes. “I don’t like you staying at Caliban’s,” she said. “You know you can stay with me. I have the room.”
But for some reason, St. Pat refused, the same as he refused for the three years prior. “I’m peaching, Jolie. I promise.”
“Ok, well, I gotta get back. You take good care, my saintly friend.” She smiled, ruffled his hair, and walked back to her bar.
Alcide and St. Pat waited until she was well inside before Alcide spoke. “She’s too old for you, son.”
“You don’t know what love is,” St. Pat said. “I love her! I’d… I’d die for her!”
“Worry about living for her instead.” He tossed St. Pat the book he’d been reading and the boy managed to catch it.
“A Tale of Two Cities,” he read from the spine. “What’s this?”
“Lessons in love,” Alcide said. He pulled another paperback from his pocket and began reading from a dog-eared page. “Bring it back when you’re done and then, we’ll see if you’re worthy.”
“Worthy of what?” St. Pat asked.
“Worthy of another,” Alcide said. He didn’t look up from his book until St. Pat turned and ran down the street. He watched the kid until he was out of his sightline.