Pia Z. Ehrhardt

I Wanted To Sit Closer

 
On a cold morn­ing in January, my father showed up on our front porch. He said he was in town for a hair­cut; there was a salon he and his sec­ond wife went to in Bucktown, a neigh­bor­hood that hadn’t flood­ed. My hus­band and son and I had just returned to New Orleans to live togeth­er again under one roof.

My father didn’t ask for a dis­as­ter tour, but I put him in the car and drove him around to see the con­tin­u­ous rusty water line that sliced through homes and busi­ness­es, and ran above the front door of my stepson’s house in Lakeview. I explained how they’d lost every­thing. “Their daugh­ter was born two weeks after Katrina,” I told my father. “I’m sort of a grand­moth­er.”

We got Katrina in Hattiesburg,” he said. “A tree came through the roof. And then rain.”

But your house can be repaired,” I said. “Theirs is sched­uled for demo­li­tion.”

On the neu­tral ground, crêpe myr­tles and ole­an­der and cypress trees looked ossi­fied. After weeks in salt water, every­thing green had turned the col­or of ash. New Orleans was Pompeii.

You can smell the decom­po­si­tion,” I said, open­ing the win­dow on his side.

Do you remem­ber Mount Vesuvius?” he asked.

I do,” I said. My fam­i­ly lived in Italy in the 60s and on week­ends my father used to throw us in the car for road trips. My younger sis­ter and I had explored the ancient city’s ruins, the gray cab­ins, and pitied the fam­i­lies burned in place. I’d picked up a dry chunk of lava, pocked with holes, and stashed it in my pock­et. It’s in my lin­gerie draw­er with my son’s baby teeth and the ham­mered gold wed­ding band from my first mar­riage.

I drove my father through streets named after gems: Agate. Turquoise. Emerald.

A good sign is any dri­ve­way with a car in it,” I said. Refrigerators mum­mied by duct tape had been dragged to the curb.

My father looked at the side of my face, not out the win­dow. My par­ents are musi­cians and divorced. My father had mar­ried his grad­u­ate stu­dent, a singer, and they’d had a son. He nudged my thigh, and said, “Finally, after fifty years I’m ready to write an opera. I’ll also write the libret­to so words don’t upstage the music.” He said his wife would sing the lead.

The opera would be some­thing to behold, and it was an easy habit to be proud. My moth­er and my sis­ter and I had been his portable audi­ence. He’d always insist­ed he did not think about peo­ple when he wrote music, only the self-imposed chal­lenges of har­mo­ny and orches­tra­tion.

One time rum­mag­ing in his study, I found a book called “The Lives of Great Composers.” Robert Schumann had Clara, Mahler had Alma, Colette was a muse to Les Six. I was in high school and I expect­ed to also one day be some man’s muse; I was too fright­ened to cre­ate my own work out of noth­ing.

Which of your pieces did Mom inspire?” I’d asked. Talking to him always felt like con­duct­ing an inter­view.

I don’t write music because I’m inspired,” he’d said, unhap­py with the dumb ques­tion.

But for her wed­ding, my sis­ter begged and wore him down, and he wrote her a ten­der art song that was sung by a sopra­no, anoth­er stu­dent in the music depart­ment.

The streets had zero traf­fic. I drove my father down West End Boulevard, past a four-sto­ry pile of debris wait­ing to be tak­en to land­fill. It looked abstract until you stared into it, and then you could find mat­tress­es, sofa cush­ions, book­shelves, water-stained doors.

Your lit­tle broth­er picks out tunes by ear.” My father held his hands in the air and wig­gled his fin­gers to show me how.

A ruined city, my ruined city, couldn’t com­pete with what was more impor­tant. I didn’t say, Look out the win­dow, please, Dad. This is where I live now. Let me be hurt; it’s okay.  I turned the car around and brought us back.

~

Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fic­tion and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernOxford American, Rumpus.net, Guernica, The Morning News, and Narrative Magazine. She lives in New Orleans, where she’s a vis­it­ing artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).