Listen to Robert Eccles read "Everything's New" by Rebecca Anne Renner

Everything's New
By Rebecca Anne Renner



"Have you ever had this feeling like everything you're seeing is new?"

In my mind, I asked him again and he didn't answer. I could barely remember the day of our evacuation.

I watched snow clouds gather from the Twinspan bridge over Lake Pontchartrain to Vieux Carré, as far as I could see from our second story gallery. The pipes in the walls fell quiet again. I slid my pocket knife through the tape at the top of the box. An hour ago, I went to the post office to pick up a parcel. It should have been from my grandmother, but this parcel had no return address. It was small enough to fit in my palms.

Inside, there was no hand-knit scarf or a photograph of my mother as a child — it was a photo of me. The wind picked up through the wrought iron grate of the gallery, and I caught the edge of the picture before it could fly away.

In the photograph, I am sitting in a meadow at the foot of a tall oak tree, my hands white-gloved and folded in my lap. I've never seen pearls like the ones slung over my collar bones with a black, Victorian clasp. The light of the sun rising over the field reflected from my eyes, and I didn't recognize myself.

Under the photo and layers of yellowing newspaper was a faceted vial of perfume, the lilac perfume I wear.

I sat in the living room of our apartment, the photo a foot away from my shoes on the hardwood floor, crumpled newspaper and open box next to it. There was no date on the back of the photo, only, in handwriting so similar to my father's, Ocala, You will be missed.

In the foyer I put on my coat and tucked the photo into the inside pocket. Snow hovered in flurries over the uneven bricks of the banquet. They grabbed the loose strands of my hair until melting like those that flowed into the gutters.

It hasn't snowed here since the year the hurricane hit, I thought. Everyone I've talked to lets these snow clouds hang over them like an omen: there will be more floods. We will lose our homes again. We will lose our homes and everything in them, because won't be able to keep out the water.

I ducked under the canvasses of a café called Rex & Ernestine's. Melting snow pooled where the bricks met the terracotta tile of the cafĂ© floor. The Sunday lunch crowd began to dwindle. Hilda leaned her elbows on the bar so the ashen dimples in each almost disappeared. As a car splashed past behind me in the street, she watched my reflection in the mirror on the back wall. The antique bourbon bottles hid my expression which, like Hilda's, was saddened by the cold and the idea of another flood come fall.

I thought of the waterlines left high on all the houses in the parish. When the floods come, Minh and I will stay to man our motor boat like last time.

She glanced back enough to catch my eye and look away. "He's in the back." Her sentence hung in the air; she got up to clear plates from the last table and I stood still, tracing the rues of the map across the wall with my eyes. Rue Bourbon, Barracks and Esplanade, Rampart, St. Louis and Royal. Our apartment is sinking into the silty soil, like the rest of the city on Royal Street.

"Valerie Louise." The plates clacked together in the crook of Hilda's arm. "He's been waitin' for you the entire day. Hurry yourself."

"But he doesn't know I'm coming."

"He always knows you're comin', honey."

The tops of the walls of the back hall, peeling with stucco, don't meet the ceiling so the way to the kitchen is hot and sticky, how you'd imagine night in the bayou. The smell of garlic and peppers burst from the door to the kitchen as Hilda swung it open.

My fingers stayed on the edge of the picture in my pocket.

Minh had his back to me, arms in the sink up to his elbows, scrubbing dishes. He wore a bandana over his black hair, and the tie of his chef's apron pulled his shirt in at the waist. His shoulders seemed drawn tight (taut). He didn't turn around, but his back straightened so slightly when we entered that I expected him to say something.

"Sent everyone home." Hilda gestured at him as if he couldn't hear us. "Don't tell me how he plans to run a kitchen by hisself."

Minh set the dish to the side and started on another, the one with swallows around the edges, the one he always saves for me.

The bell on the front counter rang, and Hilda looked at the door. "I should get 'em seated."

"Tell them we're closed." Minh set the plate down on the edge of the sink and glanced back at me as Hilda left for the dining room. I let go of the photo; it slid down into my pocket.

Minh pulled the plug from the bottom of the sink, and let the murky water drain.

The bricks of the wall in front of him had once been painted blue, but now the paint, from years of grease and heat, only clung to the edges.

Minh set his hands on the wet countertop. "I thought you'd come earlier."

"I went to the post office."

"Get a package?"

I wished I could reach out to him. I wished he'd turn around. "Nothing important."

"I got a phone call this morning."

"Who was it?" Probably his sister in Hai Phong wanting him to come home. Or it was Sang wanting him back. Or it was his parents saying he couldn't marry me.

Minh turned around. The rims of his eyes looked red. "Your father, Val."

Why'd he call Minh and not me? Did something happen? Did Mom die?

"He said — you don't have the heart to tell me yourself. He said you don't want to marry me."

I shook my head. There were so many things I couldn't tell him, but that wasn't one of them.

"He said — " Minh gripped the counter so his knuckles whitened.

I managed to cross the kitchen and hug my head to his chest. "I don't care what he said."

"But you do, Valerie. You do." He stepped back against the counter. A plate tipped into the sink and landed with a crack, through the eye of the largest blue swallow.

I thought about telling him everything.


I rolled the window down a little as we crossed the border into Florida. The shoulders of Val's reflection tensed up as I watched her super-imposed on the passing pine trees. I wondered what past adventure she went to in her mind. She'd only tell me if I asked, and I seldom did. Her stories always made me worry. Last time she told me about getting kidnapped while handing out mosquito netting in Senegal. If she hadn't made it through that, I don't know where I'd be. And I know she has a thousand other stories just like that.

The wind blew a piece of her hair out of place, and she tucked it back behind her ear. Her hair was the color of wheat. "Can you roll that up?" She kept her eyes on the road, squinting in the glare of the setting sun.

"Sure." I looked through the window as it closed. Only hills of pines and telephone poles as far as I could see. "You know," I said, "I've never been to Florida."

"Really?" She smiled with her whole face even though she says this is what gives women wrinkles. "I loved growing up in Florida. Some parts of New Orleans remind me of it."

"Then why did you move?"

Val took her eyes off the road to look at me. 9 A.M. in the Ocala National Forest; there were no cars. The road sloped downward. "To be with you."

I turned under the seatbelt to face her. "That was a whim; you barely knew me."

"You know that's how I am." Her eyes drifted back to the road as a red pickup crested at the top of the next hill. She smiled only with the corners of her lips; she doesn't mean it — this isn't a happy smile.

I felt sort of deflated. "Your father said you'd leave me like you left your family."

"He's lying to you. We've eaten dinner at my Aunt Lucy's house in the Garden District. It was the robin's egg, the blue one, remember?" That street was heavy with wires sagging between the houses, sharing electricity, thicker than the leaves in the trees. "You argued about not having okra in the gumbo."

I would have won if I were French-Cajun. "I know, but — "

"If I ever wander away, I'll be sure to take you with me."

Valerie used to keep a smiling Matryoshka doll in her purse that her grandmother Delphine had given. She said she hadn't played with it since she was little, but she remembered how the smallest doll inside was like a pea. She left it in our house four years ago when the storm hit. The street flooded up above the wrought iron work of our second story balcony. All of Valerie's manuscripts, the crayon drawings from her students, our letters, our photo albums, and the smiling Matryoshka doll were gone. All gone because we didn't take them with us. That was the only time I'd ever seen Valerie cry. I remembered the bulldozers on our street like it was the next day and yesterday.

Val turned the car down the only paved street I'd seen for miles.

"Have to honor your parents' wishes, Valerie."

Her hands gripped the steering wheel tighter. "All my life, my father wished I was happy."

"That's not what I mean."

Trees, tangled in ivy, clung closer to the road.

"But it is. It's what he wished for. He wishes I won't be like my mother."

"Your father said — "

"Every time you say that, I picture you with a phone to your ear."

A deer stepped into the road, and Val slowed the car. We got close enough to see the white specks on its back in the light through the trees, before it scampered between the pines.

I looked back to Val and realized the car had stopped. She had taken her foot off the gas.

"Your father said you want your children to be blonde, just like you when you were little." I turned away from her with a smile that could never be with my whole face. I was conscious of the clothes on my body and the scarf around my neck for the first time this trip. "You were cute, Val; I've seen pictures."

"Minh — "

"Our children would have black hair."

Her voice was quiet. "I know."

"They're going to be half Vietnamese no matter what we do."

"I know." There was breath in her voice that radiated as silence over the car. The engine stuttered, and she said, "I'm glad they'll look like you."

I looked over at her, and her hand on the gearshift led me up to her face. She was crying, her face half hidden by her hair. She put the car back in gear, thinking I hadn't noticed, because she hid it in her voice: "We should be at my Aunt Mutt's house soon. I have to get something from her, but it won't take long."

I said, "I love you."


"You love me?" It's like he's trying to get out of something, I thought.

"You know I love you."

The car stopped where the dirt road circled into the yard of a ranch house. Smoke wafted out the top of the window just off the porch. Someone lifted the lower pane so the smoke clanged though the horseshoe wind chimes.

I closed my eyes and stepped out, so I wouldn't look back at Minh. "Mutt? Is that you? What's on fire?"

Aunt Mutt leaned her white fluff of hair out the window first. "Who's there? I don't have the bills yet, if that's what you want." She climbed out of the window feet first. "Oh Valerie! To what can I owe the pleasure?"

A rushing came from the window, and the smoke tapered off.

Aunt Mutt yelled over her shoulder: "Thanks, Frank." From inside the smoky house, he answered with a grunt.

I told her about the photo while Minh hung back, leaning against the driver side door. Once, I glanced back and saw him with his arms crossed over his chest as he watched the peacock stroll behind the barn. Aunt Mutt invited us inside for coffee. We walked under the horseshoe nailed above her door. The doorstop and the shoe rack were both made of horseshoes, too.

She propped the door open, but let the screen close behind Minh, who stayed quiet. We took off our shoes.

Frank sat at the kitchen table, unshaven, with a screwdriver to the smoke alarm and the fire extinguisher at his elbow.

Aunt Mutt gestured to the empty seats at their cracked wood table. "Sit. I'll put the kettle on."

The kitchen walls were tiled with roosters and apples. The stove was green, the cabinets white. A fat black cat slept in the open cabinet under the sink.

"What were you trying to fix?" Minh sat across from Frank, who gave him a nod and went back to ignoring us. I wondered when the last time he shaved.

"Chicken pot pie." Aunt Mutt patted the edge of the stove. "More like chicken pot char."

"Minh's a chef," I said.

Over Minh's shoulder was a tree out the back window, a tall oak tree with the seeding grass of pasture at its back.

"Is he?" I didn't hear the rest of what Aunt Mutt said.

This is the tree in the photo, I thought. This is the meadow. This is the place where the sun reflected in my eyes, and I was happy. "Excuse me," I said. I pushed the back door open, and my bare feet went from scuffed linoleum to the sundried back deck. I ran down the steps, past the plastic faded Fisher-Price castle Mutt and Frank bought for me when I was four, past all the plastic lawn furniture, to the gate in the barbed wire fence. I slipped through and shut it and two horses galloped toward me as I ran for the tree.

The horses stopped with me when I arrived. I didn't recognize them. They weren't the horses I'd grown up with. One was a paint and the other a bay. To someone, they had names. Someone loved them.

I took the photo from my pocket and held it up so that the trunk in the picture was level with the real thing, and I circled around to match the exact spot. My hand was shaking.

This can't be me, I thought. This can't be me. But who else could it be?

"Val." Hands on my shoulders: I jumped. It was Minh. He held my shoulders. "What's wrong? You just ran out here like that."

He touched my face. His hands were cold.

Minh glanced at the horses, and I could see him tense.

He took the edge of the photo between his thumb and forefinger and slid it from my grasp. He studied it for a second. His left hand rested on my hip. "You need to relax, Val."

The grass was tall enough to flick the backs of our knees.

Aunt Mutt said it must've been taken last summer. The coffee burnt my tongue. Minh wrote her a recipe on a post-it note.

"Here, Valerie, take some aspirin."


It was all happening again like with Katrina, like with losing our house, losing the memories, losing, just losing. Something's happened inside Valerie again that she wouldn't let me see. I didn't just want to see, I had to see. I loved her.

"Have you ever had this feeling like everything you're seeing is new?" Valerie knelt on the carpet in the silk robe patterned with yellow hoa mai my mother sent her. It hung open enough so I could see her breasts when she bent to put her pen to the yellow legal pad. "And all of it is different than everything. But you've seen it." She was describing her thoughts as colors. Everything was dark blue.

We were in a motel room in Tupelo, Mississippi just after the hurricane. Our parents sent us packages and both arrived wet.

"You've seen everything," she said.

Her father sent her an antique fountain pen and ink, white chocolate bars, hot sauce, her high school swim team sweatshirt, and a long letter.

"And the world is old," she said. "You're the only new thing in it."

I tried so hard to understand.

My parents sent us clean clothes, cup-noodles, and a handwritten note in broken English. It said they loved both of us.

"You breathe like a child," she said, "and an inmate all at once."

I missed them, and I wanted to fly back to New York. I missed them, and I wanted to leave New Orleans for the last time.

"And your eyes dart from one thing to the next," she said, "so much you're shaking your head."

And I was so negative, I didn't want to have sex. The whole world had gone to hell, and we barely made it out. Skeletons were dancing a second line down to the delta.

"And no one understands — " she went on.

I just want to drink hard whiskey and sleep in scratchy Mississippi motel sheets.

She went on. She went on and on." — how you can smell lilacs as if they were the first flower you ever smelled, or touch the Mississippi like you were its child."

She paused and looked at me, as soaked and lonely as I felt. "Have you ever felt like that?"

"No," I said. "I haven't." I just left her there. I left her and drank from the minibar and slept like a dead man. I didn't see her for ten days. Those were the worse ten days of my life.

I remembered all of this as we drove south from Aunt Mutt's. Valerie stared out the window. The earth became sandier; the trees grew in lines. I wished I could just watch her, try to pick up even ripples of what she's thinking. But I kept my eyes on the road. Mutt gave me pretty good directions to Val's old house in Ormond Beach, so it didn't take too long to get there.

We pulled up the drive of a Spanish-style mansion: stucco and orange tile. Val got out, but the door was locked. She rang the doorbell, and I lagged behind. I took the photo out of the back pocket of my jeans and smoothed its corner.

The door opened; Valerie embraced her father.

"You comin' in, son?"

I nodded and followed. A staircase towered over the foyer. The back wall of the house was one big window so all I could see was the ocean. For a place Valerie once lived, the decoration was sparse. It smelled like disinfectant the way hospitals do.

I heard Val say she was going down to the beach. She kissed her father on the cheek and left by the pool deck.

I felt like a little boy in that big house. "Mr. Kohler?"

He sat at one end of the table in their nook, hands folded. He was a big man, a grim man, barrel-chested and tall. His hair'd gone grey; he seems older —&bnsp;too old to be Valerie's father. He motioned for me to sit across from him. He said, "You want to talk about that phone conversation, don't you?"

I stepped over to the table, but I didn't sit down. "Valerie does, not me. I love her, and nothing's going to change my mind. We're going to get married."

He's smiled. "She doesn't deserve any less; remember that."

"I thought you didn't want her marrying me."

"To be honest, I don't. But that's not up to me. This is all she's wanted ever since she was a little girl."

"To get married?"

"To have somebody love her so much even she couldn't ruin it."

I put the photo on the table and slid it toward him. I couldn't sit. He picked it up.

"Valerie had it. Who is it?"

"Her mother."

Passing clouds shaded the beach so I couldn't see Valerie.

"I thought her mother was dead."

"Did she tell you that?" I looked back at him. "She's not." He looked down at the picture, at his hands. He has the hands of an old man. "Did you know I took this picture? I used to be a photographer."

"She's beautiful. I can see how Val'd see herself in her." I had to pause. "Why did you write on the back, You will be missed?"

He exhaled. "Her name is Marie Mouton Kohler. She has Huntington's Disease. I go to the hospice and see her stiff, clenched. And if she can speak or open her eyes, she doesn't remember me. That was one of her first symptoms. We thought the shaking was fidgets, but forgetting our daughter's name? She doesn't remember̾I still tell her I love her." He slid the photo back toward me. "I'll always remember even without pictures. That's why I sent this to Valerie."

"Will that — happen to Valerie?" I couldn't look at him. I couldn't look at anything. I looked at my hands and realized how uncracked they were compared to her father's.

"It's hereditary. There's a fifty percent chance. But we don't know yet. She doesn't want to know. She won't get tested."

My eyes felt hot. My breath and my words mixed together. I realized the worst thing in the world was losing, not losing our house again or losing our city, but losing Valerie to that place in her mind where all the thoughts are colors. The worst thing would be for her to forget. "Why couldn't she tell me?" I said.

"Because she loves you."

Silence drained out of the room, and we were left with the sound of gulls. The back door clicked, and I scratched my chair across the floor.

Valerie's white dress was soaked and sticking to her. Ocean water dripped onto the marble. Her forehead wrinkles up at me, worried. I loved every single one of her wrinkles. She was never hiding anything from me. All I had to do was let her speak.

My voice shook: "Have you ever had this feeling like everything you're seeing is new?"




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