By the end of the summer things were pretty routine around Miss Sophronia’s Bar and Grill. Biggy became a fixture of the place. On the front side of the bar where he had his usual stool and behind it as well. There wasn’t much to pulling beers out of the coolers that lined the inside of the bar. Jax and Dixie were the favorites of the older regulars. The Tulane and Loyola guys drank from the Budweiser and Miller taps. Biggy was responsible for changing out the lines on the kegs in the cold room behind the bar beside the kitchen.
The beginning of September started out to be beautiful. Temperatures were finally beginning to cool off a little and the humidity was dropping. But toward the end of the first week a tropical depression formed in the gulf about a hundred miles off the coast of Alabama. It drifted westward towards the mouth of the Mississippi River. A day or two later it was predicted to come right up the river toward the city. Winds were minimal for a tropical depression but it was dropping a huge amount of rain.
On Monday, the 5th of September, Biggy and Miss Sophronia had just finished their usual Monday chores. It had been raining all day. Normally, Miss Sophronia would have gotten dressed up in her finest outfit and driven herself downtown for dinner. There were several restaurants in the French Quarter that were open on Monday where she was well known. Biggy started catching a ride with her but was not invited to join her for dinner. Instead, he would go his own way when he got downtown, hanging out at one of the small music clubs until late before going back to the bar and letting himself in through the back door.
On this particular Monday, however, it had been raining all day and was predicted to continue raining all night. There was a good possibility of flooding in the uptown area by late evening. Miss Sophronia explained to Biggy that just in case it started flooding it would be a good idea for them to take their cars and park them on the neutral ground on Claiborne. The neutral ground there was quite wide and was higher than most of the surrounding area. When flooding was imminent, the city allowed residents to move their cars there. Miss Sophronia called Jacques to see if he could pick them up at Claiborne and Nashville. He agreed to just come to the bar and follow them out there so they didn’t have to stand in the rain looking for him.
Jacques dropped them off back at the bar at 4:30. Miss Sophronia went up to her apartment to take a nap while Biggy got a beer and went to his room to watch television. Miss Sophronia told him before she went upstairs that he could help himself to whatever he wanted in the kitchen when he got hungry.
Biggy was dozing in his chair when he awakened with a start. Something wasn’t right. The television was off and it was totally dark. So dark he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
– Page 114 –
And it was also eerily quiet except for the sound of the rain pounding on the roof. He realized that the power must be off. The sounds that were always present, compressors and electric devices that were ever-present in the storeroom were absent. What time was it, he wondered.
He got up and felt his way past the shower and through the curtain. He went into the bathroom and looked up at the tiny window about six feet above the floor. He couldn’t tell there was a window there. He felt his way to the toilet and managed to stand on it, feeling for the windowsill. Once his face was against the east-facing window there was an eerie glow far off in the distance. But the sky was black and he could hear the sound of rain hitting water in the parking lot. “Was it flooded?” he thought. “Shit. What am I going to do?”
He considered his options as he lowered himself down from the rim of the toilet and realized that the floor was wet. He hadn’t noticed it the first time and it didn’t feel like there was standing water. Was the water rising and about to flood the building. He stood at the door of the bathroom and looked out into the storeroom although he could see nothing. He thought, “How am I going to get through all those stacks of beer boxes and other supplies to get to the kitchen door? It’s close to thirty feet though narrow aisles between the stacks. And when I get to the door, how will I see to get some food. This isn’t good.”
Then it dawned on him that the stove was gas and there was a large box of matches in a holder mounted on the wall next to it. If he could get to the door without killing himself, he could surely get the stove lit. That might provide enough light for him to find the flashlight that was kept behind the bar under the cash register. He couldn’t remember exactly where but there wasn’t much under there except a pistol and the flashlight and assorted junk.
He moved cautiously, feeling his way between the stacks of supplies, carefully sliding one foot in front of the other. Before he had gone five feet he heard the door to Miss Sophronia’s apartment open and a ray of light began to play around the room as she called in a loud voice, “Are you down there, Big Un?”
Biggy stopped and stood still. “Over here, Miss Sophronia. Can you shine your light in the direction of my voice?”
Miss Sophronia’s light moved in his direction. “Okay, I see the top of your head now. Can you make your way to my steps?”
“I should be able to. Can you shine the light directly down the steps and hold it still?”
“Okay.” she said and did as he had asked. He couldn’t see the beam directly but it’s glow was enough for him to pick his way through the stacks until he got near enough to actually see the bottom of the stairs. When he looked up he was blinded by the light.
“Okay.” he said. “I’m at the bottom of the stairs and that flashlight is blinding me. Can you shine it up towards the ceiling?”
– Page 115 –
When she did that the area where she was standing at the top of the stairs as well as the stairs themselves were bathed in a faint light.
“What are we going to do, Miss Sophronia? I was dozing and woke up to find it dark. The floor’s wet over there although it seems to be dry here. Has this building ever flooded?”
“Yeah. But it’s been years. It was not long after I took over and there was only a couple of inches that got in then. Didn’t do a lot of damage.”
“Do you know what time it is?”
“No. I was still napping myself when I woke up and realized the power was off. I grabbed the flashlight and came out here looking for you. Why don’t you come on up here and we’ll decide what to do.”
“I don’t have any clothes on.” Biggy said.
“No. I have on my boxers. But that’s all. It was hot when I sat down and I stripped off everything else.”
“Can you make it back over and get you shirt and pants?”
“I’ll try. Shine your light over towards my corner.”
The light moved down and over that way and the stacks of boxes were once again revealed as silhouettes. Biggy was making his way through them when he ran into the wet area on the floor and slipped. He crashed against a stack of boxes and they came crashing down on top of him. Fortunately they weren’t heavy enough to be beer.
Miss Sophronia heard the crash followed by, “Oh, Fuck. Goddamn it!”
“I slipped on the wet floor and knocked over a stack of something. Not sure what but it’s going to be harder to get to my room now.”
“Are you hurt?”
“I don’t think so but I am sitting in a puddle.”
“Can you get up?”
– Page 116 –
Biggy used one of the boxes that had fallen over to hoist himself up, crushing the box and its contents as he did so.
Miss Sophronia called down. “Don’t worry about trying to get your clothes. Just come on upstairs.” She moved the light so that it was once again shining at the ceiling. “Can you see enough now to get back to the stairs?”
“Yeah.” Biggy said as he inched his way along, being very careful now not to slip again. He wasn’t sure what was in the boxes he knocked over but he knew they weren’t too heavy. Some of the stacks, like boxes of potatoes, would have crushed him. He got to the bottom of the stairs and started up slowly. When he was at the top step, Miss Sophronia, who had been standing in the doorway turned and went inside, pointing the light in front of her.
Biggy stepped into Miss Sophronia’s apartment for the first time. All he could see was a circle on the far wall from the flashlight along with shadows of furniture and that only lasted for a second or two before she turned the light back directly on Biggy and he was blinded. He stood there in his white boxers, his belly hanging several inches over the waistband, and nothing else. The light was pointed directly at the front of his boxers and he became self-conscious. He reached down and covered the front of himself with his hands just as the light moved up to his face and he heard Miss Sophronia laugh. A deep, throaty laugh.
“Well, well.” she said. “There might be more than the obvious reasons to call you Biggy.”
He was so embarrassed he couldn’t say anything for a minute.
“Wait there.” she said and turned away from him, lighting her way with the flashlight over to an area that appeared to Biggy to be a small kitchen. She opened a lower cabinet As she bent over searching for something under the sink Biggy could see that she was wearing the peignoir she wore in the mornings when she came down to breakfast. He assumed she had on the men’s pajamas she always wore also. After searching around both with her light and her hands she came out holding several candles. She lay them on the tiny counter and bent back down and searched again for a minute or two before coming up empty handed.
“Shit.” she said. “I’ve got candles and no matches. You know where the matchbox is down in the kitchen next to the stove?”
“Yeah. I was on my way there when you called me. I thought I could light the stove and maybe have enough light to find the flashlight behind the bar.”
– Page 117 –
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I’d forgotten that one.” She crossed the room and sat down on a couch, keeping her peignoir closed in front of her. Biggy thought that a little strange since she never bothered to close it when she came down in the mornings. As she sat down she held the flashlight out to him. “Take this and go down and get the matches. And maybe you can find that flashlight behind the bar. I think maybe it’s under the cash register.” She hesitated as if thinking before adding “And maybe you can get some clothes on, too. I’ll wait here.”
Biggy took the flashlight and went back downstairs. Ten minutes later he was just starting to climb the stairs wearing his jeans and a T-shirt when he heard Miss Sophronia call out, “Biggy, are you on the stairs?”
“Just starting up.” he said.
“I was thinking. We might as well make the best of a bad situation. Go back to the bar and get a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and then go to the ice machine and get a big bucket of ice. If the power stays off all night it’s going to melt anyway. Can you carry all that back up here.”
“If I can’t I can always come back down. Is there anything else we need?”
“Not that I can think of right now.” she said.
Biggy reversed direction and went over to the ice machine that was under the stairs. A five gallon plastic bucket sat on the floor next to it. Biggy scooped ice into the bucket and set it on the bottom step. He went back to the bar and retrieved an unopened bottle of Jack from beneath the back bar. He lay the bottle on top of the ice, and picked up the matches. It was then he realized for the first time he had to have a hand free to carry the flashlight. He started to tuck the matches under his arm and then thought about what would happen if he dropped them. There was about two inches of water on the floor now. Dropping the matches would not be a good thing so he walked up the stairs, shined the light towards Miss Sophronia and tossed the matches onto the sofa beside her.
“I’ll be right back.” he said, disappearing down the stairs. He picked up the ice bucket by the handle and started back up. As he ascended he could see the light of a match moving away from the door and then, just as he got to the top of the stairs the soft golden light of a candle.
When he stepped through the door Miss Sophronia was over by the sink holding the lit candle in one hand and reaching into the refrigerator with the other. Just as Biggy set the ice bucket on the floor she set the wine bottle on the counter and reached up into the cabinet. She set two wine glasses on the counter and poured red wine into each emptying the bottle.
“Ouch.” she said as candle wax dripped onto her fingers causing her to drop the lit candle on the counter. “That shit burns.”
Biggy had instantly grabbed the candle from the counter before it could do much damage, or start a real fire, and held it out over the sink, angled so the wax didn’t drip down on him. Seeing what she was doing he reached for the bottle. “Here, let me.” he said, pushing the base of the candle into the bottle. “Where should I put it?”
– Page 118 –
Biggy stood holding the candle while Miss Sophronia looked around the room, bathed in the soft light of the candle, the corners and other recesses in shadow. One of those recesses was on Biggy’s right. He could just make out a large, high, old-fashioned canopy bed in there. Right in the center of the room, between the kitchen area and the door was a sitting area. Couch and two matching chairs, all covered in bright chintz and all antiques. To the left against the outer wall was a drop-leaf table and two dining chairs sitting between two quintessential New Orleans casement windows that extended floor to ceiling and opened onto the small balcony above the front door. Gauzy lace curtains hung in front of the windows and these were flanked on either side by two more dining chairs.
Miss Sophronia had picked up the two glasses of wine. She gestured towards the drop-leaf table with one of them. “Just put it over on the table there.” she said. Biggy, looking back at her, discovered that in the excitement of burning her finger with the hot wax she had completely forgotten about her peignoir which now hung open. He was standing directly facing her with the lit candle in his hand and could see now that she wasn’t wearing her usual pajamas after all. Instead, she was wearing a tee-shirt stretched taut over her large bosoms. It came almost down to her knees so he didn’t know what might be under it, if anything.
Miss Sophronia saw him looking at her, chuckled and said, “Okay, Big Un. You caught me unawares with both hands full. Get over there and put that candle down and then come back and we’ll toast this dark, rainy night.”
Biggy did as he was told. When he turned back around Miss Sophronia was sitting on the couch, her legs tucked underneath her and her peignoir pulled discreetly together, completely covering the view Biggy had admired the moment before.
One glass of wine was standing on a side table and she extended the other to Biggy saying “Sit down” indicating the chair closest to her. As soon as he sat and took the wine she picked up the other glass and extended it towards him. He awkwardly clinked his glass against hers before starting to take a drink as Miss Sophronia, still extending her glass out in front of her, said, “To making the best of a dark, rainy miserable evening.”
Biggy had stopped moving his glass towards his lips and held it back out towards her and then realized as soon as she completed her brief speech that it was finally time to drink the wine. He brought the glass to his lips and drained it before realizing that she had taken the merest sip of hers and placed the glass back on the side table.
Miss Sophronia laughed. “Were you thirsty, Big Un?”
Biggy was embarrassed, again. “Sorry.” he said. “I just thought that was what I was supposed to do. Obviously not.” He looked down at the floor.
– Page 119 –
Miss Sophronia reached out and patted him on the knee, chuckling. “It’s really alright, Biggy. There’s no specific protocol. I’d offer you another glass but as you saw, we emptied the bottle. I guess you could go down and get us another or just drink the JD if you want. Which would you rather?”
“Actually, right now, I wish I had a beer?”
She laughed. “Of course, I wasn’t even thinking. Go back down and get yourself a six-pack. You can submerge them in the ice to keep them cold as long as the ice holds out. Was the machine full?”
“Of course. We haven’t used any all day, you know.”
“That’s good. It’ll be enough to get us through most of tomorrow and, hopefully, we’ll have power well before that. Go get your beer. You can see how quickly the water’s rising.”
Biggy took the flashlight and went back downstairs. He really couldn’t tell the water had gotten any deeper which, he supposed, was a good sign. He made a side trip back to his room where the water was a little deeper but not much and it sounded like the rain had let up a little, too.
He was back upstairs with his six-pack of Jax in just a few minutes. Miss Sophronia had almost finished her glass of wine. As Biggy pushed each of the cans of Jax underneath the ice she called, “Biggy, would you be a sweetheart and get Miss Sophronia a glass of Jack. There’s some rocks glasses in the cabinet over the sink.”
Biggy reached up and got a glass, smiling to himself thinking about her referring to herself as “Miss Sophronia”. He had never heard her do that before. He knew from his experience in the bar that she liked her bourbon straight over ice with just a splash of ‘branch’. Biggy had learned ‘branch’ simply meant plain water. He made the drink for her, popped the top on a beer for himself and went back over to his chair.
Miss Sophronia sipped her drink. “Thanks, Sweetie.” she said. Another reference she had never used before. He had never been anything but Biggy, or Big Un, or just ‘Hey, You.” or “Boy”.
It sounded like the rain had almost stopped now. They sat in silence, she sipping her drink, Biggy gulping his. As soon as she finished hers Biggy jumped up and reached for her glass. She didn’t say anything as he went over to the sink, made her another and got another Jax for himself.
When he sat back down with the drinks, Miss Sophronia said, “Tell me about Biggy Bigeaux. I know almost nothing about what your life was like before you came to New Orleans a few months ago. Except, that is, that you came here from Bayou Lafourche and you came to New Orleans right after your mama died. And Jake said you’d have to tell me about her burial sometime. Now’s a good time. We certainly have nothing else to do.” She hesitated from just for a second. “Oh. And how old are you ? I don’t even know that.”
– Page 120 –
Biggy told her about himself. He told her he was thirty four and his daddy had disappeared when he was seventeen. He told her he had to quit school to support him and his mama because the bank took back his daddy’s shrimp boat. He told her about his mama dying while she sat in her chair on the deck of the houseboat and he even told her how he had ‘buried’ her. She asked him about how he knew Jake and he told her about him and Jake being buddies going back to about sixth grade and how they had gotten into trouble when they stole a car and went to juvvy for three months. By the time Biggy had finished Miss Sophronia had finished her fifth JD and was beginning to slur her words a little.
And it had started raining again, hard, harder than it had all day.
Biggy was getting hungry.
“Miss Sophronia,” he said. “What say we go downstairs and see what’s in the fridge to eat. I’m gettin’ hungry. Miss Sophronia looked at him through bleary eyes without saying anything for a minute as if trying to comprehend what he was saying. “Naw. … Well, I am a little hungry but I don’t want to go downstairs. Besides, you said there’s water on the floor down there and I don’t want to go wadin’. They’ll be some gumbo in the fridge, that’s for sure. Not any fresh bread to make sandwiches but if they’s some stale we can toast it and heat up the gumbo on my little stove over there. Why don’t you be a dear and go get all that stuff and I’ll warm it up and make toast in the oven when you get back..”
“Okay.” Biggy said. “Do you know what time it is? We never did check after I got up here. I have no idea.”
“Me either, Sweetie. Look over there next to the bed. I got a watch layin’ there.”
Biggy went over to the bed and picked up the little watch that was laying there but he couldn’t see the hands on it in the dim light. He crossed back to the kitchen area where the flashlight was standing on the counter and looked at it. It’s only eight-thirty. It seemed much later than that.
“Well, like I said earlier,” Miss Sophronia said. “it’s going to be a long, dark, wet night. We just gotta’ make the best of it. Whyn’t you get another bottle of Jack while you’re down there. Aren’t you about to get tired of those beer sodas? I feel like I’m drinkin’ by myself when all you’re drinkin’ is beer. I think you should have some Jack with me when you come back up.”
Biggy didn’t say anything as he went back down the stairs.
He gathered up all the stuff they needed, putting it in a box that was on the cabinet in the back to carry it back upstairs. When he walked back in the small apartment Miss Sophronia was nowhere to be seen and the candle was not on the table. Then he saw light coming from underneath the bathroom door and knew she must be in the bathroom.
– Page 121 –
Just as he realized where she was the bathroom door opened and Miss Sophronia came out carrying the candle. Biggy got an eyeful. She was still wearing the tee shirt she had had on earlier but the tail of it had been pulled up around her waist and stuck there. Her peignoir was open. Biggy was presented with a very full black bush that disappeared immediately when she realized he was back in the apartment and was looking at her.
“Oh my.” was all she said as she quickly turned her back to him and set the candle on the bedside table. She reached under the pillow and pulled something out that, because of her movements a moment later, he realized must be the pajama bottoms that she always had on in the mornings. She kept her back to him as she pulled them on and then turned around, no longer even trying to keep the peignoir closed. She picked up the candle and took it to the kitchen area where she sat it on the counter and began to look at the items that were in the box.
The signs of inebriation that Biggy thought he had noticed before he went downstairs were gone now. She was in control again, just as if she were behind the bar. She quickly got the gumbo in a small pot she produced from the oven and began warming it on the gas stove. Meanwhile, she had Biggy get butter from the refrigerator and butter the bread and put it in the oven. Within ten minutes the two of them were sitting down at the small dinette table, eating a steaming bowl of gumbo and crunchy bread, with the now short, stubby candle between them. They ate in silence.
Biggy wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Even though he knew she must be quite a bit older than him. Jake had said she had to be nearly sixty because she had told him she inherited the bar in 1959 and she was already twenty-one then. That was the year before Biggy was born so she was easily old enough to be his mama. As a matter of fact, his mama was only seventeen when Biggy was born so Miss Sophronia was older than his mama would have been if she had still been alive.
– Page 122 –