She sat there in row 27, seat A looking out the window at the world below. She was wringing her hands and was lost in the moment.
Her mood was blank, just like her stare out the window.
Her eyes never blinked.
I left her alone.
We took off.
There was some turbulence and my stomach churned a little. I looked to my left to check on her. Her eyes never blinked.
Ma’am, are you okay? I asked her.
She shook her head slowly, turned to her right and forced a smile.
Clearly, she didn’t want to be bothered. The wrinkles on her face were the patchwork of years of happiness, tears and struggle.
Her eyes, though, were glassed over. Her eyes were tired. Her eyes have a story.
Telling it may be the final thing that pushes her life to the light. Her stories are those most bury deep in their minds. Her stories have all been replaced by the ones she never wants to relive. Her stories have been taken from her.
Her stare drew blanker and her hands held onto each other as if they were her sole possessions in life.
Back to the window.
Her dress was once a bright blue and the roses patterned throughout once beamed the most radiant of reds. It was surely her Sunday dress worn many of times for church services, weddings, funerals. She wore that dress when she wanted to feel young again. She wore that dress when she celebrated.
She wore that dress on the plane.
She had a bracelet with a charm.
A New Orleans Saints logo.
She stroked it when she got nervous.
The drink cart was coming down the aisle.
Would you like a drink, ma’am, they asked her.
Water, she said.
I took the drink from the aisle and handed it to her with both hands. We touched. She forced a smile.
Are you coming or going? I had to ask her. Conversation was a gamble, I thought.
Another forced smile. A pause.
Both, she said.
New Orleans is where I lived my life.
She finished her water. She looked at the seat in front of her. She fumbled around with the trey handle and spilt some ice onto the floor. She was embarrassed. She was frustrated.
Let me help you. I unlocked the trey in the middle seat, took her cup and placed it down.
Her hands quickly clinched, rather cinched, together.
Thank you, she said.
First time to fly, ma’am?
It is okay. Those things are hard to open. It is okay.
I am 83 years old. I swore to my children that I would never step one foot on these things.
Her voice was soft. Her voice was sweet. Her voice was vulnerable. Her voice was ready to speak.
Do you live in Atlanta now?
No, I was in Savannah for a couple of years. I lived with my friend.
Savannah is a beautiful city.
Savannah is a nice place. She smiled.
Are you returning to New Orleans to see family?
Pause. No, she said.
That ended our conversation for the moment. Pause.
I didn’t want to ask her. The pain was spelled out still.
She started to say something but retracted.
It’s okay, ma’am. I understand.
You don’t understand, but thank you.
We landed. The quick jolt of hitting the earth startled her.
Can I ask you a question, ma’am?
Where did you live here in New Orleans?
5212 N. Miro Street. Lived there 37 years. Lived right across from the park. I lived there.
I smiled. Are you going there again?
Yes. She cried.
I gave her my business card and wished her well. That was the last I ever saw of Mrs. Etta Bailey Jones.
Nothing was there. Overgrown grass over a cement foundation. No trees. Few sounds. No life.
I drove down the street time and time again, looking for a park.
There was nothing there.
I found a trailer. FEMA, probably.
A man, probably mid-50s, answered curiously. He cursed at me. Told me that this was not a fucking tourist stop.
Mrs. Etta Bailey Jones, I said.
Pause. Stare. Silence.
Is she okay, he said. A woman came to the door.
My God. Tell me she is okay.
She is fine.
Who the hell are you?
A friend, of sorts. I told them our story on the plane.
We began to walk down N. Miro Street.
They finally tore their home down about two years ago, he said, pointing north.
Her family died here, man. Her whole family.
The bodies bobbed in the water and sludge like buoys. They were bloated and lifeless, always face down. Their faces were too embarrassed to be seen, he said. They didn’t want to be seen like that.
They tried so hard to live. They just couldn’t get out, man. They couldn’t get out.
They all died, he said.
Her husband, Otis. Her sister, Jacqueline. Jacky’s husband, Edward. A nephew, Edward, Jr. Two of Otis and Etta’s grandbabies. Trey is four. His sister, Alicia, is eight. No family lost more than Etta did that day, man.
I knew why He stopped.
The stare turned more into a face full of tears. He turned and looked south, saying nothing but saying everything.
Etta was the only one that lived. God saved her, man. He saved her.
It was like any other day, really. The short walk to the mailbox was always the same. It was a quick trip, a simple glance inside. Bill, junk mail, and a post card.
The postcard simply read:
“Mrs. Etta Bailey Jones died on Tuesday.”
Mrs. Etta Bailey Jones died in New Orleans Monday, August 29, 2006.
They buried her in a bright blue dress with red roses and with the Saints charm bracelet.
The New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl on February 7, 2010. The world celebrated with them. Etta Bailey Jones is probably smiling.