It isn’t the first time her moms stopped talking to each other. It doesn’t happen all the time but when it does it’s slow torture, like listening to Barney the purple dinosaur sing his stupid “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family” song or an incessant drip that plops right in the middle of the torture victim’s forehead until she begs them to just get it over with and shoot her, already, but that’s just what her mothers do—they clam up and huff around the house for awhile like big surly babies until the pain grows big and dull and boring and somebody finally says they’re sorry.
Rosemary is the one who slams doors and deep-sighs so often it seems like she might break something or hyperventilate. Rosemary’s head is going to explode like a piñata any minute but Lang just shuffles around with a stupid look on her face like she doesn’t know, like she’s completely innocent.
At first they smother Eleanor, finding a hundred different ways to ask how are you, do you love me, do you know how much I love you, lingering in her bedroom doorway with their hungry eyes, palming her forehead, feeding her when she isn’t hungry and demanding way too many hugs. Later they’ll be too wrapped up in themselves to notice. Either way, the funk has descended and it’s going to be a long one.
During the week, Rosemary is hardly ever home. She takes her easel and paints out with her and doesn’t come back until dusk. She can’t sleep at night but sleeps in every morning and buys take-out for dinner because it’s too hot to cook. On weekends, she tries halfheartedly to distract Elle from the book she’s reading then gives up and lies for hours on the sofa in the darkened parlor with the oscillating fan on high. Lang fixes breakfast every morning when she’s here and asks Elle a bunch of questions but never listens to the answers then goes off to work and doesn’t get home until after Eleanor is asleep. Nobody noticed that Eleanor found a large (forbidden) television at the back of a closet and dragged it up to her room. She can’t find anything worth watching but she leaves it on to keep her company.
Robin Brown, Elle’s tutor, is much better than watching television. He’s 26 years old, dresses like a British rock star from the 1970s, talks like Tom Sawyer and looks like a cross between Elvis Presley and Anakin Skywalker. He’s enrolled in the Teacher Preparation and Certification Program at Tulane and lives at home with his ancient mother who rarely descends from the second floor of her huge antebellum home. When Rosemary called his references, everyone told her he’s great with kids and he’ll make a wonderful teacher. Lang and Rosemary made him an offer that was too plum to pass up; all he has to do is entertain and educate one precocious young woman from 10 to 5 every weekday with a fat expense account to cover incidentals.
Robin Brown is the only safe thing left for her moms to fight about. Lang calls him a dilettante and says she doesn’t trust a man who calls her ma’am, but Rosemary insists he’s a renaissance man. After consulting the dictionary, Elle decides that she definitely sides with Rosemary on this one. Mr. Brown calls Eleanor mademoiselle but he says it like it’s a joke: Mademwahz Elle. Mad moi zell. He picks her up in front of her house on St. Charles and they take a streetcar to a downtown café for beignets. He lets her drink coffee if she promises not to tell and they take turns reading aloud, first from Tom Sawyer and when that’s done, Huckleberry Finn. Mr. Brown says that you have to read Twain out loud to get the full impact and when he reads he gives each character a different voice, does all the dialects, and acts out the good parts. He pauses often to laugh at the jokes and look at the pictures or to explain historical facts and words she might not know.
Elle has had plenty of experience with babysitters. Jo-Jo the Parisian nanny was nice enough and a very good cook but not so good at playing. Jo-Jo preferred to fight with her boyfriend on the phone or sneak away to smoke another (forbidden) cigarette. And there was Mrs. Clark, the perfectly nice old lady who knew how to play chess but who was ready for bed at 8:30. Shannon the teenager next door wore sweat pants that said “sweet” across her rear in cursive and didn’t want to do anything but watch her shows. But Mr. Brown is the genuine article. It’s something new every day. On the streetcar they play games with algebra and geometry. They spent many days at the Children’s Museum for science then the History Museum for history, visit every art museum in town, the voodoo museum and the wax museum and the Audubon zoo. Elle was overjoyed to discover that she knew more about art than he did. Somewhere along the way, “Mr. Brown” progressed naturally into “Robin.” They went to a real plantation that had a little bell on the wall of every room to summon slaves who used to descend from the attic on steps as steep as a ladder, so treacherously steep that a little red rope barred tourists from trying. She had a tarot card reading on Jackson Square and the guy said a bunch of cool-sounding stuff about the card she pulled with a picture of a man hanging upside down by his ankle and didn’t look so auspicious to Eleanor but which the psychic seemed to think was quite lucky. He told her that within the next year she would wake up, whatever that was supposed to mean. That made Robin laugh and call her “sleeping beauty” for the rest of the day even though she insisted she’s not the princess type. Robin promises they will take a pirogue or a raft if he can find one out on the river to see what Huck felt like. They will even visit the cemetery at night. And everywhere they go there is music: the lonely busker on the beat-up bugle or the jam session of hungry young people dressed in vintage clothes. On the streetcar Robin passes his earphones over and tells her to listen to this, it’s the essence of New Orleans.
Lang wonders if he’s a junkie. Rosemary insists he has a young soul. Eleanor locks herself in the bathroom so she can listen to the IPod while she takes her bath. Rosemary buys a plane ticket back to Los Angeles to check on construction and extends the return date indefinitely.